Queen of the Summer Garden

Sometimes I feel like the shoemaker’s kid. You know- the one that never had any shoes and got the leftovers. Too many years that’s been the case at our house- we get the leftovers in the garden center after most other things have been sold. In the case of tomatoes, however, it’s turned out to be a good thing.

We usually don’t plant our tomatoes until at least Memorial Day but more often it’s the first week in June before we have time to plant them. Although you can plant them early, we prefer to wait until danger of frost has (mostly) passed because even though they may survive, tomato plants won’t thrive until the soil begins to warm up. For us, it’s just too much trouble to put Walls of Water around them or remember to cover them. In some ways, I’m a lazy gardener but I do have some tips and tricks I’d like to share if you want really wonderful tomatoes this summer.

Tomatoes love lots of heat and direct sunlight so choose a spot that will get full sun all day. We’ve moved some of ours into large patio pots that sit against the stucco on the back of our house. That stucco warms up during the day and holds the heat at night. Many gardeners here get frustrated with tomatoes and one of the reasons is that the temperature fluctuations can be too great at night to keep the tomatoes warm enough to consistently produce nice plants. So give them all the heat and light you can and they’ll be happy.

When you plant your tomatoes, be sure to plant them deep. I mean bury those stems all the way up to the first set of leaves. Tomatoes are one of the few plants that will develop roots along the stem and these will help to stabilize the plant once it begins to grow large. More roots mean a healthier, more vigorous plant which translates to a better crop.

Be sure to cover your tomatoes with mulch. In our high, dry climate, it is especially important to conserve water and the mulch will help to keep it from evaporating. Remember you want to keep them in full sun so that sun will tend to dry out the plant. Mulch will also help reduce weeds. Another trick is to add some Soil Moist to the soil before planting. These polymer crystals will hold moisture when you water, then release it as the plant dries out during the day. It’s cheap insurance, especially if you work away from home and aren’t there throughout the day to keep an eye on your garden.

A trick not many people know about is to prune your plants. Do this by removing leaves from the bottom foot or so of the plant. Removing them accomplishes a couple of things. First, these are usually the oldest leaves and are often the first to develop disease or fungus issues. It also allows the sun to reach the interior of your plant. Since tomatoes tend to be full and bushy, especially if they are well fed, you’ll want to let some light get to the inside. This will allow the fruit on the inner branches to ripen more quickly and allow air to circulate cutting down the possibility for fungus or disease to form.

Tomatoes are not drought tolerant so you want to be sure to keep them well watered. This could mean daily, but how much they need is dependent on several things- how hot it is, how windy it is, and how large the plants are. The hotter it is, the windier it is, and the larger the plants grow, the more water they will require.

Many people neglect fertilizer throughout the season that makes all the difference in the world in their results. How would you feel if you went for three months without food? It’s the same for your plants so be sure to fertilize regularly. Follow label directions on whichever one you choose, but generally it’s every ten days to two weeks. Fertilizer is what will produce lush, green plants and help in fruit production so you have a great crop. Be sure to choose a fertilizer high in calcium as this will prevent blossom end rot.

In my mind, tomatoes are the queen of the summer garden. I love them so much I keep several pots of La Roma’s going in the greenhouses to enjoy through the winter because no store bought one even comes close to the ripe, delicious flavor of a homegrown tomato. Even though you may be getting a late start, these tips and tricks can help ensure a bountiful tomato harvest this summer!