Tomato Plant Care

Tomato plant care is mostly about watering. If you've done a good job of that you're well on your way to a successful tomato harvest. But you'll also need the facts about fertilizing, mulching, and staking. All these facets and others about caring for tomatoes are the focus of this article.

Protecting Plants from Frost

You may have planted your tomatoes early to get the earliest possible harvest and the last frost date has passed. But if the nights are still cool and you've set your plants out too early without protection your tomato plants will simply refuse to set fruit.

Cold nights are the primary cause of blossom drop, where the plant produces flowers, but the cold temperatures prevent pollination before the flowers drop off the vine. So if the nighttime temperature is dropping below 45˚F (7˚C), use one of the many frost protection techniques like cold frames and Wall O Water's.

Watering Tomatoes

Watering tomatoes is such an important subject in tomato plant care that I've made it one of the "secrets" in my article Five Important Tomato Growing Tips.  Two common problems, cracking of the skin, and blossom-end rot, are caused by inconsistent watering.  Ensure your site has good drainage, then:

  • Water the base of the plant, not the leaves.
  • Water deeply, to six inches.
  • Don't let the soil completely dry out; try to maintain consistent moisture.
  • Start with 1-inch of water per week, and adjust.

Fertilizing Tomatoes

Soil for tomatoes rich in organic matter from additions of compost may be enough for a rich harvest, even using no fertilizer. But, soil conditions are rarely ideal, so you'll probably need to start a feeding program.  In the long run it's better to use organic fertilizers such as animal manures or composted leaves because overuse of inorganic chemical fertilizers can actually be a detriment to the soil when used over a long period.

If you want the to use conventional chemical fertilizers, then use a 5-10-5 (nitrogen-phosphate-potash) fertilizer, also called vegetable fertilizer.  Pre-fertilize the soil before setting out plants then begin a regular feeding program of once or twice a month after the first fruits appear.   Be careful to use tomato fertilizer though; the wrong fertilizer too high in nitrogen will produce luxurious  green foliage but few fruits.

Mulching tomato plants

Once warm weather has arrived, spread 3- to 4-inches of organic mulch around your tomato plants. Good organic mulches include dry grass clippings, straw, chopped leaves, and wood chips. Before adding make sure plant materials have never been treated with herbicides like weed killer or other chemicals. Mulching is an often neglected part of tomato plant care that can make your gardening easier.

Benefits of mulching include:

  • Weed suppression
  • Help in retaining soil moisture
  • Reduction of soil temperature
  • Addition of nutrients to the soil
  • Control of soil erosion

Pruning tomatoes

Pruning tomato plants isn't a requirement, but there are valid reasons for pruning tomatoes. I do it because I grow my tomatoes vertically in a small space. Pruning the vines to one or two main stems does reduce the overall fruit yield, but it makes the vines much easier to stake, and actually speeds up fruit production slightly.

Supporting tomatoes with stakes and cages

Did you know commercial growers usually allow their tomato crops to sprawl naturally on the ground? But the reasons most home gardeners stake or cage tomatoes as a part of tomato plant care are:

  • Fruits remain cleaner and spot free
  • Staked tomatoes have less slug damage
  • Fruits are easier to find and pick with less bending over
  • More tomato plants can be grown in a smaller space

If you decide to use tomato stakes, they can be inserted into the ground at any time a few inches from the plant. Tomato cages, however, must be set around the plant early before the branches get too long and inflexible.

When tying branches, be careful to tie them to the supports using soft ties like twine or cloth strips. Tie one end tightly to the stake. Then loop the tie loosely around the main stem of the plant using a square knot. Just don't tie up flower clusters too closely to the supports so fruits don't get injured or too crowded.


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