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How to grow a terrific tomato harvest

Green, medium-sized tomatoes surrounded by leaves growing on a vine
Michael Leland
/
Iowa Public Radio
Tomatoes should be left on the plant right up until they’re ready to eat.

Tomatoes are a staple in many summer vegetable gardens, but they don’t always reach their full potential. To ensure you have a high yield and disease-free crop, we’ve compiled some quick tips from our experts for keeping your tomatoes happy and healthy — and as a bonus we have a few tasty recipes for enjoying them too!

Support your tomatoes’ growth with stakes or cages

There are two types of tomato plants — determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes stop growing when they reach 4–5 feet. Indeterminate tomatoes will grow all season, until the frost kills the plant in the fall. Staking or caging your tomato plants as they grow taller is essential for keeping their foliage and fruit out of the soil. Soil contains pathogens that can cause disease in the plant.

Ideally, tomato plants should be staked or caged when they’re about a foot tall. If you haven’t supported your tomatoes yet this summer, it’s not too late. Gently tie indeterminate tomato varieties to a 7–8 foot steel or wooden stake placed about 3–4 inches from the plant. Place your determinate tomato plants in a wide mesh cage if they’re planted at least 2 feet apart.

Prune for better fruit production

Determinate tomatoes don’t require much, if any, pruning. If you have indeterminate tomato plants, pruning them encourages fruit production and increases airflow around the plant, preventing bacterial and fungal diseases.

Prune suckers, which are little vegetative shoots found at the axil of the main stem and leaves, in late June or early July when the plant's flowers begin to open. By removing them, you can divert the plant’s energy back to growing tomatoes and increase your yield.

Yellow tomato flower growing off of a green stem. A red tie supports the stem.
Matt Sieren
/
Iowa Public Radio
Prune suckers in late June or early July when the plant's flowers begin to open.

Water as mulch as possible

About five weeks after planting your tomatoes, mulch 2–3 inches deep around the bottom of the plants with organic material such as straw, hay or pine needles. Tomatoes require a lot of water during flowering and fruiting, and the mulch will help the soil retain moisture and prevent dirt — and therefore pathogens — from splashing onto the leaves when the plant is watered.

Tomato plants need an increasing amount of water per plant, per day as the weeks go by:

  • Weeks 1 – 4: 15–20 ounces
  • Weeks 5 – 6: 30 ounces
  • Week 7: 50 ounces
  • Weeks 8 – 10: 70–80 ounces

When to harvest and how to store tomatoes

Tomatoes should be left on the plant right up until they’re ready to eat. Harvest your tomatoes when they’re red (or the appropriate color) and slightly soft to the touch. Once picked, don’t store your tomatoes in the refrigerator. They'll lose texture and stop ripening. Instead, keep them in a cool location and away from the sun. Only put your tomatoes in the refrigerator once they’ve been cut open.

A pile of shiny red tomatoes with green stems.
Michael Leland
/
Iowa Public Radio
Eat your tomatoes straight off the vine, store them or use them in a delicious recipe.

Tomato-rrific recipes

Watermelon and Tomato Salad

From Kathy Gunst, resident chef at NPR’s Here & Now
Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ small watermelon, cut off the rind and into 1-inch slices, about 2 cups
  • 1 ripe tomato, red or yellow, thinly sliced
  • 1 small cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 scallion, finely chopped, white and green sections
  • 1 ½ Tbs balsamic vinegar

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 300º F.
  2. Place the cherry tomatoes in a small ovenproof skillet and drizzle the oil, salt and pepper on top. Gently stir. Roast on the middle shelf for 30 minutes; the skins should be almost bursting. Remove from the oven and let cool.
  3. Arrange the watermelon slices on a serving platter. Top with the roasted cherry tomatoes and the oil from the bottom of the skillet. Top with the sliced raw tomato, cucumbers, scallions; drizzle on the vinegar. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

The Drunk Gardener Cocktail

From Iowa Ingredient

Ingredients

  • 3 cherry tomatoes
  • Sea salt
  • 1 ½ oz. gin
  • 1 oz. dry vermouth
  • 1 oz. St. Germain liqueur

Directions

  1. In a shaker, muddle sea salt with three halved cherry tomatoes. Add gin, vermouth and St. Germain liqueur. Add ice and shake until cold. Garnish with basil or other fresh herbs. Serve and enjoy!

Heirloom Tomato Flatbread

From Chef David Baruthio on Iowa Ingredient

Ingredients:

  • 1 ball of pizza or bread dough
  • 3 ripened tomatoes, thinly sliced
  • ½ cup fresh basil, chopped
  • ½ cup pitted olives, sliced
  • 2 Tbs freshly ground parmesan cheese
  • Salt
  • Olive oil

Directions:

  1. Take one ball of dough and flatten it with your hands on a lightly floured work surface. Starting at the center and working outwards, use your fingertips or rolling pin to press the dough to ¼-inch thick. Place rolled dough onto a lightly floured baking pan.
  2. Thinly slice ripened tomatoes. Place sliced tomatoes onto the bread dough. Add chopped basil. Season lightly with salt. Add pitted black olives and freshly ground parmesan cheese to taste. Drizzle lightly with olive oil.
  3. Bake in a 500º F oven for 7–8 minutes.
Sumner Wallace is an intern for IPR’s digital team. Sumner grew up in Iowa City, but now attends Oberlin College in Ohio, where she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Rhetoric and Media Studies with a minor in Chemistry. She has also worked for Little Village Magazine and The Oberlin Review.