Greg Bowman

I would say that tomatoes are the most popular garden item for many people. My grandfather, A.D. Bowman, was a top notch vegetable gardener. His gardens stayed free of weeds due to his daily care, plus he grew enough vegetables to feed a large family. His tomato variety of choice was Better Boys, and I can remember as a boy picking them by the five gallon bucket at times. Today, I will go over home garden tomato basics by use of a UGA publication by Bob Westerfield, UGA Extension Horticulturist.

For starters, yes you can grow tomatoes from seed. The great majority of gardeners will purchase transplants for planting, but you can grow them from purchased seed. If you want to go the seed route, you will need to start them indoors 4-7 weeks prior to planting. I can send anyone more seeding details if they want to go that route.

One key to planting transplants is timing. I suggest to plant transplants after the danger of frost has passed. Normally in our area, that is the middle of April. Many experienced gardeners will wait later than that to plant. I know it is tempting to plant earlier, but you run the risk of cold damage from a frost, plus soil temperatures can still be cold and soil can be damp. Waiting until at least after the danger of frost has passed can get you on the road to success easier. In general, tomatoes will grow best at temperatures of 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit and need to be in a sunny spot that will give at least 8 hours of sunlight a day.

Tomatoes will do better in gardens that are well-drained and high in organic matter. It is suggested that herbicide free rotted manures, compost, rotted sawdust or other humus can be tilled into the tomato garden area as soon as the spot can be worked in the spring according to Westerfield. I would suggest conducting a soil test to check for pH and to obtain fertilizing recommendations. Tomatoes will do better in pH ranges of 6.2 to 6.8. Note, we have a high regularity of being more acidic or lower pH in the area. A low pH will result in a dolomitic lime recommendation from the lab to get you to that pH range.

I will add that in absence of a soil test, you can add lime at a rate of 5 pounds per 100 square feet of tomato garden area. Lime needs to be added several months prior to planting, plus the lime needs to be tilled into the soil. Dolomitic lime will also provide calcium and magnesium to the area, too. These elements are important for plant health and growth.

Proper planting is a good way to get tomatoes on the right path in the beginning. One key is to start with healthy appearing plants in the first place. Keep in mind that tomatoes can develop roots all along their stems so planting them deep can actually help strong root development. By planting deep you will want to set the transplants down to the first set of true leaves near the soil surface. Westerfield adds that if the transplants are in peat pots, it is not necessary to remove the container, but plant deep enough so the pot is not exposed to the soil surface. This can dry out the root ball. Don’t forget to firm the soil around the plants to force out air pockets.

At planting, you will want to give the tomatoes a light amount of fertilizer. You will need to pour 1 pint of a starter solution around each plant. The starter solution is 2 tablespoons of 5-10-10 or 5-10-5 fertilizer dissolved in 1 gallon of water. Most gardeners will either trellis or stake their tomato plants. If you do, space your plants 24 inches apart in rows that are 4-6 feet apart. Staking tomatoes will cause you more work, but it can make overall care easier, plus it will keep foliage from touching the soil which can reduce disease.

Mulching can be beneficial and can be done soon after planting. Mulching can help reduce weeds and can help conserve soil moisture. Mulch material can be compost, weed-free straw or chopping leaves, for example. Apply mulch to a 2-3 inch depth. Newspaper can be a resource, too. You would lay the newspaper about 3 sheets thick around plants and then you would put the mulch on top of the paper.

Again, I would fertilize according to a soil test, but there is one recommendation I will give you in absence of a soil test. You can incorporate 1.5 pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer for every 100 square feet of bed prior to planning. After the first tomatoes form on the vine and are about the size of a quarter, side dress them with 10-10-10 at the rate of 1 pound per 100 square feet of bed. Repeat every 3-4 weeks until tomato harvest is complete. If you plan on using liquid soluble fertilizer solutions, be very careful to not apply too much or too often. This can lead to excessive nitrogen being applied that can lead to big pretty plants with a lot of shoot growth, but few blooms and tomatoes.

For more information, contact UGA Extension- Gordon County at 706-629-8685 or email gbowman@uga.edu.