The first crop to come to mind when 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
Choosing the right tomato variety is crucial to getting the desired outcome. Different plants need different growing conditions, and tomatoes are no exception. The following are things to consider when making your selection.
The size of the garden
When making your tomato selection, consider the size of the growing space. Tomatoes have different growing habits. The indeterminates grow continuously, so they need a lot of space. The determinates have limited growth and need some space but too much. There are also dwarf varieties. They need very little space and can grow in containers or garden towers.
How hot does it get?
The growing seasons are determined according to the extreme temperatures each region undergoes. Where winters get below-freezing temperatures, the seasons are: cold, cool, and warm. So, the varieties to consider should be cold tolerant. For regions where temperatures are over 100 in summer, the seasons are: cool, warm, and hot. In this case, the varieties should be heat-tolerant.
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. It 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 about growing 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 have two main categories: Determinate and Indeterminate. Check out the table below for easy comparison.
|Bush-like (3’-5’ height)
|Vine-like (keeps on growing if not trained)
|Produces all at once
|Gradual production through the season
|Should 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
To accommodate more growers, two more types of tomatoes have been developed.
- Semi-determinate tomatoes: They reach 4 feet in height with continuous production till the first frost.
- Dwarf tomatoes: They 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. It is also the way to grow unusual varieties.
Start tomato seeds eight weeks before the last frost date. For Texas gardeners, an easy reference is to start seeds during the winter break. The seedlings will have plenty of time to establish themselves.
Check out my detailed post on how to start seeds.
#4 Potting up tomato seedlings
Do not allow seedlings to become root-bound. That may stress them and hinder their proper growth. If the roots are peeking through the drainage holes, it is time to pot them up.
For container gardeners, consider planting them straight into their final container. They will need a five-gallon capacity container to throve.
#5 Prepare the soil
Raised garden beds are a great option for home gardeners to avoid dealing with tough native soil. The key, though, is to fill them with good quality soil mix. The latter should drain well while holding enough moisture. Amending soil with compost improves its physical texture and chemical composition.
#6 Full-sun for best production
All flowering plants need full sun for the best production. Always pick the sunniest spot in the garden to grow tomatoes and any fruiting vegetables. 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, so they can’t survive cold temperatures. Make sure to plant them after all danger of frost has passed. Refer to your local county extension to check out the average first and last frost dates. Yet, keep in mind that the given dates are an estimate. They could change from year to year.
The ideal temperature to plant tomatoes is above 50F (10C). For them to set fruit, though, they need temperatures above 70F(21C) and below 90F(32C).
#8 Space them right
Tomatoes are susceptible to diseases and pests. Applying proper spacing provides good air circulation, thus minimizing problems.
Conventional spacing charts suggest planting tomatoes two to three feet apart. On the other hand, the square-foot gardening chart states that 12 inches apart is enough. As a middle ground, planting at 16 to 18 inches should do the job for home gardeners.
Always consider the plant’s final size and growth habits. Training vining tomatoes into a single stem allows closer spacing. Also, the ability to remove the suckers increases air circulation. Determinate tomatoes have a bushier growth and do not need pruning. For this reason, they need a bit more space to maintain good airflow.
#9 Plant tomatoes deep
Plant tomatoes deep into the ground, burying two-thirds of the transplant’s stem. This practice allows adventitious roots to develop, providing a better anchoring system.
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
Whatever the type of tomatoes you choose, they all need support except the dwarf tomato. Different gardeners use different methods around the globe. Here are some common ones.
- 54″ galvanized wire tomato cages: Found in the big-bucks stores and used by many home gardeners. They are a good choice for beginners. They work well to support determinate tomatoes. Yet, they might need extra anchoring when the plant is full of fruits.
- Staking: It uses heavy-duty stakes inserted deep in the ground. Then the plant is tied to it with strings. This method works well with single-stemmed tomatoes. Gary from the Rusted Garden explains this method in detail here.
- Florida weaving: This one suits the row planting method. Metal T-posts are used at both ends of the row. Then a heavy-duty twine is weaved, in a criss-cross pattern, to hold each plant straight-up. Click here to watch Luke explain it in depth.
- Upright string: This method is great for greenhouses. The string is attached to the ceiling. Then the plant is trained to grow around it. Check out this article for more details.
#11 Tomatoes can’t get thirsty
At the seedling stage, it is best to water from the bottom of the pots. It forces the root system to reach for water, making it stronger. It also prevents fungal diseases from developing and killing the seedlings.
Check out the Seed Starting Basics to learn more about seedling care.
Tomatoes do not appreciate sporadic watering. Regular watering maintains the plants’ overall health. It prevents common issues, such as blossom-end rot, cracking, and low production.
Proper watering practices also prevent soil-borne fungal diseases. Watering in the mornings is better than evenings. It allows excess moisture to evaporate. Avoid overhead watering to keep the leaves dry.
#12 Do not skip the fertilizer
Tomatoes are hungry plants from seed to production. No matter the growing method, organic or conventional, fertilizing is a must.
However, avoid overfertilizing the seedlings. Following the directions on the bottle, only use a quarter of the dosage. At this stage, the plants are weak, and overfeeding may kill them.
At planting time, sprinkle a slow-release granular fertilizer in the planting hole. It will provide the plants with a steady dose of feed for the first month. Then a regular liquid feed 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.
Remember that suckering is only done to indeterminate tomatoes. Removing these lateral branches from a determinate tomato reduces production drastically.
#14 Reasons why tomato plants are not setting fruit
Dropping tomato blossoms is not unusual. Here are potential reasons that cause it.
- Constant rain
- High temperatures
- Sick or stressed plants
If the plant is looking, otherwise, healthy, then lack of pollination may be the problem. The following are some solutions.
- Plant pollinator-friendly flowers, such as zinnias, marigolds, sunflowers, and calendula. They will attract beneficial insects to your garden and increase pollination.
- Hand-pollinate the flowers by flickering or by using an electric toothbrush. The vibrations will shake the pollen and 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 serves the other. Some plants are as traps to deter pests from the valuable plant, and others repel insects away from the area.
#16 Common tomato problems
A) Common Tomato Diseases
It is a devastating fungal disease that destroys tomato plants. It occurs under warm and humid conditions. Dark spots show up on the leaves and along the stem. Then they spread, turning the whole plant black. Organic gardeners are better off choosing resistant varieties.
It is another fungal disease that thrives under warm conditions. It causes yellowing of the leaves. Removing the infected parts slows down its spread. But, it is best to choose resistant varieties.
Blossom End Rot
It is a dark spot that appears at the base of the fruit. It is a sign of calcium deficiency but not in the soil. The plant is not able to absorb enough of it due to stress. Irregular watering is most likely the problem. Keep the soil moist at all times to maintain good absorption.
B) Tomato Insects
They are small insects, white, green, or black. They congregate at the new growth, sucking on the sap. To get rid of them, wash with a strong jet of water every other day. It will dislodge them and break their reproduction cycle. Also, encourage the ladybug population in your garden.
They are pencil-tip-size insects. Red in color. They live on the underside of the leaf and suck on the sap until it turns yellow, dry, and crispy. Wash the plant regularly with a jet of water to discourage reproduction. Otherwise, spray a neem oil solution on the leaves every two days. It will dry them up and keep them under control.
These are armor-like insects that multiply very quickly if not controlled. The most effective way to keep them under control is to catch them. Fill a jar with soapy water, and every time you find one, knock it down into the jar. The best time to do this is early in the morning when they are the least active.
The tomato hornworm
It is a green worm that is bigger than common worms. It attacks the tomato plant and devours it in no time. Early detection is the best way to save your plants. Droppings on the leaves are the main sign. Handpick them and relocate them to another place in the garden. They are beneficial insects just not in the vegetable garden. The first indicator of the tomato hornworm is its droppings on the leaves. Click here to read more about it.
# 17 Protect your harvest from predators?
Birds and rodents also have an eye on those juicy tomatoes you’ve got hanging on the vine.
The most popular homemade solutions are garlic spray, hot pepper, and cinnamon powder. Rodents have a strong sense of smell, and these ingredients are potent enough to deter them.Yet, this is not a permanent solution and does not work on birds.
The following is a list of a few ideas that may work for you like did for me.
- Harvest tomatoes as soon as they reach their size, but before turning color. They will continue ripening off the vine.
- Use strawberry containers to cover the fruits. Cover the exposed side to the sun with a paper towel to prevent scorching.
- Plant more sunflowers to provide a source of food for squirrels and birds.
- Place several birdbaths around the yard to provide a source of water. Put some on the ground for crawling rodents.
- Place noisemakers like tin cans or wind chimes. Hang them around in the garden. The noise will startle the predators.
- 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.
Check out this post for detailed instructions on how to implement these ideas in the garden.
#18 Fall tomatoes in central Texas
In Texas, tomatoes grow in two rounds. The first one starts in spring through July. The second begins in July until the first frost.
Tomatoes stop setting fruits once temperatures reach 90F (32c) and above. To get a good fall harvest, Texas gardeners reboot their tomato season by doing one of the following:
- Cut back the indeterminate plants: Clean up spring-planted tomatoes by removing dead foliage. Then cut them back to a third. New growth will come up from the bottom, giving the plant a new life.
- Start over: Around independence day, plant new tomato plants to replace the old ones. By early fall, the plants will begin blooming and set fruit.