The first crop that comes to mind when one thinks of starting a garden is tomatoes. Unfortunately, tomatoes are the most challenging crop to grow in central Texas. If you are adamant about having tomatoes in your garden, this post will guide you through it. I put together 18 tricks and tips I acquired through ten years of trial and error for growing tomatoes in the heat.
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#1 The right tomato for your area
It is crucial to make the right variety choice. Tomatoes that do well in Chicago or Oregon may not in Texas. Many factors play a role in this mainly, soil texture and chemical composition, rainfall, and pest problems. Each region has its own growing conditions that are suited to a specific variety.
Things to consider when choosing the tomato variety:
The size of the garden
In a big garden, you can grow any type of tomato, determinate or indeterminate. For small gardens or container gardens, it is best to consider determinate and dwarf varieties.
How hot does it get?
In warm climates like Texas, the summer heat is brutal. Tomatoes, and any other fruiting plants, go into a dormant phase and stop setting fruit. Indeterminate tomatoes resume production in early fall, while determinate tomatoes are most likely done for the season. Choosing more heat-tolerant varieties will increase the yield.
Choosing disease-resistant varieties will save you the hassle of dealing with sick plants. The best way to do so is by asking other experienced gardeners in the area. Their hands-on experience will be more valuable to you than any plant tag or book. Otherwise, keep on experimenting until you land on the right plant.
Date to maturity
For a home garden, choose a variety with shorter maturity days. This will give you enough time to harvest some tomatoes before the peak of the heat. Usually, these are medium to small size variety. If you must have that Beefsteak tomato, expect a long waiting time to harvest your first tomato.
Learn more about how to grow cherry tomatoes in this interesting article by Happy DIY Home.
Best tomatoes for central Texas
- Pink Berkeley Tie Die (determinate)
- Green Vernissage (indeterminate cherry)
- Orange Wellington (indeterminate)
- Cherokee Purple (indeterminate)
- Roma (determinate)
- Juliet (determinate)
- Abu Rawan (determinate)
- Subarctic (determinate)
- Sungold (indeterminate)
- Celebrity (semi-determinate)
- Early Girl (indeterminate)
- Arisan collection (indeterminate, grape)
# 2 Determinate vs Indeterminate
Based on their growth habit, tomatoes fall into two main types: Determinate and Indeterminate. Here is a comparative table to make the difference between the two.
|Bush-like (3’-5’ height)||Vine-like (keeps on growing if not trained)|
|Produces in one flush||Gradual production through the season|
|Do not remove suckers||You can remove the suckers|
|Needs basic support||Needs strong support|
|Suited for small gardens||Suited for big gardens|
|Mostly small to medium-size fruit||All fruit sizes|
Two more types of tomatoes have been developed to suit more growers.
Semi-determinate tomatoes grow up to 4 feet in height and produce all the way to the first frost.
Dwarf tomatoes are compact and produce small-size fruits. They are great for container gardening.
#3 The right time to start tomato seeds
For tomato enthusiasts, starting from seeds is the best way to get a head start on the season and grow unusual varieties.
Start tomato seeds eight weeks before the last frost date. For easy reference, start your tomato seeds during the winter break. That will give you plenty of time to establish strong transplants. To our advantage, tomato seeds germinate in four days to a week.
Check out my detailed post on how to start seeds.
#4 Potting up tomato seedlings
Do not allow your seedlings to become root-bound. That may stress them greatly and can hinder proper growth. If you got roots peeking through the drainage holes, that indicates time to pot up.
If you are a container gardener, you may consider planting them directly into their final container.
#5 Prepare the soil
Raised beds are a great option for home gardeners. It reduces the amount of work dealing with native soil. The key is to fill them with good quality soil. A mix of garden soil, compost, and sand is a great one.
#6 Full-sun for best production
All flowering plants need plenty of sunshine, and tomatoes are no exception. Always pick the sunniest spot in the garden for growing them. The minimum requirement for light is six hours, but eight hours is ideal. They may need some afternoon shade during the peak of the summer heat.
#7 The right time to plant them out
Tomatoes are tropical plants and can’t survive in cold temperatures. Make sure to plant them after all danger of frost has passed in your area. You may refer to your local county extension to check out the average first and last frost dates. However, keep in mind that the given dates are an estimate and vary from year to year.
The ideal temperature to plant tomatoes is nothing below 50F (10C). For them to set fruit, though, they need temperatures above 70F(21C).
#8 Space them right
Tomatoes are susceptible to different diseases and pests. Ensuring good air circulation is important to minimize problems.
Conventional spacing charts suggest planting tomatoes two to three feet apart. Square foot gardening, on the other hand, states that one square foot is enough for one tomato plant. For a home garden, planting tomatoes 16 to 18 inches apart seems to do the job.
Indeterminate tomatoes grow as vines and can be trained into a single stem. This allows for closer spacing without compromising air circulation. Determinate tomatoes are bushy and do not require pruning. For this reason, they need a bit more space to maintain good airflow.
#9 Plant tomatoes deep
It is common to plant tomatoes deep into the ground, burying two-thirds of the transplant’s stem. This practice allows new roots to develop, anchoring the mature plant better.
This Texas A&M article provides a great illustration, explaining how to plant deep. https://agrilifeextension.tamu.edu/browse/featured-solutions/gardening-landscaping/tomatoes/
#10 Provide support
No matter what type of tomatoes you chose to grow, both determinate and indeterminate need a support system. There are different methods used by gardeners around the globe. The following are the most commonly used in home gardens.
- 54″ galvanized wire tomato cages: Found in the big-bucks stores and used by many home gardeners. They are a good choice for beginners and those who grow determinate tomatoes. They might need extra anchoring, though, when the plant is loaded with fruits.
- Staking: It uses heavy-duty stakes inserted deep in the ground to support the plant. This method is suitable for single-stemmed tomato vines. Check out Gary from the Rusted Garden explaining this method in detail here.
- Florida weaving: This one is great for gardens where the plants are in rows. Metal T-posts are used at both ends of each row, then a heavy-duty twine is weaved through the plants. The weaving has to be in a criss-cross pattern to hold each plant straight-up. Click here to watch the MIGardener, Luke, explain it in depth.
- Upright string: This method is mostly used in greenhouses. The string is attached to the ceiling, then the plant is trained to grow around it. Here is a detailed article about it.
#11 Tomatoes can’t get thirsty
Regular watering is essential for growing healthy tomatoes from seedling to maturity.
At the seedling stage, it is best to water from the bottom of the pots. It helps develop a strong root system by allowing it to reach for water. It also prevents damping-off caused by high moisture in the soil and kills the young plants. You may want to check out the Seed Starting Basics to learn more about seedling care.
Once planted out, tomatoes do not appreciate sporadic watering. Deep and regular watering is very important to keep the plant healthy. It also prevents common issues, such as blossom-end rot, cracking, and low production.
Proper watering practices are also recommended to prevent soil-borne fungal diseases. Watering in the early mornings allows the soil to dry out during the day.
#12 Do not skip the fertilizer
Tomatoes are hungry plants from the get-go. No matter the growing method you use, organic or conventional, fertilizing is a must. For the seedlings, use a low concentration of liquid seaweed fertilizer once a week.
At planting time, sprinkle a slow-release granular fertilizer in the planting hole. It will keep the plant well-fed for the first two months. Then, an occasional foliar feed or side dressing is recommended through the growing period.
#13 To sucker or not to sucker?
Suckering is the pruning of tomato suckers. A sucker is a new growth that appears on the corner where the stem meets the leaf. If left to grow, it will become a plant.
Some gardeners think that pinching off the suckers is an unnecessary job. They prefer to keep them and let the plant do its thing. Others look at suckers as a competition that takes away energy from the main plant. This is why they prefer to remove them.
One important thing to remember is that suckering is only done to indeterminate tomatoes. Removing these lateral branches from a determinate tomato reduces production drastically.
#14 Tomato plant not setting fruit
Dropping tomato blossoms is not unusual. Some reasons that may cause blossom loss are:
- Constant rain.
- High temperatures.
- Sick or stressed plants.
If the plant is looking healthy and none of the above seems to be the cause, lack of pollination may be the problem. Here are some solutions to fix it:
- Plant more pollinator-friendly flowers, such as zinnias, marigold, sunflowers, and calendula. They will attract bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insects to your garden.
- Hand pollinate the flowers by either flickering the flowers or using an electric toothbrush. The vibrations will shake the pollen in the flower an move it to the stigma.
#15 Companion planting to deter insects
Gardeners have been using companion planting for generations. It is the concept of building a plant community where each will serve the other. Some plants are used as traps, deterring insects from the valuable plant. Others repel insects away from the area.
#16 Common tomato problems
A) Common Tomato Diseases
This is a devastating fungal disease that destroys tomato plants. It occurs when the weather is warm and humid. It appears as dark spots on the leaves and the stem. As an organic gardener, you are better off choosing blight-resistant varieties than looking for treatment.
This is another fungal disease that thrives in warm regions. It causes yellowing of the leaves on one side of the plant. You manage it by removing the infected parts of the plant and sterilizing your pruners. But, it is best to choose resistant varieties.
Blossom End Rot
It manifests as a dark spot at the base of the fruit. It is caused by calcium deficiency. In most cases, it is not due to the lack of calcium in the soil, rather the plant’s inability to absorb it adequately. This is generally caused by stress due to irregular watering.
B) Tomato Insects
These are very small insects, green or black in color. They gather at the tip of the new growth. They survive by sucking on the plant sap. To get rid of them, wash the plant every other day with a strong stream of water to break their cycle. You can also encourage the ladybug population in your garden.
Pencil-tip-size insects, red in color. They live under the leaf and suck on its sap until it turns yellow, dry, and crispy. Just like aphids, you may wash the plant regularly with a jet of water. Otherwise, you may spray neem oil solution on the leaves.
Armor-like insects, that multiply very quickly if not controlled. The most effective way to keep them under control is to catch them. Take a stroll in the morning with a jar of soapy water. Whenever you find them knock them into the jar and close it.
The tomato hornworm
is a green worm, that is bigger than common worms. It attacks the tomato plant and devours it. It took me ten years of gardening before meeting this monster. I was lucky to spot it early, and by handpicking each one of them I did not need to use any chemical. The first indicator of the tomato hornworm is its droppings on the leaves. Since it is a hungry and big caterpillar, its droppings are much bigger than any other caterpillar. Click here to read more about it.
# 17 Protect your harvest from predators?
After succeeding in having all those beautiful-looking tomatoes on the vine, another challenge seems to spoil the gardener’s happiness. Birds, squirrels, and other animals also have an interest in those juicy tomatoes.
There are a few tricks out there to deter rodents from the garden, such as garlic spray, hot pepper powder, and cinnamon. They all seem to work at first, but they don’t last long enough. Here are other solutions you may want to try:
- Harvest your tomatoes as soon as they reach their size. Do not wait for them to turn red on the vine. Keep them in a paper bag to ripen.
- Use strawberry containers to cover the fruits. Make sure to cover the exposed side to the sun with a paper towel to prevent scorching.
- Plant more sunflowers to provide a source of food for the squirrels and birds.
- Place several birdbaths around the yard to provide a source of water. Put some on the ground too, for crawling rodents.
- Place noisemakers like tin cans and hang them around in the garden. That will startle the predators each time they move the vine.
- Hang CDs and tinfoil pie plates. The reflection of the sun will scare away the birds. You can add a heavy nail to the plate to make it noisy.
#18 Fall tomatoes in central Texas
In Texas, we grow tomatoes in two rounds. The first one starts in spring through July. The second begins in July until the first frost.
Tomatoes will stop setting fruits once the temperatures reach 95F (35c) and above. To get a good fall harvest, Texas gardeners need to reboot their tomato season. There are two ways to do so:
- Cut back the indeterminate plants: Clean up the existing plants and cut them back by a third. This will promote new growth and give the plant a new start.
- Start over: Remove all the existing plants and start over. This method is very useful when your first round did not perform well. It is a second chance to try a different variety that might work better. This second planting is done around independence day.