More Than One Way to Grow Tomatoes

by Elmer Krehbiel, Master Gardener
March 2, 2001

Since more than 90 percent of Texas gardeners produce tomatoes, ideas abound about the best methods to grow them. Here are some things to consider to ensure a good crop.

Tomato plants need moist soil with good drainage, within a pH of 5.5 to 7.5, high organic matter, medium nitrogen, high phosphorus, high potassium and good air circulation. Is your garden soil and location suitable for tomato plants?

Tomato Varieties

Tomato plants are classified as bush or vining, the latter usually having the best flavor. Bush types form their tomatoes as the stem tips, then the plants stop growing. The fruit matures during a 30 to 40 day harvest season. Vining types form their tomato clusters along the stems, continue to grow, and develop more fruit if conditions remain favorable.

Do you prefer tomatoes for cooking, stuffing, slicing, salads, snacks, canning or juice? Do you prefer a short harvest season or one that lasts from late spring to late fall?

Variety has a major influence on production. Varieties develop large size fruit in the Brazos Valley are Bingo, Carnival, Bush Celebrity, Champion, Homestead 24, Merced, Miracle Sweet, Solar Set, Spitfire, Sunmaster, Super Fantastic, Surefire, and Terrific.

Medium size varieties are Bush Early Girl, Dona, Enchantment, Heatwave II, Porter's Pride, Tuscany, and Viva Italia.

Cherry size varieties are Bush Cherry, Cherry Grande, Gardener's Delight, Porter, Small Fry, Sweet Chelsea, and Sweet Million.

Growing Tomatoes in the Ground

  • Prepare planting sites by digging the hole about 1 foot wide and deep, then place the compost and organic matter or fertilizer in the bottom half of it.
  • Plan how to support the plants so tomatoes will not touch the soil. Cages are the most common means of support.
  • Set plants about 2 to 3 inches deep when the soil is cool during early spring. Roots will sprout along the stem and develop a stronger plant if most of the plant is in a trench with the top cluster of leaves turned up. First, leaves along the horizontal stem should be cut off. After the soil is warm, plantings can be set about 6 inches deep.
  • Set plants 2, 3, or 4 feet apart with 6 feet between rows. Closer is too crowded! Been there, tried that.
  • Set 2 or 3 plants in the same hole or within a cage. That will cause them to mature earlier.
  • Insert strong stakes in the ground, then set plants next to them. Tie the stems to the stakes and prune the suckers. That should cause the fruit to mature about two weeks earlier.
  • Mulch with dark colored-material during the cool spring and late fall. It is best in the Bryan-College Station, Texas area to use white or light colors during the late spring, summer, and early fall.
  • For top production, after plants develop their first cluster of fruit, use additional fertilizer every week in sandy type soil or every 10 days in clay type soil.

Growing Tomatoes in Containers

The "Texas pot method" includes:

  • First, bury containers (planter pots or gallon jugs with large holes) between the tomato plants.
  • Second, apply one tablespoon of ammonium sulfate in each container.
  • Third, fill and refill it within an hour until the soil is saturated. Apply into the root zone;
  • Or, they need about one tablespoon of a tomato type fertilizer with a 1-2-2 ratio, spread out over the soil from about 6 inches from the stem and later about 12 inches from the stem. Then scratch it into the topsoil.

The flowers on tomato plants are self-pollinating; insects or vibration can cause the transfer. Native bumblebees are the primary pollinators. Otherwise, shake the plants every other day to pollinate.

Avoid too much nitrogen, which will cause the plants to grow too fast and become extra large. That could also cause them to develop very little fruit with those that do develop being watery and bland.

About a month ago, I purchased a six-pack of small tomato plants and transplanted them into 3 1/2 inch peat pots. Two weeks ago, I set one in a 5 gallon bucket to be placed cage in a cage later and another plant in a 5 gallon bucket next to a 6 foot stake. The other four tomato plants will be transplanted into the garden within the next few days.

More on Growing Tomatoes

Dr. Elmer Krehbiel is the former President of Keep Brazos Beautiful. See his column in The Eagle.