Has growing tomatoes always been on your list of aspirational hobbies? Do mouthwatering heirlooms make your heart skip a beat and add a spring to your step? Are you excited to try out your new gardening shovel and sun hat, but need a little bit of reassurance to help make your first dig into the dirt? Then read on for all of the best tips about flourishing a crop of colorful and juicy heirloom tomatoes.
Growing Tomatoes of the Heirloom Variety: 10 Tips for Success
1. Start with Seeds
While you might be ready to find the perfect plot of land to stick some small store-bought seedlings into, starting inside your home with sprouted seeds works best for heirloom tomatoes. Pick a small pot or recycled container of your choice, and pre-moisten a seed starting mix, which typically contains peat moss (which absorbs water), vermiculite (which cultivates moisture and absorption of nutrients), and perlite (when facilitates drainage and oxygen flow for roots).
The best time to sow your seeds is approximately six to eights weeks before the last frost date for your region, which can fall within a wide range between January and May depending on the surrounding climate. During this early phase, ensure that your little seedlings are getting over 12 hours of light per day.
2. Welcome the Heat
Lots of warmth is key during the early stages of growth – even more so than getting enough light. If there is a cozy nook in your home that always seems to generate extra heat, that is the perfect spot for your germinating seeds. Of course, where there is sunshine, there are also often higher temperatures, so a bright windowsill usually does the trick. If you are in need of some extra man-made support, grow lights are also a valuable investment.
3. Water Intentionally
When the seedlings are in their small containers, the soil often dries out quickly. Daily watering is a must during this early stage, and using a spray bottle to mist the topsoil comes in handy. Classic watering cans may look the part, but you run the risk of overwatering when pouring unmeasured amounts into their small surroundings.
If you find the pot has absorbed too much water, relocate the plant to a spot with more airflow, and be sure it is not sitting in a puddle of water. When using recycled containers for potting your seedlings, be sure to poke small holes at the bottom to support drainage and to allow your seedling’s roots to breathe.
4. Timing the Transplant
Preparing your growing seedlings for the great outdoors is essential before the big transition happens. This process is called “hardening off” and should consist of setting the potted plant outside in a shaded area for a couple of hours and gradually increasing the amount of time it feels the fresh air and takes in direct sunlight each day. Be mindful if wilting begins to occur, and make the process more gradual by bringing it back inside to gain more strength.
This is another time to recall the importance of your regional climate: after the last frost date of the season, it is the perfect time to get that shovel dusted off and your sun hat pulled out of the closet. Once the seedlings have sprouted two pairs of leaves and are at least three inches tall, they are ready to move to a larger pot or out to the garden.
5. Digging In
Once the infant plants are ready for their roots to spread freely, ensuring their new spacious home is dug properly is key. Create a hole that has at least a few more inches of depth than it had in its smaller potted abode, and upon removing the seedling from its container, be sure to be gentle while loosening its roots to prepare it for its new digs.
Expert tip: it is best to leave only the top leaves above ground, as this helps the heirlooms to develop strength and groundedness from the start. This also helps it withstand wind and drought more effectively.
6. Provide Some Space
Most heirloom tomato varieties are indeterminate, which means that they grow long vines and produce new fruit all throughout the warm season. They can also reach towering heights and are able to proliferate abundantly with staking to keep them growing upright. With this in mind, ensuring that there is ample space between multiple plants is key to encourage proper airflow and create space for such buttressed support.
7. Stake It Out
Once your growing tomatoes have enough space to stake, mastering the right technique is key. Not only does training plants to grow vertically save space, but keeping them off of the ground wards off diseases, prevents them from rotting, and limits access to pests.
There are various ways to go about staking the vines of your burgeoning heirloom tomatoes. Whether using wood, branches, fencing, metal posts, or cages, as long as the chosen option keeps the fruit off of the ground, you’ll be in good shape. Any form of tie or twine can be used to keep the vines from falling as the multiplying juicy tomatoes continue adding weight to their new garden home.
8. Prune Properly
With all of the long and sinuous vines growing about, there is bound to be a lot of extra, unnecessary foliage that crops up, which ultimately takes nutrients away from its tasty fruit. Pruning helps grow large and flavorful tomatoes, but mastering the art of what to remove and what to keep takes a keen eye and a modest touch.
The best place to start is looking for tiny new branches called “suckers” that appear close to the bottom of the main stems. The tips of these side shoots can be pinched off the tip to prohibit further growth.
9. Feed with Compost
Throughout their lifecycle in the ground, it is essential to ensure your heirloom tomato plants are receiving the proper nutrition to stay healthy and strong. The best way to fertilize the soil is by using natural compost, which should contain an equal mix of “brown and green” scraps. The brown consists of dry, woody materials such as crunchy leaves and sawdust, and the green entails mostly of wet materials that were freshly growing or alive more recently.
A version of this can be used as a pre-treatment before planting in the ground, but it also works well if the compost is mixed into the upper layer of the soil, accompanied by water thereafter.
10. Prevent Pests
Keeping your heirloom tomatoes properly watered and fed is essential to ward off insects and critters that inevitably try to gather. Using mulch also helps to ward off pests, and companion planting is another way to keep insects away, while also creating a more diverse garden. Additionally, there are natural horticultural oils that may be used, which not only help prevent pests but also keep some tomato diseases at bay.
While growing healthy heirloom tomatoes takes dedication, patience, and a special touch, it is also fruitful and fun. So turn on some music, roll up your sleeves, and get digging!