I have been getting a lot of questions from new gardeners at the farmers market about tomatoes lately. Can I plant them now (May)? What’s the best way to plant them? Why are the plants I started so spindly? I want to give my best tomato growing tips for northeast Oregon to help you have a bountiful season.
Tomatoes are funny in that they are not very hardy (not resistant to frost) but in all the other ways, they aren’t too picky or difficult to grow in northeast Oregon (zone 5b.) Here are my tips.
1. Rotate your tomato bed
It is a good always a good idea to change up the places you put crops in the same family each year or every few years. This helps prevent crop-specific pests and disease from establishing in the soil. With tomatoes it is important to rotate because they are also “heavy feeders.” They can deplete the soil and if you don’t give the soil time and other plants to help it recover, you won’t have vigorous tomatoes in that place.
2. Wait until after Father’s Day
I think the safest thing to do is wait to plant your tomatoes until after Father’s Day in northeast Oregon. My poor husband has woken up to me cursing like a sailor on Father’s Day when I walked outside at 4:30am to find that the weather forecast was off by 10 degrees–it was 30 and freezing my tomatoes, not a safe 40. He spent the first three hours of Father’s Day rushing around with me in a continual circuit spraying frost off tomatoes, then returning to spray again before the water froze until after sunrise.
If your plants are screaming to get out of their tiny pots now, get some potting soil and pot them up into larger containers. You can also prune them smaller when you pot them up. If you just can’t wait until Father’s Day to plant, either get some wall-o’-water at the gardening store or cover them with plastic or sheets nightly for awhile–it is easy to get surprised by frost. Either way, you’ll have to keep a close eye on the weather forecast and subtract 5 degrees from the estimated low to be safe.
3. Plant deep or horizontally
Tomato plants need lots of roots to keep them upright and mine the soil. If you have tall plants, first take off most of the lower leaves with scissors or pruners. We plant them so 60-80 percent of the plant is in the ground, and 20-40 percent is above ground. You can either: 1. Dig deep holes or 2. plant them horizontally.
At the farm, we dig little trenches with a hoe and lay the plant horizontally in the hole. Since tomatoes can make roots from any part of the buried stem, this gives the plant a solid root base as they grow. The same happens if you plant them deep.
4. Pick off flowers & fruit
If your tomato transplants (starts) have fruit or flowers on them when you buy them or are ready to plant, pinch them off. Your plant needs to focus energy on making shoots and leaves, not flowers and fruits to begin with. Many tomatoes are indeterminate, which means they will continuously flower up until the day the frost takes them. If you pinch flowers now, you will still get plenty later.
Home gardeners usually use tomato cages to keep the vine-y plant upright so the fruit is off the ground and easy to pick. Cages work fine, but are kind of expensive. At the farm, we use the “Florida Weave” to trellis our tomatoes using posts and twine. (We actually just use old irrigation tape instead of twine now, but twine works great.) Please do yourself a favor and watch this great video on how to do the Florida Weave.
Tomatoes are so easy to prune and pruning is worth the effort! You just have to get comfortable taking a lot of vegetative matter off the plant and learn what suckers look like. Suckers always come out of the main stem at a 45 degree angle. This is a really great, quick video that will help you learn to prune. At the very least, prune the lower leaves and branches so that none are touching the ground and picking up disease.
7. Deep, long watering
Transplanted tomatoes need frequent watering to get them over the transplant shock. After they are recovered and putting on growth, it it is time for deep, long waterings. At the farm we water every three or four days for three hours. Daily watering can cause the fruit to split. Long waterings help encourage deeper root growth which helps with stability and resilience. Think about deisingin your irrigation set up so you can water the tomatoes separately from crops that don’t want that much water.
8. Freeze them!
I will never miss a chance to encourage folks to roast and freeze their tomato bounty. You don’t need to spend every weekend canning tomato sauce. Just roast tomatoes in the oven and bag or jar them in the freezer. You can make sauce, salsa, etc all winter long. Check out my recipe here.
Thanks for reading!
Your grateful farmer, Nella Mae.