I recommend starting tomatoes from plants purchased from your local garden store. While you can start tomatoes from seeds, unless you have a good grow light system set up or a greenhouse, you’ll get pretty wimpy looking seedlings. You’ll get tomatoes from store plants faster than from plants grown from seeds anyway (when planted at the same time). And then transferring your home-raised seedlings into full sun without burning the leaves can be challenging. However, if you are up for the challenge, then by all means, start from seeds. But if my tomato plants are healthier and taller (and producing tomatoes faster) than yours this spring, you’ll know why. 🙂
Picking the Variety of Tomato to Plant
There are so many choices when it comes to planting tomatoes. You should ask yourself how you like to eat them – on a sandwich, in a salad, or just sliced up with some feta and fresh basil (my favorite way for home grown tomatoes!). Then select the varieties that will best suit you. I usually plant a mixture of varieties just to see which ones taste the best and produce the most. I always like to have a cherry tomato or two and one year I planted grape tomatoes (they are very prolific, but very tiny. Great for eating straight off the plant). I almost always avoid heirloom tomatoes because they seem to be more susceptible to diseases and pests, at least in our area.
Protecting Tomatoes from Late Frosts
Generally we start planting in mid-March here in the South. But this year, we had a couple of late frosts. So the first set of tomatoes that I planted got frost-bitten except for those that I had in Kozy Coats. For those that froze, a couple of them are resprouting from the base of the plant. I left those in the ground. I replaced the others this weekend. I highly recommend the Kozy Coats for planting tomatoes early and protecting them from frost. So far, they have worked great! I am going to try to plant even earlier next year using these. Read more about them.
Providing the Right Soil
Mississippi native soil generally has too much clay to plant tomatoes directly into. I planted mine in raised beds filled with a mixture of garden soil, composted manure, and with a little native soil mixed in. I usually mix pellet fertilizer into the soil before planting the seedlings. I also put around a teaspoon of Epsom salts in the bottom of the holes for each plant. When planting your seedlings, plant them in a hole that is just a bit deeper than the pot that they came in. This helps them to grow a little bit of a sturdier stem as they get used to their new surroundings.
Choosing a Location
Tomatoes need a lot of sun, so be sure you get 6 to 8 hours of full sun. In the south, this also means that they will need to get plenty of water. I recommend either planting your tomatoes in a self-watering container or setting up a watering system. Otherwise you will be standing around with a hose a lot.
Tomatoes are heavy causing the plants to bend and sometimes break. It’s important to plan ahead and provide some sort of support for your plants. I have used several types of structures from the circular tomato cages to the foldable triangle tomato cages to a new tomato ladder system. While the foldable tomato cages are nice for storing in the winter, they are hard to hook together and are pretty flimsy. Traditional circular tomato cages are sturdier, but take up a lot of storage space. I have three of the new tomato ladders for this year. They are really sturdy and will stack pretty well to store. With whatever type of tomato cage or ladder that you select, you will need to check the plants as they grow to place errant branches back into the support structure.
As I said, I prefer to mix in some pellet fertilizer into the soil when I plant the tomatoes. However, you can use liquid fertilizer throughout the season in lieu of this. If you mix in really good compost in the soil each year, you may not need to add additional fertilizer or epsom salts.
Protecting from Birds and Squirrels
Ok, we honestly have to discuss this. In Mississippi, when the weather gets really hot and dry, I notice that birds and squirrels seeking a source of water are more likely to pick and eat (or at least take a bit out of) green and ripe tomatoes. It’s hard to keep your tomatoes protected, but placing bird netting over your plants can help. You might also try putting out some bird baths or other sources of water to help. As far as protecting your crop from deer – short of a full-blown fence, I don’t know of anything that really works.
Now that you’ve done all the work – pick your ripe tomatoes and enjoy! There is no comparison between home-grown and store-bought tomatoes, so enjoy the flavor. My favorite way to eat them is sliced up and sprinkled with a little red wine vinegar, with fresh basil leaves and feta, sprinkled with a little pepper. Yum!