How to Grow Organic Tomatoes: Top 10 Tips

Spring has arrived, and so has tomato fever! Check out these hot tips for growing the BEST wolf peaches in your neighborhood.

10. Plant your tomatoes with their friends (and away from their relatives)

Tomatoes are member of the nightshade family, which includes peppers, eggplants, spuds, tobacco and petunias. Close botanical relatives share many diseases and pest insects, so if you plant them all together, they’ll start fighting and totally ruin Thanksgiving dinner. Keep this in mind as you plan the layout of your garden.

Rather than drown your garden in pesticides, fungicides and other nasty chemicals, an effective and ecological solution to many of the problems in your garden is to make clever use of companion planting strategies. Marigolds, borage and cosmos flowers, for example, attract native predatory wasps, which will happily make a meal of many of the enemies your tomato plants will face throughout the growing season. Garlic will deter aphids and Japanese beetles. Conversely, your tomatoes will help to repel cabbage worms from your brassicas. Basil is said to improve the flavor of tomatoes if you grow them next to each other in the garden, but I call that a myth – though it’s certain that they blend together fabulously in a sauce.

At Dancing Rabbit Eco-village, we are committed to growing as much of our own food as we can, and we do it the way our ancestors did: organically. We have lots of green-thumbed gardeners in our community, and if you’d like to learn some of their top secret tricks firsthand, consider visiting us soon.

9. Go big or go small, but stay out of the middle of the road

Big tomatoes like the beefsteak variety are great for slicing and putting on those Fourth of July burgers. Cherry tomatoes are flavorful, prolific and full of nutritious lycopene, (a compound shown to be effective in staving off some kinds of cancer). But what about the medium-sized stuff? Well, those varieties are designed to offer the best of both worlds by blending disparate characteristics. The result is a slew of breeds that try to be everything, so they succeed at nothing – kind of like mixing peanut butter and bacon. Unfortunately, most supermarket tomatoes fall into this category.

If you want the best of both worlds, plant them both in your garden. While you’re at it, make sure to discern between determinate and indeterminate varieties. Determinate breeds stop growing at a certain time and produce all their fruit at once, which is great for when you want to make tons of sauce and salsa to can and put up in the pantry. Indeterminate breeds will grow and produce fruit simultaneously, bearing a smaller number of fruit at a time, but stretched out over a longer duration during growing season.

My recommendation is to choose at least four varieties of tomatoes for your garden, if you can afford the space: two cherry-type varieties and two beefsteak-like varieties, with one determinate and one indeterminate breed in each category.

8. Amend your soil (don’t worry, it doesn’t take an act of Congress)

Compost does wonders, but that’s no secret. What you may not have known is that either or both of Epsom salts and dolomitic limestone will help prevent blossom drop and bottom rot.

It’s also helpful to wait two or three seasons before planting tomatoes in the same spot again – this gives fungal spores, insect eggs and remnants of plant viruses a chance to be swept away by the forces of nature before your ‘maters make a comeback.

7. Don’t let your tomatoes’ leaves get wet, (because tomatoes like to wear suede)

Tomato plants are particularly susceptible to a range of fungal infections, which is promoted by excess water on the leaves. Additionally, some diseases common to tomatoes are transferred by contact with water. Whenever you give your plants a drink, make sure to do so at the ground level and not by watering from the top down. Mulching underneath your mature tomato plants will also help to prevent soil-borne disease from splashing up onto the lowest leaves when it rains.

6. Water your tomatoes deeply, and only when they need it, or you’ll end up with Frankenstein cat-faces

Speaking of watering your tomatoes, you should always water them deeply, and only if/when the deeper reaches of the soil accessible to your plants are getting dry. Regular, shallow watering results in rapid volatility in the availability of water, which leads to sudden swelling and constriction of tomato fruit while they are growing. This causes the fruit to crack and go all cat-faced – I’m talking Grumpy Cat, not the cute kind. Deep, thorough watering ensures that plants have a steady supply of water to draw on when they need it, which translates to even growth without cracks.

5. Give your fruit some structural support, (and I don’t mean Victoria’s Secret)

Hundreds of years of selective breeding have lead to scads of varieties of tomatoes to choose from, ranging from grape-like clusters to bowling balls worthy of blue ribbons. Tomato stems, on the other hand, haven’t kept pace. Unless you want to spend your evenings rescuing half-rotten fruit from of the mud, make sure to stake your plants or provide them with wire cages.

4. Bury your plants up to their eyeballs (and you’ll be up to your eyeballs in tomatoes)

If you’re anything like 99% of tomato growers out there, your garden starts life as hothouse seedlings that get moved outside as soon as the threat of frost has passed. When you transplant your tomatoes, pluck off all the leaves except for the topmost row of leaves and the new growth at the tip of the stem. Then dig a nice deep hole for each of your plants and bury them right up to just below that remaining row of leaves. (An alternative is to simply bury your tomatoes sideways, but in my opinion, this is apt to lead to your plants to become reliant on shallow watering, which is problematic.)

I realize this may sound a little crazy, but there is a method to the madness. The nodes where the leaves were formerly will convert to root growth in the absence of sunlight. This will give your transplants a strong foundation that will pay juicy, delicious dividends down the road.

3. Suffer no suckers to live

Most varieties of tomatoes are prone to ancillary vegetative growth during the height of fruiting season – these extra appendages are often referred to as ‘suckers’, and you’ll find them peeking out at a 45-degree angle wherever a major side branch joins with the main stem of a plant. They are not likely to produce any worthwhile fruit, and in the meantime, they are siphoning your plants’ energy and resources away from fruit production.

My advice is to ruthlessly pluck every one of these suckers off of your mature plants. If it’s early enough in the season and you have the space for it, you can plant them. They will sprout roots and grow to become fully fledged tomato plants and produce a few fruit. Otherwise, make sure to compost the offcuts somewhere far away from your tomato patch, and whatever you do, don’t just throw them directly on the ground where you found them – as they decay, they will bring the plague to your harvest. (I wonder if this is how Attack of the Killer Tomatoes got started…)

While you’re at it, go ahead and remove the bottommost rank of mature leaves from the plants. Doing so will help to avoid soil-borne diseases splashing onto your plants. At the same time, you’ll open up the garden to more air circulation, which will work wonders in terms of mold prevention.

2. Stagger your plantings, (unless you want to spend all your vacation time canning 90 gallons of marinara)

Even if you choose to plant mostly indeterminate tomato varieties, you are still likely to have a peak season toward the end of summer where you’ll end up with more fruit than you know what to do with. A simple trick to avoid this is to plant your garden in stages, waiting about three weeks in between cohorts. This will give you several groups of plants living at different stages in their growth cycle throughout the growing season, ensuring that you have a steady supply of tomatoes for as long as possible, rather than a sudden red-tinted chore to coerce the kids into doing for you.

1. Patience is red, ripe and DELICIOUS

I know it’s tempting to pluck your tomato fruit as soon as you see the first red freckle appear and make a mad dash for the nearest salt shaker, but take it from me – leave your fruit on the vine as long as possible and your patience will be rewarded. Most of us are accustomed to the baseball-sized cardboard-flavored tomatoes found in supermarkets, which have been rigorously bred for mass transit across country, rather than flavor. They’re picked green, and then artificially reddened with ethylene gas in a warehouse somewhere. (By the way, just because you bought your fruit at the store with a few snippets of vine attached doesn’t mean they are truly vine ripened.)

If you want REAL vine ripened tomatoes, you have to leave your tomatoes on the vine. And let them ripen. Rocket science, right? (Like the old saying goes: knowledge is the awareness that tomatoes are fruit, while wisdom is having the good sense not to put them in a fruit salad.)

However, if you must pick your tomatoes while they’re still green, like those last few stragglers that remain in the garden up until a few hours before the first frost of fall, then it is worthwhile to give them a helping hand. Let your greenies hang out with a banana in a paper sack for a while, to learn the ways of fruit ripening from a master before dicing them into your salad – they still won’t taste the same as a properly ripened tomato, but at least they won’t be cardboard.

One of the biggest advantages of living in a tiny house is having more space in the garden – if you’d like to learn more about container gardening in small spaces, check out this article. But knowing what to plant and how much, and what to do about all the challenges gardeners face can be daunting enough to discourage novices from getting started at all.

Fortunately, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, because there is a whole village of gardeners who live in tiny houses, eagerly awaiting a chance to show you how you too can ditch the rat race for a fulfilling, sustainable lifestyle in community with likeminded friends. That village is called Dancing Rabbit, and we host hundreds of visitors every year in order to share our message of ecological sustainability with the world, many of whom decide to stick around and become our neighbors. If this sort of thing sings to your soul, then take a moment to review our website and decide if you might like to spend some time with us soon. We’d love to share our dream with you.

 

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