Q: I am going to try tomatoes for the first time this year. Is it time to plant them?
A: Growing your first tomatoes can be really fun and satisfying. They have a bit of a reputation of being hard to grow in the Pikes Peak area, but really we just have some challenges (as do gardeners in any are of the country) that you need to keep in mind. This is the time of year to be buying plants to transplant, so here are ten tomato tips to help you in your first attempt:
1. Buy plants at your local garden centers. Rather than shopping at the national chains, try the local centers as they will have started varieties that are appropriate for our area. Ask the staff for advice as you make your picks.
2. Stick with varieties that mature in 72ish days or less. And if you must try something that has a higher number of days to maturity (like most of the heirloom varieties), just get one of those and be sure to grab a few more with shorter maturity dates. (Maturity dates refer to the numbers you see, like “72 days,” on the tag. Technically, this is the number of days it will take a 6-week old transplant to give ripe fruit after being planted outside.)
3. Don’t buy huge transplants with already set fruit. Often at the garden center, I’ll overhear “I’m buying this one since it already has fruit on it. I need as big a head start as I can get!” Actually, buying these big plants just means they’ll take longer to get over transplant shock. Instead buy plants that are about as wide as they are tall, with stems about the thickness of a pencil. If you shop late, and the big guys are all that is available, be sure to (gasp!) pinch off any flowers or fruit before planting so that the plant concentrates on getting its roots adapted and growing (and not on trying to grow that one little fruit).
4. Warm up your soil. Transplants will adapt and start growing more quickly if the soil they are planted in is warm. Gardeners do this by planting in raised beds, using black plastic (5 mil) mulch, using Wall o’ Waters, etc. It’s important to get the soil warmed *before* planting the transplants. So a week or two before planting, lay out your mulch and/or put up your Wall o’ Waters. (Wall o’ Waters are the green, water-filled, protective cones you may have seen for sale in garden centers.)
5. Exercise patience and don’t plant out your tomato plants before May 15. If you’re forgoing the protective Wall o’ Waters, it’s even better to wait until after Memorial Day for planting. Tomatoes thrive when night time temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees, and we rarely have that before late May to early June.
6. Plant your transplants in deep. When planting, you can bury your plants all the way up to their top set or two of leaves. The part of the plant that ends up below the soil will develop roots and give you a sturdier plant.
7. Support your plants. I don’t mean give them daily pep talks (though that certainly can’t hurt!), but give them some means of physical support. If using stakes, make sure they are at least 6 feet tall and buried 1 foot deep. With stakes, you’ll need to prune your plants down to one stem and be prepared to tie the vine to the stake as it grows. If using cages, forgo the wimpy little 3-foot-tall ringed cages for something sturdier. Tomatoes will very quickly outgrow the smaller cages. You can make your own cages with concrete reinforcement mesh. (A quick internet search on “make your own tomato cages” will give you a variety of informative sites to look at for instructions.)
8. Don’t overfertilize. Fertilizing will give you beautiful big plants with lots of green leaves. But you’ll be cheating yourself out of the fruit you want in exchange for all those leaves. A light fertilization after planting is okay. Then hold off until you see the first fruit for your next fertilization.
9. Don’t overwater. Tomatoes don’t like to be dry, but they don’t like to be waterlogged either. Deep soakings a few times a week are much better than watering every day. (Check to see the soil is dry 3 to 4 inches down – about the length of your index finger – before watering.) And avoid overhead watering. Water at the base of the plants with either a soaker hose or by hand with a watering can or hose.
10. Have fun and don’t give up! Any gardener will tell you that they’ve had good and bad tomato years (most of my “bad” years were thanks to hail when I wasn’t home to run out and cover my plants). If your first one doesn’t quite live up to your expectations, get yourself on the mailing list of some seed companies, become inspired when the catalogs start coming in December, and give it another go next year.
Contributed by Carey Harrington, Colorado Master Gardener. For answers to your horticultural questions, contact the Master Gardener Help Desk at 636.8921 or CSUmg2@elpasoco.com. Access fact sheets and seasonal information on the El Paso County Horticulture website http://elpasoco.colostate.edu/horticulture/.