Growing Tomatoes: How To Plant, Maintain, And Harvest

Growing Tomatoes: The cultivation of high-yield tomatoes holds significant economic importance for farmers worldwide, albeit it presents numerous challenges. Pest infestations and diseases can greatly diminish crop yields, consequently raising production costs per acre. To address these challenges in tomato cultivation, farmers must adopt cost-effective strategies, closely monitor crop growth, and gather dependable data to forecast adverse weather conditions, disease outbreaks, and other factors. Successful tomato farming necessitates skilled labor and continuous access to current insights on various crop-related matters, ranging from soil quality and irrigation to disease control and harvest timing.

Tomatoes

Classifications Of Tomato Plant Varieties

To start narrowing down your choices for tomato varieties to grow, you’ll need to decide between determinate or indeterminate types.

Determinate varieties, also known as bush varieties, typically grow to a height of 2 to 3 feet (60 to 90 cm). Generally, they produce a large quantity of ripe fruits all at once. Their fruiting cycle and post-fruiting leaf development stage are relatively short, with peak production occurring early in the growing season. When cultivating determinate tomatoes, avoid caging or staking them.

Indeterminate varieties, or vining varieties, produce large slicing fruits throughout the mid and late seasons, from early July until frost. They maintain a consistent rate of fruit production because their leaves continue to expand throughout the growing season, making them ideal for commercial tomato production. Indeterminate plants require staking for proper growth.

Another classification of tomato varieties is based on their days to harvest. Here’s a breakdown of these three groups.

Groups of tomato varieties based on their time to harvest

Variety Days to harvest
Early Less than 70
Mid-season 70 to 80
Late-season More than 80

When selecting tomato varieties to cultivate, it’s crucial to evaluate whether the growing conditions of the field align with the requirements of the chosen variety.

Growing Conditions For Tomatoes

Growing Conditions For Tomatoes

Farmers must find the ideal growing conditions that fulfill all the needs of tomato plants. Ensure that the plants receive ample sunlight, consistent warmth, adequate watering, and fertile soil.

Sunlight And Temperature

Tomatoes thrive in warm, sunny conditions. They require full sun exposure for at least 8 hours a day to grow healthy crops. Additionally, they prefer temperatures between 71 and 84°F (22 and 29°C) for optimal growth. While tomatoes can tolerate cooler weather, it may hinder their development, and exposure to frost can lead to the demise of unprotected plants.

To produce top-quality crops, it’s essential to maintain somewhat consistent low and high temperatures. Growing in climates with significant temperature fluctuations often results in lower fruit quality or reduced harvest yields.

When to grow tomatoes

In many regions around the world, the tomato growing season typically begins towards the end of spring or the onset of summer. Late winter through spring, which includes the time for starting seeds indoors, constitutes the optimal planting season in moderate and cooler climates.

Humidity

The optimal relative humidity for tomato cultivation falls between 65 and 85%. Elevated humidity levels are associated with the proliferation of foliar diseases and uneven ripening characterized by blotches. Moreover, higher humidity impedes pollen release and distribution, while lower humidity leads to dried pollen, potentially resulting in undersized, misshapen, or hollow fruit.

Water

Tomato plants typically require 1 to 2 inches (2.5 to 5mm) of water per week to thrive and produce effectively. Factors such as temperature and plant density affect the rate of evapotranspiration, thus influencing the water needs of the crop.

Plants cultivated in sandy soil fields may require more frequent watering compared to those in clay soil fields due to the former’s faster drainage. Nevertheless, tomato plants possess extensive root systems that can penetrate depths of up to 5 feet (1.5 m) in deep soils. As tomatoes mature, their root systems expand, enabling them to access water from deeper layers of the soil, thereby reducing their vulnerability to drought.

Soil

Tomatoes cultivated in field conditions flourish in various soil types, except for heavy clay soil. Like many other vegetables, they thrive in sandy loam soil, which provides good drainage and maintains a pH level of 6.2 to 6.8. Ideal soil for tomato cultivation should be rich in phosphorus (P), potassium (K), calcium (Ca), and magnesium (Mg). The minimum soil temperature required for growth is 57°F (14°C), with the optimum range falling between 65 and 70°F (18 and 21°C).

When And How To Plant Tomatoes

In many countries, seedlings for commercial tomato cultivation are typically planted during the middle to late stages of spring. However, in regions with warmer-than-average temperatures, tomato planting may commence earlier in the year. Conversely, growers in northern regions often transplant their seedlings in early summer. Before planting, farmers must undertake several tasks, including soil preparation and preparing the seedlings.

Preparing The Soil

Soil preparation for tomato cultivation should ideally begin a couple of weeks before transplanting seedlings. This involves plowing the soil to a depth of 23.6 inches (60 cm) after removing weeds and crop residue to enhance drainage and soil aeration.

About a week later, farmers commonly apply pre-planting fertilizers such as aged manure or synthetic fertilizers. While spreading the fertilizer across the rows might be more cost-effective, applying it across the entire field may have a more beneficial impact on tomato plant growth. Just before planting, till the soil to a depth of 12 to 18 inches (30 to 45 cm) to promote the development of a stronger root system.

Another essential step before planting tomatoes is soil solarization, particularly in regions where the soil remains cold during the planting season. This method helps maintain the root zone at an optimal temperature of around 70°F (21°C) and prevents weed growth. Some farmers choose to cover their rows with green or black infrared-transmitting (IRT) polyethylene, while others opt for standard 1–1.25 mil black plastic.

watering tomatoes

 

Preparing The Seedlings

Farmers can gain an advantage by purchasing and planting pre-grown tomato transplants. However, if you prefer to grow your plants from seeds, providing you more control over the transplanted material, there are several factors to consider.

It takes approximately 5–7 weeks for high-quality transplants to grow. Maintaining nighttime temperatures above 60°F (15°C) encourages rapid development. These transplants typically reach an average height of 8 inches (20 cm) and possess about 3–5 true leaves. It’s important to note that seedlings are not ready for transplanting until they have developed several true leaves.

Typically, seedlings need to undergo “hardening” (i.e., artificially inducing stress) to prepare them for transplanting. This process, which may involve exposing the seedlings outdoors for a controlled period or employing other techniques, helps the tomato plants adapt to an outdoor growing environment. To mimic water stress, most farmers gradually reduce watering for their crops. Usually, they cease watering the plants 13–15 hours before the transplanting process begins and resume watering once it is completed.

Planting Tomatoes

Once all the necessary preliminary tasks are completed, it’s time to proceed with planting tomatoes. Farm workers either mark the plastic film or the ground to designate the locations for the seedlings. Subsequently, they prepare holes and place the seedlings inside.

The recommended planting distance for tomatoes is 18 to 24 inches (45 to 61 cm) between plants and 48 to 72 inches (122 to 183 cm) between rows. It’s important to note that indeterminate plants tend to grow larger, so it’s advisable to provide them with more space. Adequate spacing between tomato plants reduces the risk of disease spread, allowing each plant to receive ample light and air.

For optimal tomato growth, it’s recommended to plant them at a depth of 3–4 inches (8–10 cm). Planting tomatoes at a depth equal to or slightly deeper than their cotyledons promotes faster growth, maturation, and fruit production.

tomatoes plants care

How To Care For Tomatoes

Tomatoes are a sensitive crop, and a successful harvest hinges on the farmer’s attentive care throughout the growing season. Ensuring adequate water supply, enriching the soil, and effectively managing diseases and pests are all essential steps in successful tomato cultivation.

Watering

Proper irrigation is crucial for ensuring healthy growth and maximizing yields when cultivating tomatoes on a large scale. Insufficient watering can result in curled and yellowing leaves, especially during the hot summer months when plants experience heat stress due to inadequate rainfall.

Keep these two principles in mind for effective tomato plant irrigation:

1. Direct irrigation towards the base of the plant, avoiding wetting the leaves and stems. Wet foliage creates an ideal environment for bacteria and fungi, leading to fruit rot. By focusing water supply on the root zone, this issue can be minimized. Drip irrigation systems are recommended as they deliver water directly to the soil without runoff, promoting efficient water usage.

2. Ensure deep soil saturation, reaching at least 10 inches (25 cm) below the surface. Watering the soil deeply encourages deeper root growth, allowing plants to establish themselves more effectively and withstand drought conditions more resiliently.

Tomato farmers can leverage the Soil Moisture feature in EOSDA Crop Monitoring to monitor moisture levels in both the root and surface zones. This information, combined with accurate weather forecasts, enables farmers to adjust their irrigation practices accordingly, ensuring optimal moisture levels for their tomato crops and maximizing yields.

Weed Management

Weeds present a considerable challenge to newly transplanted plants during their initial month of growth in the field. Cultivating healthy tomato crops necessitates a comprehensive strategy known as integrated weed management, incorporating practices such as proper crop rotation, cultivation, sanitation, watering, and judicious herbicide application. However, it’s crucial to exercise caution when using herbicides, as inadvertent exposure can permanently damage plant leaves. Therefore, take care to avoid accidentally spraying herbicides on crops.

Fertilizing

Tomato plants have diverse nutrient requirements essential for robust growth. They require macronutrients like nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K), as well as micronutrients such as zinc (Zn), copper (Cu), iron (Fe), and sulfur (S). Slow growth may indicate nitrogen deficiency, while phosphorus deficiency can manifest as a bluish-green tint on the leaves and stunted plant development. However, excessive macronutrient levels, particularly nitrogen, can lead to fertilizer burn, characterized by yellowing or browning of the plant’s leaves.

Even before tomato planting, farmers can utilize the Zoning tool in EOSDA Crop Monitoring to evaluate field productivity. This tool employs an algorithm that categorizes areas based on their typical NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) values derived from satellite imagery of previous years. Low NDVI values indicate low-productivity zones, which may require additional fertilizer for optimal tomato cultivation, whereas high NDVI values are associated with high-productivity zones.

Identifying low-productivity zones in the field offers two cost-saving benefits:

1. Soil testing: Instead of conducting soil sampling across the entire field, focus on low-productivity areas.
2. Precise fertilization: Before planting and periodically during crop growth, amend the soil with deficient nutrients only in the areas where needed, thereby maximizing yields.

Mulching

To maintain adequate soil moisture for plant growth, apply a 2-inch (5-cm) layer of organic mulch over the plant root zone. Effective mulch options for growing tomatoes include shredded bark or grass clippings. Mulch acts as an insulator, stabilizing soil temperatures and preventing excessive fluctuations. Additionally, it reduces water loss through evaporation and suppresses weed growth.

Pruning

If you aim to prioritize fruit growth over foliage, pruning your plants is essential. Removing suckers, low-hanging branches, and wilted leaves can lead to larger fruit, improved airflow, and reduced susceptibility to diseases.

The best time to begin pruning your tomato plants is when you first notice the flowers opening, typically in June or July. Light pruning should be conducted every one to two weeks until the end of the growing season to avoid stressing the plants by removing excessive foliage at once. Here are some guidelines for pruning tomato plants:

1. Identify the suckers growing in the “V” formed by the plant’s branches and stem.
2. Use clean pruners to carefully trim the suckers, and disinfect them before moving on to the next plant to prevent the spread of diseases.
3. Remove or stake any low-hanging branches to prevent disease spread throughout the plant.

tomato to grow

Pest And Disease Management

The prevalence of diseases in tomato plants presents a significant challenge to increasing productivity in commercial cultivation. Over two hundred pathogenic fungi, bacteria, viruses, and nematodes have the potential to infect growing plants, spreading rapidly under favorable conditions.

Some of the most severe tomato crop diseases include wilts and blights (such as Fusarium wilt and southern blight), foliar diseases (including early blight, Septoria leaf spot, gray leaf spot, and late blight), as well as fruit and soil rots (such as anthracnose, buckeye rot, Pythium rot, and Rhizoctonia soil rot). Late blight is particularly detrimental, often resulting in economic losses ranging from 20 to 70%.

Pests also pose significant threats during various stages of tomato growth. Early-stage damage can be caused by pests like hornworms, flea beetles, cabbage loopers, aphids, and cutworms. Later in the growing season, insects such as stink bugs and tomato fruitworms can feed on the fruit, causing considerable harm. The tomato fruitworm, in particular, is economically significant due to its high damage potential and broad host range.

To monitor tomato plant diseases and pest infestations in fields, utilize the Scouting feature in EOSDA Crop Monitoring. This feature enables managers to dispatch scouts to different areas of the field based on vegetation condition and density, promptly receiving on-site photos and reports. The Scouting app’s offline mode is especially convenient for scouts working in remote locations with limited or no network connectivity.

The new Disease Risk feature in EOSDA Crop Monitoring enhances crop health and yields by enabling early detection of potential health issues in your crops. This allows you to take timely preventative measures. For further information,

How Long Does It Take For Tomatoes To Grow?

The time it takes for tomatoes to grow and ripen varies depending on the variety. Smaller determinate varieties mature more quickly compared to larger ones like beefsteak and many heirloom varieties. Typically, tomatoes are ready to harvest between 60 and 100 days after transplanting seedlings and 100 and 120 days after planting seeds. However, some early cultivars can be harvested in as little as 50 days after transplantation.

When And How To Harvest Tomatoes

The optimal time for harvesting tomatoes varies depending on the growing region. In regions with unique climates, such as parts of California and the Pacific Northwest, the earliest fruits ripen in late spring and continue through the summer. The Mid-Atlantic region sees ideal harvesting conditions from late spring to early summer. In the Northeast and Midwest, tomatoes begin ripening in July and persist until the first fall frost. However, in the South and Southwest, heatwaves typically halt tomato harvesting around early June.

The method of harvesting tomatoes should be chosen based on the intended use of the fruits. Traditional manual harvesting is suitable for direct consumption or producing whole canned tomatoes, while mechanical harvesting is preferred for producing sauces and concentrates. Mechanized harvesting involves self-propelled machines designed to clear-cut plants and sort harvested fruits from plant residues.

For those aiming for high yields, successful commercial tomato cultivation requires thorough planning and precise execution. Ensuring profitability and sustainability in farming businesses involves selecting appropriate varieties, maintaining soil health and fertility, implementing effective pest and disease control measures, and adhering to best practices throughout the production cycle.

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