Raised Bed Garden Tips for Growing Tomatoes

2017-04-23 10.21.45Tomatoes are the popular, cool kid of the vegetable world. According to the National Gardening Association, 86% of home gardeners in the United States grow some variety of tomatoes. I mean… like… seriously everybody wants tomatoes in their garden.

Since you’re statistically likely to want a tomato plant or two in your garden, let’s talk about how to get tomatoes started in your raised bed vegetable garden.

Here is a quick bullet point summary of the below article:

  • Be sure to plant tomatoes with beneficial Companion Plants and keep them away from inhibiting Enemy Plants
  • Place tomato plants in a position to receive full-sun, 6+ hours per day
  • Always give tomatoes at least 2 feet of space, even in a raised bed garden
  • Plant tomatoes in nutrient-rich soil to make plant care easier throughout the growing season.
  • Stake or cage tomato plants while young.
  • Keep the soil around tomato plants evenly moist, but not wet. Overly dry soil conditions can cause disease or poor quality tomatoes.
  • Do not prune your tomato plants unless you have poor soil, space considerations or you’re trying to grow the world’s largest tomato.
  • Harvest tomatoes when they are evenly red. Nearly ripe tomatoes can be ripened on a warm window sill.

Tomato Layout, Placement and Spacing

Firstly, you have to know that tomatoes really are like the cool kid. They have lots of BFF’s and they also dislike a fair amount of nerds that they simply won’t sit by at lunch. In other words, tomatoes have a lot of companion plants that serve to protect and enhance the flavor of their harvest but they also have a long list of enemies that will inhibit growth or will more likely bring about pests and disease.

So, as you plan your raised bed garden design keep the following layout, placement and spacing considerations in mind.

Tomato Companion Plants

Asparagus Repels asparagus beetle
Basil Enhances tomato flavor, repels flies
Beans
Bee Balm
Borage Enhances tomato flavor, deters tomato hornworm
Cabbage
Calendula Edible flower that repels most tomato pests, particularly nematodes
Carrots Exception: During peak harvest tomatoes inhibit carrot growth
Celery
Chives
Cucumber
Garlic Repels red spider mites from garlic
Gooseberries Repels insects from gooseberries
Marigold Edible flower that repels whitefly, nematodes and tomato horn worm
Mint
Mustard
Nasturtium
Onion
Parsley
Peppers
Radishes
Rosemary
Roses Crushed tomato leaves repel pests from roses
Sage
Spinach
Thyme

Tomato Enemy Plants

Be sure to keep the tomato plants away from their enemies. These plants work against each other either by taking each other’s nutrients, attracting the same pests or inhibiting one another’s growth.

Apricot Inhibits apricot growth
Brussels Sprouts
Cabbage
Cauliflower
Carrots Avoid planting carrots during peak growing season. Tomatoes inhibit carrot growth
Corn Both plants attract the same pests
Dill Inhibits tomato plant growth
Fennel Inhibits tomato plant growth
Kale
Kohlrabi Inhibits tomato plant growth
Potatoes Both plants attract the same pests, tomatoes bring about potato blight
Tobacco Dried or fresh causes tomato to be susceptible to disease
Walnuts

Tomato Plant Placement

When planning your vegetable garden layout be sure to place your tomato plants so that they receive full-sun or at least 6 or more hours of sun. In the south where the summers are especially hot and dry, you may choose a spot that will provide some afternoon shade to avoid burning your tomato plants or causing uneven soil moisture. In cooler climates, though you’ll want to ensure that your tomato has the sunniest spot in the garden for a bountiful harvest!

Tomato Spacing

Finally, space tomato plants so that they have their own two square-foot space. Yes, even in your raised bed garden. Raised bed gardening makes it easy to keep soil moist and your plants thriving but its not magic. Tomatoes need their space no matter what kind of garden you’ve planted them in.

2017-04-09 12.30.34
My two tomato plants in a 2×4′ raised bed garden early in the season.

I’ve looked at square-foot garden plans and I completely disagree with the idea that you can plant one tomato plant for one square-foot of garden space. Your tomato plant needs every bit of two square feet to thrive. Besides, what if your plants are like mine and they thrive well beyond your expectations! You’d have to move or sacrifice its neighboring plants, reducing your harvest or variety of vegetables that year. Make things easy on yourself and ensure your own success – do not overcrowd your tomatoes.

Tomatoes send all of their water and nutrients to a large number of water-based fruit and if you crowd your tomatoes, you’re going struggle to keep the soil evenly moist in the hottest months of the year. Inconsistent moisture will bring on disease and crappy looking, busted tomatoes.

Heck they are the most popular home-grown garden vegetable in the Unites States of America! Give those ‘maters the respect and space that they deserve, folks.

Tomato Planting

I recommend taking the time and effort to improve your soil before planting your tomatoes.  If you start with well-prepared, nutrient rich soil you’ll have an easy time raising your tomato plants. If a tomato plant, or any plant for that matter, has everything it needs in the soil it is more able to defend itself against pests, disease and drought.

I took the oldest compost soil from the back of my compost pile, sifted out the dark dirt and planted those tomatoes right in it. Its still early in the growing season but they are effortlessly thriving. I’ll only need to add a few bits of mulch and compost throughout the season to supplement the already rich soil.

If you are growing your tomato plants from seed, start the seeds indoors 6-7 weeks before the last frost in your area. Place in a warm, sunny area. Transplant seedlings once the garden bed soil has warmed up and all danger of frost has passed for your planting zone.

Dig a hole deeper than your tomato plant’s current pot. Plant your tomato seedling deep into the soil, deeper than its previous soil line. You want the lowest leaves to be against the new soil line so that it looks all snug and comfy like its been tucked in for the night.

As with all transplants, water generously for a few days after planting. They’re going to be a bit surprised at their new surroundings and a few good gulps of water daily will help them to calm their poor nerves.

Tomato Care

As I talked about before, tomatoes need a consistent supply of water. Keep the soil evenly  moist throughout the growing season. This should be easier to do in a raised bed garden than a traditional garden but it still may become difficult during the hottest months of the year. Regardless, its important that you stay on top of watering so that you have quality tomatoes.

Lots of problems can occur with the plant itself as well as the fruit it bears if the soil does not stay evenly moist. Disease can set in, growth is inhibited or the tomatoes themselves can burst from stress.

Pruning

Do not prune your tomato plants unless you have poor soil, space considerations or you’re trying to grow the world’s largest tomato. Tomatoes have been around a long time and they can handle themselves. They were, at one point, wild plants thriving alone and unmolested.

Conventional advice calls for home gardeners to cut branches off the bottom of the stalk and to pinch off suckers.. or future growth… future tomatoes. Let’s take these issues one at time:

Cutting off the Bottom Branches: We just discussed how important it is to keep the soil moist for the success of your tomato plant and impending harvest. So… then… why would you cut off the canopy of leaves near the base of the plant that is keeping the soil most? You wouldn’t. The tomato plant is trying to create its own shade to protect the most a critical part of itself. You want to those bottom-most leaves to create a cozy, dark habitat protecting the stalk and soil from the sun. Keeping the bottom of the plant dense in growth keeps the soil evenly most. Funny how the plant takes care of itself that way when you let it do its job!

Pruning Suckers: Now, if your plant is getting out of control and taking over the garden then of course you would want to limit future growth for everyone’s sanity and protection. However, if you want an even harvest throughout the season, don’t cut off the plant’s future growth. If the plant is not doing well, it will not put on new growth and therefore will limit itself. However, if you have a healthy plant just go with it and reap the rewards of your hard work. If you can’t eat all of the tomatoes it produces, give them to friends and family or chunk them in the compost heap. Don’t hack on your plant.

This also harkens back to the idea that tomatoes should be given ample space in the garden. Why plant two tomato plants in two square-feet and spend all of your time pruning back the plants? Having two plants in two square-feet means that you’ll be so busy pruning so they don’t over grow their space or grow so large that they starve other plants of nutrients and resources. Instead, plant one healthy tomato plant in the same amount of space and leave it alone. Much easier and much more effective at getting a large, consistent harvest.

Tomato Cages, Stakes or Trellises

I can tell you it is much easier if you place your tomato cage, stakes or trellis at the same time that you transplant it. This year, I let time get away from me and found out very quickly that my options were limited once my plant became too large. I had to build tomato stakes around my growing tomatoes because the time for a cage had certainly passed! Tomatoes do not like to be manipulated, abused and bothered so make the staking process simpler by starting while they’re young.

Soil Care

Keep a steady amount of mulch at the base of the plants to help keep the soil moist and to infuse the plant with fresh nutrients. As the plant grows it will be taking minerals and nutrients from the soil that will need to be replaced. Adding hearty compost mulch every few weeks should keep those tomatoes coming!

Netting

I’m greedy and am netting my tomatoes this year with a large green tomato net. I do not care to share my tomatoes with the birds. Its working well on the windy spring days to keep the tomato plant from getting too beat up or losing large limbs and bundles of fruit. My net has large enough holes that the bees can weave in and out and pollinate the blooms.

Harvesting Tomatoes

You’ll know its time to harvest when your mouth starts to water just by looking at the fruit! Once the tomatoes become evenly red, harvest and bring the fruit indoors. Tomatoes can continue to ripen on a warm, sunny window sill if you pick fruit while its still a bit orange.

 

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