If you’re like most people, tomatoes are probably the first things that comes to mind when you think of a garden.
Of course, there are thousands of varieties of fruits, veggies, herbs, edible flowers, mushrooms and grains that might adorn your garden throughout the year, but tomatoes have somehow managed to capture the American gardener’s imagination more than any other type of produce. Perhaps it’s due to the piles of showy, delicious fruits a tomato plant can produce in a relatively short period of time. Or perhaps it’s because tomatoes are quiet, juicy geniuses who have domesticated human beings so that we’ll take care of them and spread their seeds throughout the world.
Whatever the case may be, if you plan to have a summer garden, you’re probably going to be growing tomatoes. If so, here are five tomato growing tricks we’ve learned over the years that will boost your yields and save you time and money…
Five Tomato Growing Tricks That Will Make You a Better Gardener
Mmmm… fresh-picked heirloom tomato!
These tomato growing tricks are arranged chronologically based on the order in which you do them.
*Special Note: If you’re a GrowJourney member, you may have already seen this info in your Tomato GrowGuide. If you’re NOT a GrowJourney member, shame on you. You can remedy that problem by starting your free trial here.
Tomato Growing Trick 1: Start From Seed
This might not seem like a “trick,” but once you master seed starting, it can save you more money than perhaps anything else you’ll ever do in your garden while also allowing you to grow any variety of produce you want, not just what your local garden center happens to carry.
A packet of USDA certified organic tomato seeds will cost you about $3-4 depending on how many seeds are in the packet. GrowJourney tomato seed packets usually contain around 50 or more seeds, depending on the variety. That means you could grow fifty tomato plants that could each produce a pile of tomatoes for you in a few short months.
Considering that the average beefsteak tomato plant will produce 15 – 25 pounds of fruit, that single packet of seeds could give you a yield of 1,250 pounds of fruit. If you go to a store and buy a pound of crummy hothouse tomatoes, you’re going to pay $3/lb; if you buy a pound of certified organic heirloom tomatoes, you’re probably going to be paying closer to $6/lb.
So, if you expertly use your 50 seeds to grow 1,250 pounds of your own organic, heirloom tomatoes, you just grew $7,500 in produce!
Tlacalula, an heirloom stuffing tomato from Mexico. Cost of the single seed that grew this beauty? $0.001. And it was full of new seeds that we can grow in future years.
Also, if you’re growing heirloom tomatoes (which are always open-pollinated), you can save enough seeds from your tomatoes to give a seed to every person on earth after about two growing seasons (seriously do the math!). See why heirloom seeds are the gift that keeps on giving?
“Sure,” you’re thinking, “but what about the time and cost involved in growing tomatoes from seed?” We have friends who do this every year at virtually no cost using old solo cups, their own seed starting mix (seed starting mix should be lighter than regular garden soil so vermiculite or coconut coir needs to be added to regular garden soil), free sunlight and low cost tap water. Since we grow so much food, we built our own fancy indoor grow light setup for a couple hundred dollars, but this is an investment that more than pays for itself each gardening season and we garden in all four seasons every year.
Our indoor grow light setup (click here to learn how to make your own). All the plants have graduated and gone to live outdoors for the summer, but it will be full of fall seedlings by late summer.
Now, consider this: if you go to a garden center and get a tomato plant/seedling, you’re going to pay somewhere between $4-10 per plant depending on where you live, the variety of tomato and the size of the plant. There’s a pretty good chance that you’re only going to be able to buy a hybrid tomato plant, which means you won’t be able to save seeds that will grow the same type of tomato again next year. There’s also a good chance the plant was treated with a systemic pesticide soil drench like a neonicotinoid, which over 800 peer reviewed scientific studies say kill birds, bees and other beneficial critters even when used as recommended by the manufacturers. That’s the most expensive tomato plant you could possibly grow in your garden.
Young tomato seedlings growing under our grow lights in Ladbrooke soil blocks. Every fuzzy hair you see on the tomato stem can become a root when buried in soil.
See those fuzzy tomato stems? As it turns out, tomato stems can form adventitious roots if they’re planted in the soil. Larger, deeper root systems mean less water and fertilizer inputs, healthier plants and larger fruit yields.
Now, the first time you do this trick, you’ll feel like you’re murdering your plants, but it will pay off big time.
Here’s what you do when you’re ready to transplant your tomato seedlings:
Remove lowers branches - Cut off all the lower branches on your seedling, leaving only the top few branches and the growth tip.
Dig a trench – Dig a trench larger enough to lay your tomato seedling down sideway while still giving the first stems enough room to stick out a few inches above the soil surface. By laying the plants sideways, you’ll help them develop better vertical roots. This is especially helpful if you have leggy seedlings.
Bury the stem and lay the plant sideways – If your soil isn’t good enough to grow tomatoes without the assistance of fertilizer (a soil test is the best way to find out for certain), add some organic, slow-release fertilizer or compost to the trench and stir it around. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers tend to cause excessive vegetative growth that attracts aphids and other pest insects, not to mention causing a host of other soil imbalances – so don’t use them! Once your trench is ready, bury the tomato plant (and stem) up to a few inches below the first branches.
Step 1: note the removed stems. Step 2: disrupting the soil as little as possible, dig a trench; fertilize with a slow release organic fertilizer or compost if necessary. Step 3: bury the plant sideways, covering the stem (which will grow strong new vertical roots). Put mulch back over the soil surface and add a stick next to the stem to prevent cutworms (the “stick trick”).
Your buried tomato stems will soon produce new roots and you’ll end up with plants that will outgrow and outperform a shallow rooted tomato plant.
Tomato Growing Trick 3: Stick Trick
This trick is especially important if you’re growing your own seedlings rather than buying mature thick-stemmed plants at a garden center.
Cutworms. The bane of many farmers’ and gardeners’ existence. These are the ground-crawling, seedling-munching larvae of Noctuidae moths. These critters can make you think evil, murderous thoughts when you go out on a spring or summer morning to find your once beautiful, healthy seedlings chopped down and lying dead on the ground.
Our first year of gardening, we lost a bunch of plants this way. So we set out for revenge…
Surely, our brains could outsmart a moth baby’s brain without resorting to using pesticides, right? Yep. And the solution is stupid simple, free and 100% effective if you do it right.
When you transplant your young seedlings, gently insert a stick (about the size of a toothpick or slightly larger) into the ground right next to the stem of your seedling. The larvae will feel around the stem of your plant, detect the stick and be fooled into thinking that the plant stem is too tough to chew through. Then it will move on in search of another victim.
The stick trick = no more cutworms!
We use the “stick trick” on all the spring/summer plants that we start indoors and transplant: melons, squash, cukes, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, etc. We have yet to lose a single plant when using this technique.
Tomato Growing Trick 4: Got Mulch?
Many people talk themselves out of gardening by saying I don’t have time to plow, water, weed, fertilize, etc. Great. Neither do we. We haven’t plowed our soil in five years; we don’t ever plan to plow our soil again because of how destructive it is to the soil ecosystem. We only water during periods of drought or if our seedlings are very young. The only weeds we have are in the few patches of grass we have left, and we usually eat them. We use almost zero fertilizer. This is because we have a pretty good appreciation for the living systems that make soil work (the soil food web), soil ecology and plant (and soil) succession.
We feed our soil what it knows how to eat and our soil feeds our plants what they know hot to eat so that our plants can feed us what we know how to eat.
Soil is like the skin on your body: it’s a protective organ. Scrape off your skin, and a scab will form. Likewise, nature does not tolerate having its soil scraped off and exposed to the elements. Uncovered soil will soon begin healing via “weeds,” nature’s scabs, aka the pioneer plants in plant succession.
In your garden or farm, you have two options:
always cover your soil with the plants and/or mulches of your choosing; or
be prepared to let nature cover her own soil with the plants of her choosing.
*You probably won’t like option #2, and it usually causes conventional gardeners and farmers to engage in perpetual chemical warfare.
We like using a combination of green mulches (cover crops), fall leaves and wood chips that we get free from local tree service companies. All three types of mulch will drastically improve your soil biology/fertility, thereby replacing your need to fertilize (you can take things a step further by also using hot composted compost, aka Berkeley Compost and compost teas made from compost and/or worm castings).
Wood chips form an insulating surface on your soil surface, reducing soil temperature fluctuations and plant stress, while increasing water penetration and retention. Finally, wood chips prevent weeds from germinating and growing in your garden beds. Less work + less inputs + less money = more and better food. Yes please.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Top Dress With Wood Chips, Do NOT Plow Them Into Your Soil!
We top-dress our beds with about 3-6″ of wood chip mulch twice per year, and let the soil microorganisms slowly convert the wood chips into bioavailable nutrients that they bring down to our plant roots for us (the plants also feed the microbes all kinds of goodies in return via their root exudates). It’s very important to note that you do not want to plow the wood chips into your soil, or you’ll lock up the nitrogen in your soil as the soil microorganisms borrow it while they digest the carbon. Low nitrogen = plants that don’t grow. So, just put the wood chips on top of the soil surface and let nature do the rest of the work for you.
This should come as no surprise to you, but tomatoes grow on plants, not grocery store shelves. And tomato plants will grow better and produce more fruit when you cover their soil with wood chips. Since many common tomato plant diseases are caused by rain splashing soil pathogens onto the lower leaves of the plants, you’ll also be pleased to know that using wood chips reduces or eliminates this problem too.
When transplanting your tomato seedlings into your mulched garden beds, simply pull back the mulch from the planting spot, make a small hole and plop it in the ground (using the deep-burying trick highlighted in trick #2 above). You can do the same thing when you seed, but only make a hole big enough for the type of seed you’re planting.
Tomato Growing Trick 5: Don’t Get Suckered
What the heck is “tomato suckering”? As tomato plants grow, they’ll produce a branch and a “sucker” between the stem and the branch. The sucker grows like a new stem, producing new branches and suckers along the way.
A closer look at tomato suckers.
Many people tell you that you have to remove the suckers to reduce plant diseases and get the biggest fruit from your tomato plant, the idea being that more air can flow through your plants and the plant will put more energy into fewer fruits. If you’re trying to grow the world’s biggest tomato and you have the time to remove all the suckers as your tomato plant grows, then you might want to go ahead and sucker your plants (and be sure to sanitize your tools when you do).
However, if you’re growing more than one tomato plant and you’re into low-maintenance gardening, don’t sucker your plants. You might end up with slightly smaller tomatoes on your beefsteak varieties, but if you’ve got good soil and healthy plants, you’re probably not going to notice a dramatic difference in fruit size, and you’ll certainly get more fruit.
Also, one of the fastest ways you can spread diseases throughout your tomato plants is by constantly touching them, cutting them with non-sanitized clippers or other tools that have pathogens on them, and/or leaving exposed wounds on the plants where you removed the suckers.
As noted in the picture above, one nice thing about suckers is that you can remove and root them to grow new tomato plants. We’ll do this in mid-summer to get another big round of tomatoes before first frost.
In our opinion: suckering simply isn’t worth the time and effort relative to the supposed benefits, so don’t be suckered into suckering! (Ooh, that was a clever play on words.)
Bonus Trick: Grafting Tomatoes
Note: This is a trick for advanced gardeners/growers only. If you want to grow your favorite heirloom tomatoes, but live in an area where your heirlooms keep getting wiped out by diseases, we highly recommend grafting your heirlooms onto a hardy tomato rootstock (this is the same technique used with many fruit trees).
We hope these tomato growing tricks help you have your best summer garden ever!
-Aaron @ GrowJourney
Salsa time at Tyrant Farms! Fresh-picked tomatoes, hardneck garlic and peppers ready to go into the blender.
Tomato Cages – Want to learn how to make strong, attractive tomato cages that can last for over 40 years? Read this article to find out how.
Just in case you’re not already a GrowJourney Seeds of the Month Club member, we’d love for you to give us a try (for free) to see if you’d like to start growing with us! And don’t forget: a GrowJourney Gift Membership also makes a unique and special gift.
Obviously my cut worms are smarter than your cut worms, tried the toothpick method and was still losing tomato seedlings. ARGH! I have switched to plastic collars made from empty juice bottles. Way more time consuming, but seems to work so far. I will be spreading some diatomaceous earth once the summer rains subside. I use rootone to help the cuttings get a start. This year I am trying the new Garden Gem tomato developed by Harry Klee at the University of Florida. Which are supposed to have superb flavor, and good yield of about 22 pounds per plant, and are supposed to be somewhat resistant to the many diseases so prevalent here in Florida. I am growing them in raised beds that have had the soil Solarized. So far they are looking really healthy!
Wow, sounds like you have some robust cutworms! We typically just sticks from around our yard which tend to be thicker than toothpicks, so I’m wondering if that might be part of the reason we’ve had such good success with the “stick trick”? It’s also possible that Florida cutworms are different (perhaps even a different sub-species) than what we encounter here in South Carolina. Another method that works is taking the core out of old toilet paper or paper towel rolls and putting them around the young seedlings – basically the same thing as your plastic bottle method but it’s easier to cut paper than plastic. By the time the paper is turned to mush, the seedlings are larger than cutworms are willing to take on, unless there are unusually heavy rainfalls. Garden Gem tomato sounds interesting – love to hear what you think once you’ve gotten a harvest. Best of luck!
Will tomatoes regrow from a buried root from last year? We stopped taking care of the plants and figured we would pull them out because they were dry and old. When we went to pull them there were surviving fresh tomatoes all over the plants. We cleaned up the plants anyway but left the roots in the ground. Bad idea?
Lucinda: Tomatoes can technically grow as perennials in the right climate conditions. There’s a massive tomato plant growing in Disney’s Epcot Center greenhouse that’s many years old and produces thousands of pounds of fruit (the photos of it are amazing). If you live in a warm climate and haven’t had any frosts or freezes, it’s possible your tomato plant could have over-wintered.
As for leaving roots of old plants in the ground, we almost always leave our annual plants to decompose on the soil surface or in the ground (in the case of the roots). That debris feeds your soil microorganisms and increases soil carbon. However, if you have a diseased plant, you’ll probably want to remove it, roots and all, and cover the spot with hot composted compost or drench the soil in actively aerated compost tea. (Worm castings or casting tea can be substituted for compost.)
We don’t have a problem with those since we grow using polyculture plant systems that discourage the buildup of any one pest or disease. We also recommend intercropping with plant species that attract a diversity of predatory insects – both the plants used and the insects attracted will vary depending on where you are (it looks like you might be in Kenya). There are plenty of predatory insects that will feast on Tuta absoluta, such as Nabis pseudoferus (a predatory damsel bug). Another possibility as part of an overall plan would be using foliar sprays of actively aerated compost teas made from hot composting methods, as advocated by Dr. Elaine Ingham. The predatory microbes in the tea, when applied as a foliar/stem spray, would likely eat/parasitize the moth eggs and larvae. There likely isn’t a single “silver bullet” answer to the problem, but we’d encourage you to think longterm through a systems approach/paradigm. We’d strongly recommend avoiding use of pesticides, since they don’t tend to discriminate between beneficial and pest insect, and almost inevitably lead to systemic imbalances that favor pathogenic and pest organisms. Not to mention the pests will inevitably develop resistance to the poisons leading the grower down the expensive and painful path of the “chemical treadmill.” Best of luck!
March 31, 2016 at 8:13 pm - Reply
Green mulch simply means a cover crop, some of which may be edible, some of which aren’t. The most effective green mulches tend to incorporate multiple plant species, for instance legumes and rye mixed together, but we also like to grow single species cover crops/green mulches like Austrian Winter Peas that produce delicious edible pea shoots and soup peas, before we chop them and use them as a mulch in the late spring. Green mulches increase soil microbial activity by feeding and promoting the beneficial soil microorganisms that are critical to healthy soil systems, and therefore critical to growing healthy plants. With the exception of deserts, you won’t ever see exposed soil in nature – it’s always covered with either brown mulches (dead plant debris) or green mulches (living plants). Hope that answers your question!
Interesting! Never heard of that trick. Seems like the newspaper would break down pretty quickly, but I suppose by the time it decomposed, the plants would be large enough to be beyond a cutworm’s cutting abilities.