There's something about biting into a red, juicy tomato you grew yourself that just tastes better. These vegetables aren't the easiest to care for, though, so we went to , author of and a gardener of 37 years, to get his advice on the process.
"Tomatoes aren't a 'plant and go on vacation' type of crop, since so many issues can strike, such as various critters and diseases," LeHoullier warns. But if you follow his advice and tips, you too can be the proud owner of a bountiful tomato garden come summer.
1. Start indoors.
If you're planting seeds ($15 for 8 varieties of organic heirloom tomato seeds, ), he says it's best to start the process inside your home. "Tomatoes are frost sensitive, so nighttime temps need to be above 32 degrees Fahrenheit before planting them outside," says LeHoullier.
It typically takes two months to go from a seed to a plant that's ready for the garden, so research average temperatures in your area to determine when it'll be warm enough to move your plants outside, then start your seeds two months prior to that date.
2. Become a soil snob.
The two most important factors in growing seeds is having a good quality, sterile soil-less planting mix ($17 per bag, ) and a moderate to warm area for the seed trays ($18 for 10 trays, ). Sunlight isn't important until the seeds sprout.
LeHoullier says to plant your seeds very shallow in the soil and to make sure the planting mix is moistened. It's also crucial that the surface of the soil doesn't dry out. Tomato seeds germinate (a.k.a. begin to grow) quickly, typically within one week.
3. Ease 'em into sunlight.
Once your seeds sprout, ease your tray into direct sun slowly, over the course of a week. "This will prevent weak, leggy seedlings," LeHoullier says. Sunny windowsills work well, or you can use an artificial light ($24, ).
Tomato seedlings can also benefit from being moved into a larger container at this point. Try a three- to four-inch pot ($17 for 9 pots, ) and plant them deeply, up to the leaves. "Any part of the stem under the planting mix will form roots, making a stronger plant," says LeHoullier.
4. Take things outside.
When the weather warms up to nighttime temps above 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and your plants are six to eight inches tall, they can (finally) be moved into a garden or outdoor containers.
"Tomatoes should be spaced so that their foliage don't touch as the plants grow — good air circulation and sun exposure helps to keep diseases at bay," LeHoullier says. Plant them under the soil up to the leaves. If you want to use tomato stakes or cages ($25 for 10 cages, ), to help keep them growing vertical, you can install them at this time.
5. Start with water, then fertilize.
For gardens, you should water tomatoes until the soil feels dry one inch below the surface. For pots, water your tomatoes until water runs from the bottom. And water the plants at the base only: "Foliage diseases will not be as severe if the foliage is kept as dry as possible," says LeHoullier.
After a few weeks, start to feed the plants with a balanced fertilizer ($16 per bottle, ). If your plants are in a traditional garden, you should feed them every few weeks. As for pots or containers, you can feed plants every week.
It's also important to monitor your plant for signs of trouble. Visible wilting means your plant is drying out. "Allowing severe wilting of fruit-laden plants leads to the dreaded blossom end rot," says LeHoullier — meaning those black patches on the bottom of tomatoes. Remove lower foliage that has brown or yellow spots on them to prevent air- or soil-borne fungal diseases.
6. Choose your bounty.
Once the tomatoes begin to ripen, LeHoullier says it's best to pick them at half ripe or a bit more: "The risk of cracking is reduced and attractiveness to marauding animals is lessened," he says. And if rain is in the forecast, avoid tomatoes getting knocked off their vines by picking ripe cherry tomatoes and larger tomatoes that are half ripe. Then slice them up to go on salads, burgers, or straight into your belly.