Tips for Growing Tomatoes


by Elmer Krehbiel, Master Gardener
March 1, 2002

Tomatoes are the most popular vegetable with home gardeners because of their delicious fruit. They are are relatively easy to grow and remain productive during the warm months. Tomatoes may be grown in containers, built raised beds, and on ridges.

Only two plants should produce sufficient fresh tomatoes (10 to 30 lbs/plant) for the average family. If you prefer more fresh fruit or wish to process some into tomato juice, can or freeze them, more plants should be set according to your needs.

Growing Early Tomatoes

During early March, select plants with thick-purplish stems of early-maturing varieties.

Make sloping trenches from two down to three inches deep. Cut the bottom leaves off of the plants. Lay the root balls in the deepest end of the trench. Cover the root balls and the stems, and turn the cluster of leaves up, or make shallow holes and set the plants in them.

Cover the plants with good cold protectors, such as WalloWaterŪ, insulated cages, etc.

Apply a water soluble plant growth stimulant each week or two. There are several commercial starters. After the plant is set, I use the milk/mixture on the soil around each plant:

  • Week 1: 2 teaspoons milk/cup water 
  • Week 2: 4 tsp. milk/cup water
  • Week 3: 6 tsp. milk/cup water
  • Week 4: 8 tsp. milk/cup water the next week
  • Week 5: 10 tsp. milk/cup water the next week).

Remove cold protectors when the temperatures are warm and the plants become too large.

Apply additional water each week, if needed. Plastic milk jugs may be used for a root-watering system by cutting holes in their sides and burying them between the plants.

Apply a tablespoon or two of water-soluble fertilizer each week or two.

Spray the flowers twice each week with Blossom Set.

Root prune after the plants have three or four clusters of small tomatoes. If the plants were set in trenches, cut about nine inches deep and two inches away from one side of the buried stem. If the plants were set in holes, cut about nine inches deep and two inches away from and halfway around the stem.

Apply dark colored mulch around the tomato plants when the soil is cool, then change to white or light colored mulch and increase the amount as the soil becomes hotter.

Growing Regular Tomatoes

Re-pot small plants into larger containers and, after a week or two, pinch off the lower leaves and re-pot them again into larger containers to grow more roots than normal before setting them out. If temperatures are expected to be below 50 degrees F, move tomato plants into a warmer building. They may have flowers and small fruit before you transplant them into the garden during late March or early April.

Dig holes about one foot deep and place organic matter (compost, cobs, banana peelings, etc.) in the bottom. Set the plants down to their lowest branches, so roots can develop along the buried stems.

Apply growth stimulant, water, fertilizer, and mulch, as described above.

Tomato plants should be mature enough to set fruit before the summer heat. With most varieties that we use, flowers will not develop fruit when the nighttime temperatures drop below 60 degrees or rise above 75, or daytime temperatures exceed 90 degrees F.

The expected time of harvest is counted from the day the plants are set in the garden or container to mature. Therefore, the early and mid-season tomato varieties are the most suitable to beat the heat in the Brazos Valley.

The harvest season for early varieties may begin in early May. Mid-season varieties should peak during the month of June in Central Texas. With deep mulch several feet around the plants, root watering system, and afternoon shade, some heat-tolerant varieties may continue to be productive longer. Some gardeners prune tomato plants during mid-summer so that they will re-grow for a fall harvest.

Increasing Tomato Fruit Production

There are several methods to increase tomato production. Tomato plants need water, air, and mineral elements every day. Requirements increase considerably as the plants grow and develop fruit.

A large, bushy tomato plant or vine with smaller fruit and low fruit production is an indication that soil was too fertile for the growing plant, direct sunlight was less than eight hours per day, or too much water was applied before fruits were set.

To increase production and size of the fruits, apply one tablespoon of fertilizer each week for several times after the first fruits have set. Then, when the first fruits are about one-half mature size, apply two tablespoons per week for as long as the plants stays productive. The plants will need about one inch of water each week. A thick mulch should be applied for two to four feet around the plants to keep the soil moist and cool, prevent weeds, and keep fruits from contacting the ground.

The "Texas Pot Method" may be used to apply the water and fertilizer down into the root zone. Prepare a gallon jug with cap by cutting holes in the side and near the bottom. Then bury it between the plants.

More on Growing Tomatoes

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