Gardening: Tips from the pros on growing great tomatoes

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

Tomatoes still reign as king when it comes to homegrown vegetables and when it comes to varieties, heirlooms are still popular choices. Here are some tips Tom Sterns, president and owner of High Mowing Seed, shared with organic gardener and author Margaret Roach on her popular blog, A Way to Garden (, to grow the best-tasting tomatoes ever.

Originating in South America, tomatoes are true sun lovers. Large varieties, such as beefsteaks, need eight hours or more of direct sun to produce great-tasting tomatoes. Smaller varieties, including salad size and cherry tomatoes, require a minimum of six hours of sunlight to produce fruit.

Spacing — the distance between plants — is also a key to success, says Sterns, ( He recommends a distance of 12-18 inches for determinate tomatoes, and 24-36 inches for indeterminate tomatoes. Tomatoes planted too close together will compete with each other for moisture and nutrients. They’ll also shade one another, reducing the amount of sun exposure and their ability to produce the carbohydrates via photosynthesis. No amount of fertilizer will make up for this loss. Good air circulation, needed to keep the plants’ foliage dry and disease free, is also reduced by crowding.

Sterns also stresses good tomato hygiene is a must to ward off disease. Regular pruning — removing the suckers, the small stems that develop between the branches and the center “trunk” of the plant — improves the air circulation and directs energy to fruit production. This link to a Fine Gardening article on how-to prune tomato plants is a great photo story that takes the mystery out this easy-to-do technique:

Removing the lower leaves on the plants and later any foliage that shows signs of disease such as yellowing and black or brown spotting will help prevent its spread. Tools and supports can also become contaminated, so Sterns recommends disinfecting them with a 1-to-9 bleach and water solution. Soak wood or metal objects such as cages for 10 minutes. Blades of tools should be wiped after every cut.

Mulching the surface of soil beneath the plants with black plastic or organic materials will prevent disease spores in the soil from splashing up on the plants.

Overfertilizing also increases the likelihood of disease, so follow the recommendations on containers if you use a commercial product.

Finally, planting in cold soil will set these heat lovers back, therefore, don’t plant them until the temperature of the planting medium in a pot or in the ground is at least 60 degrees.

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and a Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at