To ensure success, plant in full sun

May 28, 2009

by Gerrie Van Toledo, Victoria County Master Gardener

Edited by Charla Borchers Leon, Victoria County Master Gardener
Gerrie Van Toledo has success growing home-grown tomatoes in improved sandy loam soil with full sun and planted in rows three feet apart with wood mulched paths between the rows.
Go into the garden in the middle of the day and put a cherry tomato in your mouth ... nothing tastes better than home-grown tomatoes. It's like taking a bite of sunshine.

Fortunately, tomato growing is easy - and many people know how to do it.

The basics are simple: Make sure your soil is fertile, plant small tomato plants or sow seeds, water regularly, mulch, weed and add fertilizer. Voila. Beautiful tomatoes.


To ensure success, plant tomatoes in the full sun and close to a water source. The soil should drain well. Sandy loam or clay loam, improved with some compost, will be fine. A pH (soil acidity) around 6.5 is good for tomato growing.

Depending on how many tomato plants you have, make one or more rows, each row at least three feet apart. The paths in between the rows are best mulched with a layer of three sheets of newspaper with a wood mulch on top.

Mulching will reduce weeds significantly, help retain soil moisture and lower the soil temperature during the summer.


Determinate or indeterminate?

If you only have a very small area, then choose a determinate variety. They are more compact in growth than the indeterminate types. Most labels will tell you if a plant is determinate or indeterminate. Both types are still best caged, staked or tied up.

Hybrid or heirloom?

The other choice to make is hybrid or heirloom tomatoes. Hybrids have inbred qualities that result in higher yields, disease resistance and are less prone to cracking. They usually have a good taste.

Heirlooms are the old-fashioned tomatoes are the ones our mothers and grandmothers used to grow. They usually produce less than hybrids and are somewhat more prone to disease. But you get the good old taste and, unlike that from hybrid tomatoes, you can collect the seeds and grow them again the next year.

Shapes and sizes

Tomatoes come in many shapes, sizes and colors. The gardening catalogs show big and small and yellow, white, purple, orange, black and, of course, red tomatoes.

My favorites are celebrity, different kinds of cherry tomatoes and the heirlooms big rainbow, black krim, brandywine, Cherokee purple and Caspian pink.


Whether you sow or plant, tomatoes need a soil temperature between 60 and 85 degrees. Even if you sow seeds indoors, you have to make sure the soil has this temperature or nothing will happen (I know from experience).

I would recommend for the average gardener to buy plants for mid-March to April planting. This way, you can take one plant of every variety you fancy and they are ready to go straight in the soil. I like that route. The more different tomatoes in my garden the better.

This spring, H-E-B Plus on Navarro Street had a beautiful selection of both hybrids and heirlooms.

Now, you have tomato plants in the garden and the pampering begins. You need to fertilize (feed), weed, water and mulch. Weed and mulch need no further explanation.

Tomatoes are heavy feeders, so without a soil test, I'd recommend you need to fertilize two times with a regular 15-15-15 fertilizer. First, fertilize the soil before you plant, working the fertilizer in the soil.

After the tomato plants are in and the first tomatoes appear, fertilize again by applying a teaspoon of 15-15-15 around the base of each plant. Grass clippings around the base of each plant will add a slow release source of nitrogen, which is good.

Watering is best done early in the morning before the hot sun evaporates away a lot of the water. Water regularly noting the need by feeling for soil moisture, but don't over water.

Caging or staking and tying tomatoes will minimize fruit soil contact and diseases, increasing quality and yield.

You can buy tomato cages, or make your own from 4x6-inch concrete reinforcement wire. Or you can do as some commercial growers do - string them up between poles.

To do this, I put a pole at each end of the row, put rebar poles in between about 6 feet apart or after every third plant. Now, tie three sturdy strings about a foot from the ground on the one big pole, walk the strings to the other pole, walk around the pole and walk the strings back to the first pole. Now you will have three sets of two strings side by side in between which, you can put your growing plant. Put a clothes pin on each side of the plants keeping the two strings together. Tie the two strings to each of the rebar poles.


Pest control in tomatoes can be challenging especially with stinkbugs and leaffooted bugs. Organic pesticides such as Bt and Spinosad work great for some pests, but cyfluthrin works best for stinkbugs and leaffooted bugs. And if you follow directions, the tomatoes are safe to eat the same day.

Tomato hornworms, those nasty large green worms with a horn-looking appendage on the end, fortunately can be controlled with Bt or Spinosad. But, I also go out early in the morning when they are feeding, pick them off the tops of the plants and feed them to my chickens.

Hornworms can eat the tops out of your tomato plants real fast. One time they did it so fast I thought the deer ate my plants.

I have success at growing home-grown tomatoes because I adhere to what I have shared in this article. I not only enjoy growing tomatoes, but also freezing, cooking and eating them fresh from the garden. They can also be canned and dried with success.

Surprise your family, friends and neighbors with your home grown tomatoes. There is nothing better than sharing and bragging about the fruits of your labor.
Frozen Tomatoes
Freeze tomatoes whole or cut up in pieces when there are too many to eat from an over abundant harvest.

Tomatoes that have been frozen are no good for salads, but great for any cooked dish that needs tomatoes.

Simple Tomato Sauce
Combine fried onions with tomatoes, garlic, fresh rosemary, basil, oregano or another one of your favorite herbs, pepper and salt. Cook large amounts; freeze in portions fitting the size of your family.

Put the sauce in a plastic bag and lay flat in the freezer. It's easy to store, quick to defrost.

Good Spaghetti Sauce
Fry onions and ground beef then add the frozen tomato sauce.

On a busy day, heat frozen tomato sauce, cook some pasta and sprinkle Parmesan on top.

Source: Gerrie Van Toledo/Victoria County Master Gardener
This nearly 3-inch sliced, bright red tomato was grown by Gerrie Van Toledo.
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or vcmga@vicad.com, or comment on this column at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.