A friend based in Nashville, Tennessee planted her first garden this year, and asked if I had any clues why her tomato plants are still “like little twigs”. After just a little back-and-forth, we came up with some ideas for her tomatoes, ideas which would apply to any tomato grower, anywhere.
Feed your tomatoes if you want them to feed you Unless you have a healthy earthworm population in your garden churning out natural compost like crazy, then your tomatoes need to be fed. Most new raised-bed gardens are not rich in earthworms, and in fact can be pretty sterile places. My favorite, all-purpose organic plant food is Osmocote. It feeds slowly over time, and never burns. Feed tomato plants every few weeks during the growing season, or as per product directions.
Consider intensive planting Another recommendation for tomatoes; plant basil and marigolds all around them. Fill in any spaces with these companion plants. This “intensive” method of planting is really closer to what you would find in nature, which abhors a vacuum. Filling all available space with plants that grow well with tomatoes will discourage critters, increase yields, and actually help plants use less water by decreasing soil surface heat and evaporation.
Check your water When they’re just taking off, tomatoes need plenty of water (as well as very good drainage). Water plants deeply, every couple of days — allowing an inch or so at the surface to dry between waterings. As the summer progresses, you’ll actually want to pull back on the water. The tomato vines will start to look scraggly and brown, but the tomatoes will grow super sweet — by withholding water, you’re concentrating their flavor.
Prune axial growth There’s no need to prune tomatoes that aren’t really taking off; but once they do, it’s advisable to help plants keep their shape and channel growth optimally by snapping off the axial growth — “suckers” — that will send your plants’ life force growing in all sorts of crazy directions. Here’s a visual how-to:
Pruning tomatoes is my absolute favorite gardening “chore”, for kind of a funny reason: I love the aroma that’s released when those branches are pinched off! It’s the freshest, zestiest, summeriest smell possible. So next time you’re out there pinching back your tomatoes’ axial growth, do yourself a favor and smell your fingers afterward! (Is this weird? I don’t doubt it. It’s a well known fact that gardening cultivates eccentricity; or maybe it’s the other way around?)
Tomatoes are the highlight of the summer garden in many ways, and there’s so much the gardener can do to foster them along. Hopefully this little bit of a primer helps my friend get her Tennessee tomatoes back on track, and is useful to you, too, wherever you and your tomatoes may be!