How to Grow Tomatoes Organically – for Beginners
1. Prepare garden bed or container.
Pick a spot with a minimum of 5 hours of sun. More is better. Work up soil, add some compost or rotten manure. Tomatoes are hungry beasts. Add a handful of crushed eggshells or 1/4 cup diatomaceous earth to planting area. This adds calcium to help prevent blossom end rot (but will not eliminate it). If you have room in your garden, practice crop rotation and don’t grow tomatoes and related plants (peppers, eggplant, potatoes, tomatillos, ground cherries, etc) in the same ground for two years in a row.
2. Buy or grow healthy tomato plants.
Avoid big plants in tiny pots, and long, leggy plants. They are probably root bound (too many roots in not enough space). This causes stress to the plant. Determinate tomato varieties will grow to a certain size and stop, and tend to ripen all their fruit around the same time. Indeterminate varieties (most heirlooms) will keep growing until frost and ripen fruits over a longer time period.
3. Plant deep after risk of frost is past.
Tomatoes will not tolerate frost (it will kill them), so don’t rush to get them in the ground. Dig a deep planting hole or a trench. Loosen any tangled roots as you gently remove the seedling from its pot. Either plant the tomato deep into the ground, or lay it into a trench so that only 3-4 inches of the tomato plant is visible above ground. The tomato will send out new roots from the buried plant, and less plant above ground will make it less prone to wind damage. I tell the boys to start digging to China when we get planting. If there are leaves that will be buried, you can nip them off with a scissors or garden clippers if you like – never rip or tear.
4. Add supports (or don’t).
Put up a trellis or tomato cage to support plants as they grow when you first plant your tomatoes, to avoid root damage later on. Make sure whatever you use is well secured. High winds can destroy a tomato patch. Trellising will generally improve light exposure and air circulation, yielding healthier tomatoes.
If you don’t want to bother trellising, just let your tomatoes sprawl on the ground. They will still grow. The patch will just be messier. Mouse and slug damage will also be more likely, and the tomatoes may get a little dirtier. I like trellises, I have two close friends who usually don’t bother with them. One of these friends grows several hundred pounds of tomatoes per year.
We have strong winds here, and I’ve always found tomato cages make it hard for me to access the fruit. My preferred option is three 4 foot stakes per tomato plant, plus an overhead trellis.