Tired of losing tomatoes to unwanted garden pests? Worried you need to sacrifice excellent taste for improved yield?
Take a deep breath and relax. You can grow your tomato and eat it, too.
Growing tomatoes can be a challenge—especially if you are new to the game. Even seasoned gardeners are caught off guard.
To grow delicious tomatoes, focus your attention on three stages of gardening: planning, preparing and protecting. Along with the help of a few new varieties and field-proven tactics, you will be on your way to growing the best tomato crop yet.
Stage 1: Plan
A successful tomato harvest starts with choosing the right varieties to grow.
Many gardeners claim if you want great flavor, you need to plant heirloom varieties. People selected these tomato plants long ago for traits such as shape, size and taste, so the claim has merit. However, in pursuit of a better-tasting tomato, factors such as resistance to insects and disease were overlooked.
If you have grown heirlooms, you know the challenge. Many gardeners are left wondering if tasty tomatoes are a thing of the past.
There’s good news. In response to consumer demand for resilient, flavorful tomatoes, plant breeders have developed improved varieties.
With so many options, how do you make the best choice?
All-America Selections, a nonprofit organization, may have the answer. The group of professional horticulturists across the country volunteers to grow test plots of new tomato varieties and compares notes on disease resistance, yields and taste, alongside established varieties.
“Our judges rate taste and texture first, then everything else second,” says Diane Blazek, executive director of All-America Selections and the National Garden Bureau. “You can have the most prolific, cute, unique new tomato, but if it doesn’t taste good, nobody wants it.”
Here are a few 2022 AAS winning varieties to consider growing this season.
Purple Zebra. For a tomato that looks just as good as it tastes, search no more.
According to AAS, Purple Zebra is a national winner, with fruit that is “firm in texture, complex in flavor and has a taste more sweet than acidic.” It has high resistance to tomato mosaic virus, verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt and late blight.
Start seeds indoors four to six weeks before the last frost. Space transplants no less than 2 feet apart or, if using containers, select 5-gallon pots with drainage and stake them.
This variety produces 150 to 200 green-striped, purple tomatoes. Most gardeners can begin harvesting tomatoes 80 to 85 days after transplant.
Celano. Another national winner, Celano is an early-producing, high-yielding grape-type tomato for patios or gardens.
According to AAS trial notes, Celano developed fruit much earlier and produced much longer than comparable varieties.
Deep-red, oblong tomatoes typically weigh a little more than half an ounce and taste sweet. This variety has superior tolerance to late blight.
Transplants should be spaced at least 2 feet apart in the garden and will benefit from staking.
Sunset Torch. This AAS regional winner thrives in the West, Northwest, Mountain, Southwest and Southeast growing regions. Sunset Torch produces small, striped tomatoes that pack a big taste punch.
AAS trials note this variety showed high resistance to tomato mosaic virus, verticillium wilt and fusarium wilt.
This prolific early-season producer can provide 250 to 300 tomatoes per plant. Because it grows 5 to 6 feet tall, staking or trellising is a must. For best results, space plants 24 to 36 inches apart and separate rows by a minimum of 36 inches. You will enjoy ripe fruit 75 days after transplanting.
To find seed suppliers and garden centers carrying these and other AAS-recommended varieties, visit all-americaselections.org/buy-winners.
Stage 2: Prepare
Proper site selection and planting techniques are vital to tomato gardening success. Your tomato garden needs access to full sun—six to eight hours a day—and should have good drainage.
Tomato plants hate wet feet and often succumb to root rot when left in waterlogged soils.
They need regular watering throughout the growing season, so select a spot with easy access to water. Irrigate deeply but infrequently to strengthen plants and encourage deep, healthy root systems. Drip irrigation works well and doesn’t soak leaves, helping to thwart disease issues.
Avoid places where tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplants and other nightshade crops have grown within the past three years. Many pests overwinter in the soil adjacent to these plants and will terrorize unsuspecting gardeners.
Once you have selected the right spot, test your soil and amend the ground as indicated. Your local extension agent can help you arrange a test and interpret the results.
Tomatoes require a good supply of nutrients from start to finish, so fertilize before and during the growing cycle.
Weeds are an often-overlooked source of tomato pests. After clearing the site, spread mulch 3 to 4 inches deep. Keep it a palm-width away from the tomato stems.
Planting should not begin before the last frost date for your area. If you’re unsure when it is safe to plant, reach out to your local cooperative extension office for help.
Stage 3: Protect
Like the rising of the sun, insects and diseases are to be expected in every garden.
The good news: They can be controlled or even avoided using a process known as integrated pest management—a commonsense approach to gardening that treads lightly on the environment and minimizes the use of garden chemicals.
Monitor and identify. Get to know your garden and what lives in it. Talk to your local extension agent for a precise understanding of common insects and diseases.
Remember that beneficial insects such as praying mantises and lady beetles naturally keep damaging insects in check. Don’t resort to pesticides at the first sign of something that flies or crawls.
Make an evaluation. If you spot harmful pests or damage on tomatoes, evaluate whether real damage is being done. Although annoying, small pest populations often can be tolerated.
Set thresholds to guide your treatment decisions. For example, you may decide there is little benefit to treating a pest problem if there is less than 10% damage to the plant.
Choose a wise treatment. If treatment is necessary, use the least-toxic measure first. Proper watering, plant spacing and fertilization can help prevent or reduce the number of pests.
Physical removal of pests can be useful for small populations. For example, hornworms are easily removed by hand-picking, and aphids are often washed away by a good squirt from a water hose.
If these approaches fail, reach out to your local extension agent for advice on pesticides, and follow all label directions. Pesticide labels are the law. Many chemicals may be unethical or illegal to use on fruit-bearing plants. Err on the side of caution.
Enjoy the Pursuit
Gardening should be an enjoyable escape from our fast-paced world.
It’s also an opportunity to serve as good stewards of the land, so when the time comes, we pass on something a little better to the next generation.
If you want to experience all gardening has to offer, focus on producing memories instead of a crop. If you do, you will find everything begins to taste a little sweeter along the way.
Beat Blossom-End Rot and Other Blights
Know the signs, symptoms and treatment of common tomato diseases. Blossom-end rot is the bane of every tomato gardener’s existence. It starts as small brown spots on the blossom end of the fruit and rapidly progresses to form sizable rotten areas.
While the rest of the tomato is safe to eat if you cut away the ruined portion, preventing blossom-end rot before it starts is a better strategy for gardening success.
This disorder is the result of calcium deficiency, often caused by nutrient-poor soil or extreme fluctuations in soil moisture that interfere with calcium uptake.
Here’s how to beat it.
- Add organic matter to the soil. If you plant in raised beds or your soil is low in natural organic matter, you may need to provide extra. Organic matter is the portion of soil composed of living or dead things in various states of decay, such as plant roots or microbes. It helps retain soil moisture and increases a plant’s ability to uptake calcium. Check the level of organic matter when testing your soil. If needed, add organic fertilizers such as compost and manure.
- Fertilize responsibly. Shoot for a pH level of 6.5. Use lime or gypsum to maintain an appropriate calcium supply. When pH drops too low, nutrients such as calcium, phosphorus and magnesium are less available to tomato plants. Lime helps raise soil pH. It is best to apply several months before planting. Gypsum (calcium sulfate) is useful when your pH level is appropriate, but calcium is too low. Reach out to your local extension agent for advice on soil testing and how best to prepare the ground for tomatoes.
- Mulch the garden. Spread 2 to 3 inches of mulch around tomato plants to prevent erratic moisture shifts. Keep mulch a palm-width away from the base of plants, or you risk shifting the rot to another spot on the plant.
- Irrigate correctly. Provide tomatoes with a consistent 1 to 11/2 inches of water per week.
Fight Early Blight
Early blight typically appears on older foliage as small brown lesions. As spots enlarge, concentric rings form in the center of the diseased area, resembling a bull’s-eye pattern.
Stem lesions are similar in appearance and can girdle the plant, especially those at the soil line. On fruit, lesions maintain a similar appearance and, over time, nearly envelop the fruit.
To prevent, choose resistant tomato varieties and pathogen-free seeds.
Practice crop rotations, maintain proper soil nutrient levels and adequate plant spacing, and avoid wetting tomato foliage.
Eliminate any volunteer tomatoes and weeds growing around the garden area.
Apply an appropriate fungicide at the first sign of disease. For help choosing the proper fungicide, reach out to your local extension office.
Watch for Wilt
Plants infected with verticillium wilt appear stunted in growth. Fruit can develop a yellow color and experience a decrease in yield.
Early symptoms usually appear as yellow blotches on lower leaves that eventually spread upward, causing rapid yellowing of plants. Leaf veins turn brown, and brown dead spots appear on the leaves. Tomato foliage eventually dies and falls from plants.
To prevent and treat, choose resistant tomato varieties and practice proper crop rotations. Verticillium is a soil-borne fungal pathogen. Remove all debris from infected plants out of the garden. Plants infected with this pathogen cannot be saved, so avoidance is the best option.
Don’t Sleep on Late Blight
The first signs of late blight are green to dark lesions with a water-soaked appearance that form on leaves. Lesions rapidly shift to brown as the disease progresses. As leaf spots enlarge, a white-colored mold forms around the margins of the spots on the underside of the leaves.
Late blight is a serious disease that worsens during periods of cool, wet weather. Often, total leaf drop can occur within 14 days of symptom onset. Tomato fruit develops shiny, leathery-brown lesions. During wet weather, the entire fruit may become covered by a white, fuzzy growth.
To prevent and treat, choose late blight-resistant varieties and certified disease-free seeds. When possible, site your garden where it will receive morning sun, and avoid using overhead irrigation.
Avoid using compost containing rotten, store-bought potatoes. Maintain proper spacing between plants, remove any volunteer tomato or potato plants, and eliminate neighboring weeds.
If warranted, fungicide can be used. For help selecting the right treatment, contact your local extension office.
Consider Container Gardening
Lack the space or time for a traditional garden? No worries. You can grow tomatoes in pots and hanging baskets, too.
Choose your variety with care. For containers, consider All-America Selections standouts Terenzo and Lizzano.
Terenzo is a cherry-type trailing tomato with sweet fruit. Lizzano produces a copious amount of tasty fruit, which can be harvested 105 days from seeding or 63 days after transplant and is noted for resistance to late blight. Both grow 16 to 20 inches tall.
Regardless of variety, follow these tips for successful growing:
- Use pots at least 6 to 8 inches deep with holes underneath for drainage.
- Use dollies or platforms with wheels to shift plants around more easily.
- Use a lightweight potting mix. Packaged mixes are widely available at most garden centers.
- Avoid soilless media lacking required nutrients.
- When using a potting mix with added fertilizer, wait eight to 10 weeks before adding more nutrients.
- When it’s time, use a water-soluble fertilizer at its recommended rate.