JoAnne Skelly: Tips for growing healthy tomatoes

Americans’ favorite crop to grow at home is the tomato. Few can resist the delicious flavor of a homegrown tomato. With all the great farmers markets around these days, you can buy fresh tomatoes all summer. However, there’s a huge reward in growing your own and picking them fresh off the vine.

Tomatoes can be fairly easy to grow in a location where they have six to 10 hours of sun per day, good draining soil mixed with compost and an adequate, consistent supply of water.

To care for them during the season, spread a one- to two-inch layer of mulch, such as compost, leaves or straw, around them. They can grow on the ground, but most people stake them for easier access to the fruit and for better air circulation and disease prevention. Pinch off the non-fruiting branches to push the plant’s energy into bigger, better fruit. Fertilize the plants every three to four weeks with one to two tablespoons of a tomato fertilizer, but stop fertilizing when the tomatoes reach a mature size. Control weeds, but be gentle with a cultivator or hoe so you don’t damage tomato roots. Water deeply at the base of the plants rather than spraying the leaves to avoid diseases. Deep watering helps plants develop a strong root system. A deep soaking is better than several light waterings.

The tomato is self-pollinating. However, it needs insects or wind to cause pollination to take place. Tapping the open flower clusters every few days discharges the pollen to pollinate the flower.

Tomatoes can have a number of pests or problems. Tomato hornworms are green finger-sized caterpillars that can eat up much of a plant, so pick them off and destroy them. Sometimes tomatoes get sunscald during hot weather, so don’t prune all the leaves off near developing fruit. Cracking can occur when environmental conditions, such as drought followed by heavy irrigation, cause rapid growth during ripening. Blossom end rot is a condition where a brown scale-like pad develops on the blossom end of a ripening tomato. It usually is tied to inconsistent watering that encourages a calcium deficiency. Tomato leaf roll can happen during high temperatures, prolonged periods of wet soil or if tomatoes are pruned too severely.

Tomatoes also can be subject to a number of diseases such as early blight, late blight, tobacco mosaic virus or tomato leaf curl virus.

Even with the potential challenges, growing tomatoes is worth it!

JoAnne Skelly is Associate Professor & Extension Educator, Emerita at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She can be reached at


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