Last week I cut back our tomato plants and thought about what a remarkable plant the tomato is. The seeds are small, they really are what you see when you cut open a fresh tomato, and yet one plant can produce hundreds of tomatoes. So how do you increase tomato yield per plant?
Giving Tomato Plants a Head Start
We start our tomato plants from seed in our Indoor Greenhouse. The average last frost date in our area is May 15. I plan to set out all of our plants after that date so we start all of our plants in the indoor greenhouse before March 15 (“Beware the Ides of March”).
When I set the plants in the ground, I think of digging a hole that is like a swimming pool with a slide into it. I fill the swimming pool with either Miracle Gro water or water and bone meal. The root ball goes into the swimming pool and the plant lays in the slide. When I put the dirt over it, just the top of the tomato plant is sticking out. A plant that does as much work as a tomato needs a huge root system!
This planting method is a great way to establish the roots and give the plant the growing space it needs above ground. I dig my next swimming pool right next to the top of the last plant with all the slides going the same direction. This was I make sure that the plants take up less space but still have all the room they need. Don’t worry that the plants are all laying down when you are finished. As they grow toward the sun, they will all straighten up again.
Instead of using tomato cages we always plant our tomatoes next to a sheep-wire fence so I need to back up. Before planting the tomatoes we put in fence posts and put up some sheep wire. Then we plant the tomatoes next to it in a row, all on the same side of the fence.
Plant Care Before Blossoms to Increase Tomato Yield Per Plant
In a few weeks, I take kitchen string out to the garden and tie the top branches of each tomato plant to the wire. This lifts the branches off the ground so the fruit is off the ground as well. I use kitchen string because it is strong and thick enough not to sever the branch. Be careful not to tie it too tightly against the fence. The tomato will continue to grow and the branch will continue to thicken. If it is tied to tightly, the poor tomato branch will strangle. I usually leave about a 3″ loop between the fence and the knot in the string. I do this again before the plants start producing.
The plants will grow through the wire, so if you are careful what you plant on the other side, you can harvest from both sides. This is important because sometimes your hand around a tomato won’t fit through the fence. We usually plant peas or lettuce and spinach, something that has already been harvested by the time the tomatoes are ready to be picked.
Plant Care After Blossoms to Increase Tomato Yield Per Plant
At the time I start to see blossoms, I use the hoe to make a shallow trench next to the plants. In the trench I sprinkle Epsom Salts. The minerals in the Epsom Salts help the blossoms to set tomatoes and help prevent a dark spot from forming on the end of the tomato which is called Blossom End Rot.
Another thing that helps prevent Blossom End Rot is consistent watering. Tomato plants use a lot of water but they need it over the course of the week not all in one or two days. So if there’s a faucet in the sky that turns off the rain sometime in June like there is here, be sure to water about every 2 days or so. By the time the rain stops here, it is usually time to pick green beans. I usually try to water between pickings so that helps me keep track of the tomato watering schedule as well.
How Tomato Plants Grow
Tomato plants are perennials in some areas. Here in the Frozen North, tomato plants just keep growing until they freeze. There are continually blossoms, the blossoms turning into small tomatoes, the small tomatoes turning into larger tomatoes and eventually under proper conditions, ripening. Some stems that grow off main stems don’t ever produce blossoms so they don’t produce fruit either. They just divert energy from the plant with no purpose and they need to be removed. If you are diligent, you will do this throughout the season. If you work on crisis management like I do most of the summer, they get cut off when I cut back the tomato plants at the end of the season.
The proper conditions for ripening tomatoes are warm days and cool nights. If the nights don’t cool off enough, the tomatoes take forever to ripen. Around here though, an added problem is that about the time the nights start getting cool enough to ripen tomatoes, it is close to frost. Our average frost date is September 15th. However, after one or two nights of frost we usually have a period of 1-2 weeks of warm days and no frost. We usually put tarps or blankets over the tomato plants when the weather forecast calls for lows in the 30’s and then take them off the next morning. That gains us about a week or maybe even two.
End of Season Care to Increase Tomato Yield Per Plant
Around the end of August, it is close enough to frost that I would really like those tomatoes to get a move on. We stress the plants by cutting them back. Every stem that doesn’t have tomatoes on it (or does have tomatoes but they are still too small to use) gets cut off the plant. This means following every single stem back to the fruit and cutting it off right there.
The tomatoes are still on the stem attached to the plant but the useless stem with blossoms, small tomatoes, or nothing on it is cut off. Cutting this much away from each plant causes stress in the plant. You wouldn’t dare trim a tree like that or it might die. The tomato plant however, quickly begins to ripen the fruit that it still has.
Be careful not to cut off too many of the leaves on the tomato plants around the tomatoes or the sun will scald the fruit. An added bonus is that with all that extra foliage out of the way, it is much easier to find the ripe tomatoes.
The Last Tomato Harvest
When it is too cold for the tomatoes anymore, we pick all the tomatoes off the plants. All the green tomatoes go in boxes and we cover them with newspaper and store them in the garage or the basement. At that point, picking tomatoes means going through the boxes and taking ripe ones. Of course this means that the green tomatoes that are put in the boxes cannot have any blemishes on them or they will just rot instead of ripen.
Another way to store and ripen green tomatoes is to leave them attached to the plant. Some folks pull the whole plant and hang it upside down in a garage, shed or fruit cellar. They are still picked as they ripen with this method. A friend of ours used to keep getting ripe, fresh tomatoes two months after pulling the plants using this method.