Before we get too deep into this blog post I want to post a warning to all of my readers:

 

Growing your own tomatoes will likely leave you living without fresh tomatoes from your last harvest in the fall until your first harvest the following season!

 

Tomatoes can be challenging to grow in our climate, yet every year gardeners across the state of Montana find success–without the use of a home greenhouse.  There are a few things to be mindful of when growing your own garden tomatoes:

 

Choose short season varieties 

Sometimes listed as early to mid-season, these varieties will have fruit ripening in 60-75 days from transplant.  80 days will usually be just fine.  85 days often works but is pushing it. I would not plant only late maturing varieties (80+ days) but instead mix in a few early season varieties with my late season varieties.

 

Start with transplants

The growing season in southwest Montana is not long enough to direct seed tomatoes in the garden.  The “starters” that are found in greenhouses have already been growing for 6-8 weeks–giving you a much needed head start.  If you’re reading this blog post and it’s after April 15th, you do not have enough time to get tomato seeds going and are best off to purchase starts from the nursery.  When selecting starts, choose plants that look healthy.  They should have green leaves, a sturdy stock that is at least pencil thick and be 6-12 inches tall with leaves tightly grouped together.  Choose plants that do not have any obvious pest or disease issues.  If the plants that you are purchasing have fruit or flowers before you transplant them, remove the flowers. It is painful (for the gardener) to do so but removing those flowers/ early fruit will allow the tomato plant to build healthy roots from the start. Building strong roots early in the season will reward you with heavy harvests later in the summer. Additionally, many of those early flowers/ fruit produce “catfacing” tomatoes which often have an undesirable leathery texture.  Short term pain is well worth the long term gain. 

 

When to transplant

Plant your tomato starts outside after the danger of frost has passed. For much of Gallatin Valley, this is on or after June 1st.  Tomatoes will NOT tolerate frost–watch the weather and plan accordingly.  IF you have planted your tomatoes and we are going to get a cold night, be prepared to provide them with some sort of protection (frost cloth, hot caps, etc).

 

How to transplant

Plant the root ball 3-4 inches below the original soil level covering part of the stem.  Remove any lower leaves that will get buried or be touching the soil.  The tomato stem will produce more roots along the portion that is planted. Remember, bigger roots= more fruits! If you are unable to plant deeply, you can plant “sideways,” still burning a portion of the stem.  I like to add Xtreme Gardening’s Mykos (beneficial microbes) to my transplant hole because it helps my plants establish new roots more quickly.  I also add a fruiting fertilizer (Down to Earth Rose & Flower Food) to the transplant hole as the tomatoes will begin to grow quickly after transplant. Repeat applications of dry fertilizer monthly or supplement with a liquid fertilizer every week.

 

Set up your trellising/caging system at the time of transplant. Your tomatoes will grow quickly and it is much easier to trellis/cage them while they are small.  Continue to attach your tomatoes to their support system as they grow.

 

During the growing season…

After you have transplanted your tomatoes, much of the work is done.  When plants begin flowering there are a couple of things that I do to encourage the plants to fruit.

 

#1 When the first flowers form, begin weekly applications of liquid Calcium + Magnesium fertilizer.  This will help prevent blossom end rot in your tomatoes.  However, if you are not consistently watering your tomatoes, the CaMg application will be in vain.

 

#2 Prune lower non-fruiting leaves and definitely any leaves that are coming in contact with the soil.  Remove any suckers growing in the axils of the stems.  By removing some of the plant’s leaves and suckers, your plant will be able to focus on fruiting and ripening those fruits.

 

Growing tomatoes is well worth the effort.  The flavor of home grown tomatoes is unmatched by standard grocery store tomato flavors.  Need more help? Stop by Green Thumb Garden Supply at 111 S Broadway in Belgrade, MT.

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