This is my first time growing tomatoes so… we will be sharing this journey. I’d heard that tomatoes were easy to grow and therefore thought they’d be a good choice for my first time growing food.

Unlike the first time I planted cut up pieces of tomato and grew plants in the fall, I made a conscious decision to actually get tomato plants with the intention of growing these delicious fruits this summer (I’d read that tomatoes could be grown from seed if you already had a tomato to start with but by that time of year it was too late to grow tomatoes without a grow light or a greenhouse as it was becoming cold and tomatoes die off in cold weather).

So, I made a decision to get some tomato plants while I was at Stanley’s Nursery of Knoxville, Tennessee, which, by the way, is the nicest plant nursery I’ve been to thus far. I picked out a tomato variety called “Big Boy Tomatoes”.

What all of this means for you is that you do not have to start from seed if you don’t want to. There are plenty of plant nurseries and chain stores like Home Depot, Lowe’s, Walmart, or Stanley’s that sell tomato plant seedlings that are ready to pop in the ground as soon as you can get them home.

I admit that I wasn’t exactly all that prepared.

Though I’d talked to myself about growing tomatoes, I’d been procrastinating on getting planters and tomato cages because I was feeling overwhelmed by the amount of preparation I needed to do (in my mind, going into new things without preparation is anxiety-inducing), but when I was in Stanley’s, I went ahead and bought those little tomato seedlings quickly and the next few months changed my views about tomatoes, gardening, and life.

Now, some things I experimented with while growing tomatoes during a hot, southern summer that will help a beginner tomato grower to have the highest chance of success and to grow several pounds of tomatoes easily.

Growing In the Ground Versus Growing in a Planter

In my efforts to experiment to find the best way possible to achieve the very best fruit from my plants (and under advisement from my mother, who is also a gardener), I put one tomato plant into a raised garden bed and the other five into separate containers, most of which now have tomato cages or are being supported with bamboo sticks pushed into the soil at diagonal angles, crisscrossing to create some wildly complex-looking support system. I got the tomato cages from a friend as, I was not quite ready to invest in tomato cages for something that I had no idea would be successful or not.

Now, I’m sure you want to know what happened.

The “Big Boy” Tomatoes are aptly named, and not just for the size of the fruit. The tomato vines themselves grow long and tall and become very heavy as the tomatoes grow in. And there were a lot of tomatoes. So many that the poor tomato cages could not support them and began to bend, tip over, and break.

By this point, I’d eaten a couple of the tomatoes and was very proud of myself for having grown something that I could eat that hadn’t poisoned me for the first time in my whole life. That pride inspired me to invest in getting some new, stronger tomato cages, which I did.

The cages were on the expensive side but have amazing reviews, and, now that it is fall/autumn, I understand why they were so popular, but… let me continue.

Growing Tomatoes in a Planter Versus Growing Tomatoes In the Ground

While planting in planters or pots may be more convenient for people who live in apartments or otherwise do not have yards, I could not help but notice (through my daily staring and breathing all over my tomato plants), that the tomato plant I put in the raised garden bed grew the fastest, got the biggest, and produced the largest and biggest amount of tomatoes.

Now, I will also point out that I do not believe that other tomato varities would have plant vines that get as big as the Big Boy Tomato, so it is very possible that the planters I used would’ve been fine for smaller tomato varieties.

But… even though the tomato plant in the raised bed was a lot larger than its companion tomato vines, they were all unwieldly and taking down the flimsy tomato cages I’d been donated.

Getting an established tomato plant out of a tomato cage, however flimsy, is probably one of the most annoying things I have ever done. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, AND, you must also keep in mind that these are vines, however thick, are not branches, so they are pretty fragile and should not be handled roughly.

That said, I still had to get these monster-sized tomato plants out of the raggedy tomato cages and into the new, shiny, beautiful ones I splurged on. Despite the fact that the plant didn’t like it, I trimmed off a couple of branches (or vines, which is technicially what they are) with some pruners and replaced the bent and crumbling cage with tomato ladders from Gardeners’ Supply House.

I came outside to stare at and water my plants during my usual morning watering session to keep an eye on them and make sure they weren’t dying back after the rough wrestling session we’d had that week when I replaced the tomato cages. After a couple days, to my utter surprise, new vines began to grow in! This is something I was not prepared for because I had never read or heard anything about tomato plants having the ability to rejuvenate their vines. In fact, everyone that I know who gardens, warns against pruning tomatoes.

Though it did slow the growth of the fruit, after the new vines started growing in, I got just at many tomatoes as I did before. And this time, my plants were upright and easy to harvest from 2 or 3 times a week.

My conclusion is that the tomato plant in the ground ended up being larger because it had more room to grow, but it also got the most sunlight (as I originally kept about half of the tomato plants on the side of the house I’m living in to experiment with shorter hours of sunlight, advice I got from a fellow gardener with years of tomato-growing experience compared to my first-time growing experience).

Either, he really didn’t know what he was talking about, or, half a day of sunlight does not work on larger tomato varieties like the Big Boy Tomatoes.

I conclude that tomatoes are better grown in the ground as they have very robust root systems and, unless you have a 20 gallon planter and water twice a day, the amount of available nutrients and water in the ground is going to be better able to support tomato growth as they do grow very fast.

More About Pruning Tomato Plants

After having some of the vines die back and start to shrivel, I felt it was necessary to just go ahead and cut them off with a pair of hand pruners. This can sometimes give the plant a little boost as it rushes to repair the wound you have created by the trimming of the branch or vine. As I said earlier, new vines had started growing above where I’d trimmed them after my fight with the tomato cages, but the theory behind continued pruning (as I’ve been told by a gardening friend) is that you get rid of vines that are no longer producing so that the tomato vine can focus its energy on growing and ripening new fruit.

Pruning off these “extra” branches also increases air flow around the tomato plant to prevent diseases and keep the plant and the fruit dry so that there is no mold or rotting. So I will say that pruning is a very good thing for those willing to keep up with it.

Drainage For Tomato Plants

Though tomatoes love water, it appeared to me that it is possible to overwater or waterlog them. So, don’t leave them sitting in water. I tried this out on one tomato plant (since it already wasn’t draining as well in its container) and experienced some yellowing after a few days.

After moving the planter so that it could better drain, I saw a steady improvement in the coloring of the tomato vine and soon after got some flowers on that vine. I will experiment with different watering methods in the future, including watering twice a day, using watering spikes or tree diapers, which would require me to water less (these are more long term ways to maintain a consistent amount of moisture in your plant beds and containers), and doing drip irrigation.

Though I have no idea which method will be best for the tomato plants, I am eager for spring to come back so that I can grow tomatoes again next summer and find out!

What To Do About Tomato Cages?

The thing about tomato cages is… they don’t grow as your tomato plant grows. For those of you who are far less lazy than I and actually keep up on your tomato pruning, then this is no problem because tomato plants can be pruned. Do I prune my tomato plants? Yes. I remove suckers from them…sometimes, but I’m not exactly faithful about it. Keeping your tomato plants in check does make harvesting easier and gives your tomato plants fewer tomatoes to “focus” on, which leads to faster ripening times and, ultimately, more tomatoes as you will lose fewer of them to disease or slug problems caused by poor air circulation, mold, and the tomato plants staying overly damp.

This brings me to…

Determinate versus Indeterminate Tomato Plants

Determinate tomato plants will grow to a certain height adn then stop at that height. Indeterminate tomato plants will keep growing…indeterminately, like the monster Big Boy Tomato plants that I grew in my first year of tomato growing.

The best tip I can give you on which type of tomato plant to choose depends on how well you will be keeping up with your tomato pruning. If you are like me, in that you are busy or have a lot of plants and want do do the least amount of maintenance possible, choose a determinate tomato plant, as they will not require heavy pruning or as much attention as the indeterminate tomato plants.

With that said, my best tip for growing indeterminate tomato plants is to grow them with a living trellis like sugar cane or into a tree so that as the tomato plant continues to grow, the “trellis” will grow too, keeping your tomato plant supported without needing so much attention.

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