Tomato Care

Planting In The Garden


Despite what the large home improvement stores would have you believe, you shouldn’t be planting tomato plants in April. Our weather (Spokane, WA, zone 5) is too iffy. If you are willing to watch the weather forecasts religiously then you could try mid-May. I usually put mine out around the first of June. 


For cold protection, use wall o’ waters, cover them with plastic or Remay, or create a mini greenhouse by surrounding your cages with plastic sheeting and pvc pipe. Conventional wisdom says that before planting, you should harden them off for a week to 10 days, putting them out during the day and bringing them in at night. Since I grow them cool, I have never needed to harden mine off and have never had any problems.

Always rotate your tomato beds. This helps prevent diseases and keeps from depleting the soil since tomatoes are heavy feeders. (That also includes potatoes and eggplants, which are in the same family) Site your tomato bed where they will get at least 8 hours of sun a day.


These are the tomato cages we made for our tomatoes. As you can see, they really fill them out. when we used the round metal cages, they’d outgrow them and topple over so we bu=ilt our own. due to cutsomer reqeust we sell them now.

Most tomatoes benefit from some kind of staking. Even determinate varieties. You can use wooden stakes, tomato cages, commercial or homemade or any kind of fencing that you train them up. Use soft ties that won’t bind such as old pantyhose or garden twine. 

Plant 3 feet apart when staking and caging. If you let them sprawl, set them 18” apart. Research shows that the plants will produce a heavier yield if you let them sprawl, however, they are more prone to slugs, bugs, rot and diseases so you’ll actually harvest less. Bury them as deep as you can or lay them on their sides in a trench. tomatoes grow roots all along their stems.

Instead of planting all your tomatoes in one bed, try spacing them throughout the garden. This will give them more room, more air flow and if they come down with a fungus or disease, it won't spread as easily to the others.


Consistent watering is crucial, tomatoes need at least an inch of water a week. Keep area weeded and use mulch to help conserve moisture and prevent disease. 

Fertilize plants, once when setting out and when they start to bloom/set fruit. I don’t pinch suckers; the extra leaf coverage protects them from sunscald and provides more leaf/fruit ratio for photosynthesis.


The advantages are: the soil is warmer, they are portable if you need to move them around to sunny spots, and great for deck or patio plantings, or if you have terrible soil and don’t want to replace it.


Containers can be anything, from barrels, pots, old bathtubs, or tires just as long as they are large enough. Tomato plants have shallow roots but do need to spread. The larger the better. 


There are varieties that have been bred for smaller pots such as Tumbler, Patio and Hundreds and Thousands, bush types such as Bush Goliath, Better Bush, and determinates like Willamette, Green Grape, Glacier, (above photo) and Cream Sauage. Interplant with flowers, lettuce or herbs, making sure that they have the same cultural and light requirements.

Water everyday, sometimes twice depending on how hot it is.


Sources: compost, manure, fish fertilizer, bone meal (steamed), banana peels, fish, seaweed extract, egg shells, Be careful with manures, since they can burn your plants if not well composted. If they smell like manure,  they aren't ready. They should smell like dirt.

I use a combination of these things but for the most part, I don't fertilize much after they are planted unless I see signs of a problem. Too much nitrogen gives you big beautiful leaves and plants but not much fruit. (Think body builders and steroids.) 

I believe that if you feed the the soil, it will take care of the plant, so most of my fertilizing is taken care of the soil prep work.

BTW: Just a note, it is hard to diagnose some problems since everything seems to have yellowing leaves as a symptom, either cultural, nutritionally or disease wise.

Four most important nutrients: (N) nitrogen, (P) phosphorus, (K) potassium

Nitrogen: leaf and stem growth (not too much, big beautiful leaves not many fruits)
Sources: fish emulsion, blood meal, compost, manure (well rotted)
Symptoms: stunted growth and yellowing leaves

Phosphorous: strong roots, formation of flowers and fruits, and disease resistance
Sources: bone meal, chicken manure (well rotted)
Symptoms: stunted growth, thin stems and a purplish cast in underside of leaves

Potassium: plant growth, disease resistance, health and vigorSources: granite meal, greens, wood ashes
Symptoms: stunted growth, poor yields, yellow splotched foliage

Calcium: leaf and cell wall growth. Plants need adequate moisture to utilize calcium
Sources: bone meal, wood aches, ground limestone, crushed eggshells
Symptoms: blossom end rot


Although tomatoes are easy to grow, you can still run into problems.
VFNTASt are letters that you like to see in the tomatoes description. They refer to the diseases that they are resistant to.

Verticulum wilt
Fusarium wilt
Tobacco Mosaic
Alternaria Stem Canker
Stemphylium Gray Leaf Spot

Verticulum and Fusarium Wilt, leaves, curl up, turn yellow and drop off

Nematodes: tiny wormlike creatures that attack a plant’s root system, stunting growth and lowering disease resistance

Tobacco Mosaic, curling, stunted leaves, don’t smoke around plants or touch them without washing hands

Early Blight: very common, lower leaves affect first, brown spot surrounded by yellowing, mulch to prevent splashing of spores from ground

Too Hot, blossoms fall off or die (extended temps over 90)

Blossom End Rot, black, scabby looking bottom, caused by inconsistent watering and a lack of calcium

Another common question is about the ugly brown spot on the end of tomatoes, particularly paste tomatoes. That is Blossom End Rot (see above for the "why") Keep your watering consistent. When it happens, use crushed eggshells, it worked for me within a week of application. Didn't cure the already damaged ones but it prevented it from the new ones. Another options is to put a handful of crushed eggshells in the planitng hole.

Cat Facing, gnarled, abnormal formation of fruit, caused by cold temps, still edible, just ugly, some heirlooms are naturally that way

Damping off, a fungal disease that causes the stems to rot at the soil line. Use sterile soil and pots, a dusting of sphagnum moss or vermiculite on the surface, good light and circulation when starting seeds

Pests aphids and hornworms: Hand pick or use BT. You can also try to spray the plants free of aphids with a hose

It is important that you don’t put the infected plants in the compost pile. Bag them and toss into garbage.

Fungus problems: This year I am going to try something different. Once they have started to grow, prune the first couple of lower branches to keep them from touching the ground. This should help keep little beasties from coming on board through the leaves and help keep water droplets from bouncing up so much and infecting the plants with some nasty fungus. I will let you know if this works.

Slugs: Boy did I have them last year, little baby ones. I was keeping an eye on a large, luscious Virginia Sweet and when I picked it, the bottom half of it was be gone. I was not a happy camper. This year, I am going to try using copper strips or wire around the base of my plant, think dracula and garlic. Other things to try are diatomacious earth or eggshells and beer.

End Of Season

Here are several ways to motivate your tomatoes to ripen their fruit. Remember that the plants main purpose in life is to procreate and it panics when you do one or all of the following: reduce watering, shovel prune (dig around the outside of the plant about a foot away to sever some of the roots), and/or remove immature fruits and other blossoms. This stresses the plant.


If light frost threatens, cover with tarps, blankets, sheets or Remay, anything to keep the frost from touching the tomatoes. Uncover during the day to keep from baking your plants. Most tomatoes will ripen if close to the size they need to be and if you pick them and put them on the kitchen counter or in the basement. IF the frost touches them, they will rot.


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