Growing tomatoes in your garden

Garden tomatoes thrive in warm weather, eight or more hours of full sunlight and warm soil.

Cherry tomatoes. Photo: Ranhith-chemmad, Wikimedia Commons.
Cherry tomatoes. Photo: Ranhith-chemmad, Wikimedia Commons.

Get a head start on creating your tomato paradise this summer. There is still time to get a soil test and amend your soil before the tomatoes come home to roost. Tomatoes remain one of our favorite fruits to grow in home gardens. You can purchase a Michigan State University Extension Soil Test Kit Self-Mailer at: MSU Soil Test. Smart gardeners are getting ready for gardening season and getting your soil tested is an important step.

Tomatoes are classified as warm season vegetables. This seems reasonable since they originated in Central and South America. They thrive in warm weather and are miserable when the temperatures are cold or even just cool. Tomatoes are put into the garden as transplants so your tomato harvest time is lengthened. The vast majority of tomato varieties we grow are classified as “indeterminate.” This means they will grow and produce fruit from the time the plant is large enough until a frost or a lack of sunlight stops the party in the fall. That’s why you want as many days as possible for fruit production.

To do well, tomatoes need eight or more hours of full, uninterrupted sun and warm soil. In Michigan, it may not be advisable to mulch tomato plants with straw or other groundcovers because it can keep the soil from heating. Tomato transplants are usually put in the garden around the end of May. This is because the optimum temperature range for the soil should be 60 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the best temperature is 85 degrees.

Tomatoes grow best in soil with at least 5 percent organic matter and a soil pH in the vicinity of 6.5. For many soils, this involves getting a soil test to know how close your soil is to what your tomatoes crave. Tilling or digging in organic matter in the form of compost or composted manure will benefit many soils, but it needs to be mixed well with the garden soil. Don’t grow plants in just compost, however. It is very low in minerals which your soil has and your plants want. MSU Extension educators receive many calls about the failure of garden vegetables growing in only compost because inexperienced gardeners believe it is better than mineral soil.

Covering soil surrounding tomatoes with clear or black plastic can help soils warm more rapidly. Make sure that water gets under plastic so plants have adequate moisture. Use supports like tomato cages to keep plants and fruit off the ground. There will be more edible fruit and less pest damage from slugs. If you are serious about tomatoes, make strong cages rather than buying weak, floppy cylinders of wire. Loosen plant roots at the time of planting if the roots are not in one solid lump. The indeterminate plants could grow to 4 feet tall and have a root spread of 2 or more feet on all sides of the plant, so give them root room to run. You need 3 square feet per plant to ensure enough root room.

It is not necessary to prune tomato plants unless you are tying them to a stake. All those leaves are part of that tomato factory that needs lots of energy to make fruit. That happens through photosynthesis that is going on in the factory leaves. If tomatoes are in a cage, once or twice a week direct any stray branches back into the cage for support. A good tomato cage has holes large enough to put your hands through to pick ripe fruit. Keep in mind that the bacon, lettuce and mayonnaise are awaiting your ruby garden stars to make it a foursome.

Semi-useless tomato facts found on the way of looking up other things

Botanically, tomatoes are classified as fruits, but the U.S. Supreme Court classified them as vegetables in 1893 when a case about importing tomatoes was before them. So technically, calling them a vegetable or fruit is correct. Tomatoes were first eaten in Mexico. The name “tomato” is from the Aztec language. The Spanish brought tomatoes to Europe in the 15th century.

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