So you've brought some tomatoes home, or you've painstakingly grown them from the tiny little seeds to the "start" phase and you're ready to plant. The biggest question I've gotten during pickups is, "How do I not kill it?"
The important thing to note is that a healthy tomato plant, much like humans, is less susceptible to disease so we want to get it off to the right start.
Feed Them... But Not Too Much
When planting tomatoes, remember that they don't love too much fertilizer. In fact, many of the problems we see in tomatoes stem (haha! get it?!) from too much nitrogen or too much fertilizer. It'll cause the leaves to curl up or you'll see new growth getting yellow. Instead, if you are going to use fertilizer it should be one with a ratio of about 5-10-10. (Another downside of too much nitrogen: beautiful, lush foliage but a much lower yield).
Fertilize when you first put them in the garden, mixing some in their planting hole and then a bit around the topsoil as well. When fertilizing tomatoes while planting, mix the tomato plant fertilizer in with the soil at the bottom on the planting hole, then place some unfertilized soil on top of this before placing the tomato plant into the hole. If raw fertilizer comes in contact with the roots of the plant, it can burn the tomato plant.
Don't fertilize again until they start setting fruit. Water the plant well first so that it doesn't take up too much fertilizer and burn. After you water, spread it on the ground about 6" away from the plant so that you don't risk burning the stem with it.
Fertilize lightly every 2 weeks until the end of growing season.
Set it Up for Success
Tomatoes need full sun. If they don't get at least 6 hours of sunlight, it will not fare well, so plant in a spot that is going to give it plenty of that sunshine!
Plant them at least 2 ft apart. Crowded tomato plants block out sunlight and create excellent environments for diseases.
Stake or cage them. They're vines and tend to want to sprawl, but contact with the ground, again, brings in diseases or rotting fruit. Stake it up and let the air flow!
Prune the lower layers of branches and plant deep. Tomatoes are cool--those little hairs on the stem will turn into roots when put in contact with soil and water. Plant your tomato deep by pinching the lower layers of leaves and burying that stem as much as you can. Then pinch any remaining branches that are too close to the soil.
Water well the first few days they are in the ground, but make sure the soil drains well.
Tomatoes like water! 1-2" per week. However, if they're sitting in standing water often found in VA clay, they will rot. Keep soil moist, and water if the leaves start to wilt. They bounce back easily!
Avoid watering in the late afternoon or evening; instead watering in the morning can help it get through those hot days.
Watering from the bottom is best. Investing in drip lines or soaker irrigation ensures even watering. A timer setup is a bonus!! However, if you are watering with a hose aim for the soil--wet leaves, especially in hot humid weather, are a recipe for fungal or mold infections.
Tomatoes are loved by many. Lots of bugs and caterpillars love the leaves. Aphids, Flea Beetles, Hornworms, White Flies, Blossom End Rot, Leaf Mold, Mosaic Virus, and Late Blight are all common problems in growing tomatoes. Most are manageable using organic practices!
One of my favorite ways to combat potential infection problems is to use a hydrogen peroxide solution sprayed directly on the leaves.
For pest control, picking off eggs and bugs is a great start. When I water in the morning, I typically do a quick inspection. Hornworms are a big problem in VA and a telltale sign that they're present is their droppings--small brown pebbles appearing on your leaves. Another sign is that your leaves look chomped down overnight. They'll be hiding on the underside of your leaves or on the stems. Squish them! You can also use the organic pesticide Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), which is a bacterium that acts as a stomach poison on some larval insects (but doesn’t harm other plants or animals). Bt must be ingested by the caterpillars to be effective, and it must be reapplied to plant foliage after rain.
Try planting dill, basil, marigolds, or borage as companion plants to your tomatoes; they tend to deter the bad guys!
Pruning is for Suckers.
Between the stems and branches, right in that little crook, you'll find your tomato wanting to throw out more little branches. These are called suckers. Big, bushy tomatoes appear healthy, but if the plant is putting the majority of its energy into leaf production your yields will suffer. To combat this, pinch off suckers as they begin to develop. Your plant won't be as bushy, but you'll thank yourself later when you're picking bushels of juicy tomatoes!
So that's the basics!! Tomatoes are very rewarding, and may take a few seasons of trial and error to perfect, but once you know what to do they can be a great crop year after year!
Pro tip: go hydro. Hydroponic tomatoes are unparalleled in production and flavor.