Growing Tomatoes

I like heirloom tomatoes, so I usually grow them from seed. This is my tomato garden a few years ago in Ontario (left). These are massive beefheart heirloom Portugal tomatoes. They take such a long time to grow and ripen that I don't believe I'm going to try them up here. I do have other, smaller tomatoes that I will plant here, however.


Blossom End Rot:
The first year I grew tomatoes in a new garden, years ago, I lost a lot to blossom end rot, often referred to as BER. Its when the bottom of the tomato, the blossom end, rots on the vine. I spent a winter that year, researching this online and asking at all the gardening forums I belonged to at that time. This is what I learned:

Blossom end rot is caused by a lack of calcium. This doesn't mean there is not enough calcium in the soil. If the ph is too low, the tomato can't use the calcium, thereby causing Blossom End Rot. 

The best way to raise the ph in the garden is to use dolomite lime. You can add ashes in small amounts and that does help but be careful not to add it to acid loving plants like berries or to add too much. Without actually testing the soil when adding ashes, you have no way to know if its "too much". Dolomite lime raises the ph and stabilizes it so it doesn't spike. I would never add straight lime to the garden, the stuff you would use in a pit toilet. Its much too strong and harsh. Dolomite lime can be bought in a box from the hardware store, usually, and may seem expensive but a box of it has lasted me 5 years with a huge garden. A little goes a long way and it doesn't take much.

Adding calcium is also a good idea and never amiss, but ground egg shells won't do it. They take a couple of years to break down enough to release the calcium into a usable form in the soil, although they are still good to use in a garden and will improve the soil. The best way I have found to add a quickly dissolving and immediately usable calcium for tomatoes is to add TUMS. When I plant that small hole for a baby tomato plant, I sprinkle a pinch of dolomite lime in the hole and drop in half a TUMS tablet, fill the hole with water and insert the plant. I have never again had any BER, ever, through many years and a lot of tomatoes.

Staking and Pruning:

To prune or not to prune, that is the question. Some people throw a cage on their tomato plants and just let nature take it's course. This means that their tomato plants will grow into a bush with a dozen separate branches. I have a separate post with various ideas for Staking Tomatoes

I prefer to prune off the suckers and secondary branches, most of the time. If it is still early in the season, I will let a tomato plant split into two and sometimes three, if it gets ahead of me and I miss one, but I try to take off any suckers that grow. This is my Gordon Graham tomato plant. I have let it split into three stems only because it got ahead of me when I wasn't watching.

Pruning makes the tomato plants grow taller, so most of my tomato plants are staked instead of caged. I have tried caging them but they just grow over the top of the commercial cages and fall over. I have seen tall homemade tomato cages that will do the job well but I still prefer to stake them, prune off the suckers and cut off the tops when they are tall enough. I find that this makes the tomatoes larger, with less per plant, and easier to see and harvest. These are my Portugal tomatoes, staked and producing wonderful, large tomatoes!

We were blessed with a pile of strong metal fence posts that I have used in the garden. I have hammered these into the ground and strung heavy coated wire between them. This is where I am growing the tomatoes this year. I just tie the plants to the wire as they grow up. Since I rotate the plants every year, I won't be growing tomatoes on this wire next year. I will probably grow cukes and pole beans on it. There is always something I grow that has to go vertical.

Suckers are little stems that grow in the leaf nodes. If left alone, they will split the plant into separate stalks, each growing tall, making a bush. About twice a week, I play in the tomatoes and nip off the suckers and tie up the stalks. It's an enjoyable activity and gives me a chance to keep a close eye on them. I also cut the tops when they are tall enough. Since the season is short here, I do this early since the additional tomatoes grown at the top of the vine later in the season are not going to ripen anyway. I love the smell of tomato plants!

I prune the leaves on my tomato plants. I don't cut them all off, just a few. I trim off the ones that touch the ground. I think this might help to keep slugs, virus, rust and other diseases and bugs off the plants. I also cut off any that interfere with the development of growing baby tomatoes and I prune leaves to open up the plant and let light and air circulation into the fruit. I do think it is important to leave a few big leaves on the plants to make food.

Paste tomatoes often grow huge leaves that cover the entire plant and the growing tomatoes. They have to be cut back some.


Tomato seeds are self pollinating, meaning they will cross pollinate if planted close together but not if there is some space between the plants. If you want to keep the tomato seed pure and still plant a few varieties, I would put each variety on a different side of the garden or in various other spots around the yard. I put about 10' - 15' between varieties and didn't have a problem with crossed seed. 

Saving tomato seed for the following year takes some knowledge and special treatment. Tomato and cucumber seeds need to ferment to grow the following year. The tomato has to get very, very ripe, usually riper than you like to eat, in order for the seeds to be viable. I usually let a few tomatoes ripen to the rotten stage on the vine, hoping no well meaning friend will pick them while "doing me a favour". I squeeze these rotten tomatoes into a container, and leave it to ferment further. After a few more days with this rotten, stinky mix (sitting outside), the seeds are ready to harvest. I rinse the seeds off and remove anything that's not clean, pure seed. I have read that using Comet cleaner on the seeds will help remove any remaining fruit juices and clean the seeds well. It's not an "organic" way to clean seeds but I have used it and found it helpful. I wash the seeds clean, always in cold water, and spread them out on a paper towel to dry. When they are completely dry, they go into a paper envelope labeled with all the information on that seed that I have.

Properly saved and stored tomato seeds (stored cool and dry) do not need a cold spell to germinate. Just plant a couple in a small pot, water and keep warm. They will grow. 

Up here they have to be started early. I usually start them about a month before the last frost, unless you have a method to keep them covered in the garden when frost threatens or you have a greenhouse or cold frame. I have a large, sunny window and indoor lights where I can let them grow until I put them outside. Planting them early in the cold ground will slow them down. You will get faster growth with a raised garden bed that warms up faster. You can warm the soil in the sun quicker by covering it with black plastic, as well. 

You can grow tomatoes anywhere there is full sun, even against the wall in the bed in front of your house. Why use good gardening space just for flowers. Grow some food among the flowers. Those plants can look good too and you can't eat flowers! can eat some flowers...