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Gardening Columns

These tomato vines are supported by twine hanging from a
bamboo support. In the back, a homemade coldframe
protects tender pepper and basil transplants.

It's Tomato Time!!

First published on on April 27, 2006, by Suzanne DeJohn

After a winter of bland, "store-boughten" tomatoes, it's time to start making those dreams of freshly harvested, sun-warmed tomatoes a reality. Tomato plants are easy to grow -- but challenging to grow well. They are susceptible to many diseases and insect pests, which my 86-year-old neighbor collectively calls, "The Blight."

Last summer was an especially tough growing season -- well, tough for tomatoes and other garden plants, not so tough for the various organisms responsible for The Blight. The early summer's incessant rains were followed by months of drought, so any plants that didn't rot early on were later parched. As usual, despite knowing better, I set out too many plants and wasn't able to take as good care of them as I had intended.

So, in the spirit of doing as I say, and not necessarily as I do, here are some tips for planting and caring for tomatoes. These, combined with reasonably cooperative weather, will go a long way toward ensuring a satisfying harvest.

A Tomato Primer
The path to an abundant crop of tomatoes starts in spring, by providing plants with optimum conditions for vigorous growth.

1. Plant tomatoes in full sun. If your garden doesn't get at least 6 hours of direct sun each day, plant tomatoes in containers on your deck or in any sunny spot.

2. Give them good soil. Amend soil with lots of compost to provide slow-release nutrients and to improve both drainage and water-holding capacity. Work the soil to a depth of at least a foot, then set the plants deeply, burying the lower part of the stem. The plant will form roots along the buried portion.

3. Plant several different varieties. Choose a few described as resistant to verticillium, fusarium, tobacco mosaic virus, and/or nematodes (noted by V, F, T, and N, respectively). Go ahead and plant some of your favorite non-resistant varieties, too, but planting resistant varieties increases the likelihood of a good crop if damp weather encourages disease problems.

Note whether the varieties are determinate or indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes, sometimes referred to as "bush" types, grow to a certain height, then set their fruit more or less all at once. They usually produce ripe tomatoes earlier than indeterminates, but the harvest season is shorter. Indeterminate varieties are true vines; they continue growing until something -- frost, pruning, disease -- stops their growth. They produce fruit over a longer season, and ultimately produce more fruit per plant; but they produce their first fruits later than determinates.

4. Be realistic. A few well-cared-for tomatoes will likely produce more -- and better quality -- fruit than a dozen neglected ones. Plant a few, then pamper them.

5. After planting, set cages or stakes in place. The goal is to keep plants off the ground and allow air to circulate freely. I've found that the small, commonly available tomato cages can't support a healthy plant laden with fruit. I prefer sturdy cages made from 4" x 6" wire mesh fencing, or four 6-foot stakes placed evenly around the plant and wrapped with string. Or, use a trellis to train indeterminate varieties upward.

6. Mulch plants with clean straw. Mulch conserves soil moisture, minimizing problems with blossom-end rot (a physiological disorder) as well as foliar diseases caused by fungal spores splashing up from the soil onto leaves.

7. Feed plants if necessary. Tomatoes planted in rich soil may not need supplemental feeding. But if soil is poor or foliage is pale and growing slowly, fertilize them. I prefer organic seaweed/fish emulsion fertilizers, but any all-purpose vegetable and flower fertilizer will do. Avoid lawn fertilizer, which is usually very high in nitrogen.

8. Prune suckers. Left to their own devices, tomato plants produce vigorous suckers at every point where a side branch meets a stem, resulting in a rangy plant that's difficult to manage. Many gardeners allow three or four suckers to form branches early in the season, then prune those that follow. How diligently you prune really depends on how you are supporting the plant. You can allow caged plants to form more suckers than plants whose stems are tied to stakes.

9. Keep soil moist. If nature doesn't provide rain, you'll have to water plants. Use drip hoses or apply water slowly, allowing it to seep deeply to reach the entire root zone. Avoid overhead sprinklers, which waste water and encourage foliar diseases.

10. Inspect plants frequently. Look for insect pests, such as tomato hornworms, and signs of disease, such as discolored areas on the foliage. Hand-picking and destroying both insect pests and diseased leaves can minimize later problems. There are several organic sprays available for managing tomato diseases, such as those containing potassium bicarbonate, sulfur, and/or neem. Follow label directions carefully to maximize effectiveness. And know that by late summer most gardeners' tomato plants look a little, well, rough. Don't get discouraged; you are not alone.

Here's to a summer with just the right balance of rain and sunshine, temperatures neither too hot nor too cold, and an uncanny absence of pests to make our tomato harvests all that we dream of!

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