Tomato season is one of the top perks of summer. There are endless ways to use tomatoes — slicing them fresh, whipping up bruschetta, fresh salsa, or a homemade pasta sauce, and even canning them to save and enjoy in other seasons.
First you need the tomatoes though, right? While tomato plants are fairly easy to grow, you can increase your success by using a few easy tips and growing tricks throughout the summer. I’ve been growing tomatoes since I was a kid — I even had my own stand at the farmers’ market. Here’s what I've learned that must be done in order to have big, juicy, tasty tomatoes throughout the season.
1. Give your tomato plants enough support.
Tomato plants can easily grow six feet or more, and once the fruit starts to develop, it’ll make the vines really heavy. If you don’t have proper support for the vines, they will droop and break, so it’s crucial to make sure they have good support. Even if you put cages around your plants early in the season, they might need more; you can do this by using string to tie up the vines onto existing support.
2. Remove or transplant volunteer tomatoes.
If you’re growing in an area that had tomatoes last year, you could easily see some volunteer tomato plants pop up. These are plants that sprout because of seeds, usually from last year’s harvest. Even though you might be tempted to leave these in the ground, don’t do it. They will crowd out your other plants and affect your size and overall success. Tomato plants need plenty of room, so if you see other plants popping up, remove them completely or transplant them to another area.
3. Keep watering, even when you think you shouldn't.
The best thing you can do to ensure big, healthy tomatoes is to keep watering them. It’s easy to forget to water throughout the summer or once your plants are established, but this mistake will affect the size and quality of fruit you end up with. You want to water early in the morning, before the heat of the day sets in. You should also get in the habit of watering daily (unless it rains) and close to the base of the plant. This will help your plants thrive, especially as it heats up in the summer.
4. Pick your ripe tomatoes regularly.
Don’t forget to pick your tomatoes when they ripen. You don’t want to leave fruit on the vine, just sitting for days and days. This way, the water, sunshine, and other nutrients for the plant can go directly to the other tomatoes still growing and developing.
5. If you see a plant struggling, remove it.
If you notice something is wrong with your tomato plant (covered in bugs, white all over the leaves, it’s shriveling up, etc.), then try to remove it from your garden right away. If you catch it early enough and completely eliminate it, then your other plants have the best chance of staying safe and not getting infected.
6. Feed your plants with organic food.
If you don’t have the greatest soil or your plants need an extra boost, look for organic food options made specifically for veggie plants. You can find organic fertilizer spikes made for tomato plants online or at your local garden center. Liquid food that you mix with water is also a popular option. Many gardeners swear by these methods, saying they definitely lead to bigger and better tomato plants. So if this is what you’re after, they’re worth a shot.
7. Remove suckers from overgrown plants.
Suckers are little offshoots that can grow in between main stems of the tomato plant. Mostly, they’re fairly harmless, but if they start to get big they can be pretty annoying — plus, they’re taking nutrients away from other parts of the plant. If you notice them getting pretty big, it’s best to just snip them off completely. You can pinch suckers if you catch them small enough, or you could also prune them off. (Just make sure you’re not pruning branches with tomatoes on them.)
8. Get rid of extra weeds hiding under your plants.
Once your plants grow big, it’s really hard to see under them; it’s also cumbersome to reach. But if you don’t find and eliminate those weeds, they’re stealing water and good nutrients from your tomatoes. You can use mulch or weed barrier under the plants to help. Otherwise, get down on your hands and needs and pull those weeds.
9. Make sure your plants are getting plenty of sunshine.
This one is tricky, especially if your garden can’t be moved. However, it’s another big reason that many veggie gardens fail. If your plants aren’t seeing six to eight hours of sunlight a day, then they are going to struggle in health and overall size. Another thing to watch for is if your plants are getting really big and overgrown. This could overshadow some of your other garden plants. If this is the case, use string to pull back the branches and secure. This will open up space for more of your plants to get sunshine.
10. Try picking some of your tomatoes just a little bit early.
Sometimes you can’t get to your tomatoes in time before something else (usually an animal) eats them. Another common problem is for tomatoes to split. Don’t let either of these happen to your beautiful, prized tomatoes! To keep this from happening, pick them a little bit early and then set to ripen on your counter. It’ll keep them in good shape.
11. Save the seeds of the tomatoes you love most.
If you have success growing a certain type of tomato, then save those seeds for next year. Maybe this type of tomato grows really good in your soil, or you just really like the taste. Either way, you’ll want to grow it again. So save those seeds so you can repeat success.
This pose was written by Stacy Tornio, the author of The Kids’ Outdoor Adventure Book and the mom of two adventurous kids. Together, they like planning vacations centered around the national parks.