From silver mulch and DIY soil recipes to flawless varieties, 3 master tomato growers offer their best tomato-growing tips.
Expert Tomato-Growing Tip #1: Use This 8-1-1-1 Ratio to Build Your Soil
Name: James Worley
Home Digs: Kansas City, MO
Business: KC Tomato Times
Follow on Social Media: KC Tomato Times (Facebook)
Fast Fact: I won the 2017 World Championship Squirrel Cook Off in Bentonville, Arkansas.
Claim to Fame: I’ve been growing rare tomato varieties for over a decade and have grown almost 800 types so far. I pride myself on growing the most hearty, tough, and ready-to-plant seedlings available in the area. I also host a tomato tasting each year on the first Saturday in August. We’ve had as many as 100 different types of ripe fruit in years past, but always have at least 40–50 types for people to taste and experience the uniqueness of each variety.
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Top Tomato-Production Tip: Soil building is key. I make my own soil for my raised beds with locally produced compost mixed with peat, perlite, and vermiculite in an 8-1-1-1 ratio. I do not use manures as they tend to be too high in nitrogen. I fertilize with Tomato-tone when I plant and then every 3 weeks throughout the season.
On Less-Than-Ideal Growing Conditions: Mulch is your friend. Use some sort of mulch to keep your soil moisture consistent. Also, I prefer silver reflective film, as this keeps the moisture in and the weeds out, and it bounces light under the leaves to drive off insect invaders like aphids and hornworms. It is very shiny and you’ll need sunglasses when working with it, but you can see your garden from outer space!
Favorite Tomato Variety: Carbon is hands down the best I have ever grown. It has deep, complex flavors and a beautiful purple color, and is fairly disease resistant and very productive. I plant at least a dozen Carbon in my gardens every year.
Sharin’ the Love: I’m an educator at heart and in my profession. I make sure that anyone who buys my plants knows the best way to plant them, care for them, and eat them as well. I’m available year-round by e-mail to help gardeners with questions they may have. As for ripe tomatoes, we eat them at home in myriad ways; however, I love to take in a box of ripe tomatoes and other vegetables from my garden to local restaurants and trade them for delicious meals or have the chefs prepare them for me in their own special ways.
Expert Tomato-Growing Tip #2: Minerals Make the Difference
Nominee: Robin Wyll
Home Digs: Woodinville, WA
Business: Robin’s Gourmet Garden (Nursery)
Follow On Social Media At: Robin’s Gourmet Garden (Facebook)
Fast Fact: Well, besides gardening, my other obsessions are theater and politics, so, of course, I can rap the entire opening number of the musical Hamilton!
Claim to Fame: I grow tomato sauce—125–200 pounds of tomatoes from 36 plants! I roast them, puree, and freeze about 2–3 gallons each year for winter meals. People asked me for help, so I created a website to help inspire others. People also asked me for cuttings, so I started a business raising around 1,800 heirloom tomato plants (nine varieties) and selling them directly to customers as well as supplying five stores. Customers say my varieties are unique in the local market and more robust than industry-grown options.
Top Tomato-Production Tip: Test your soil for everything down to the trace elements, and then mineralize accordingly. I started this five years ago after reading Steve Solomon’s book The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient-Dense Food, and it made a world of difference in my tomato production. Also, to get the most flavor out of your tomatoes, do not water the plants during the 24 hours before you pick the fruit. Watering just dilutes the sugars in the tomatoes, thereby diluting the flavor.
On Less-Than-Ideal Growing Conditions: Here in the Pacific Northwest, the biggest challenge is wildly fluctuating weather conditions. Sometimes the temperature will drop 20–30 degrees overnight, and we tend to get a lot of rain off and on throughout the summer. My solution is twofold. I select varieties that mature in fewer than 85 days, and I grow them under a protective shelter that can be opened up during good weather for air flow and pollination. The goals are to keep the leaves from getting rained on, which can lead to fungal issues, and to hold in the heat as much as possible. This method allows me to plant tomatoes in April when it’s still pretty cool and wet and extends the harvest into November.
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Favorite Tomato Variety: My single favorite tomato variety is Speckled Roman, because my goal is to freeze as much tomato puree as I can—and the Speckled Roman is thick and meaty with few seeds and excellent, rich flavor. Some of the fruit will grow to more than one pound each—and it is so dense that you can grill the slices. My preferred pick for salsa is Black Sea Man, which is a Russian variety that produces lots of beefsteak-type tomatoes that are a beautiful mottled deep green and red with delicious sweet tomato flavor.
Sharin’ the Love: I share my 15 years of tomato-growing experience, failures, and successes via my website; I answer questions and share info related to my plant business on my Facebook page; and I share my expertise live by giving presentations to local garden clubs and, of course, in casual conversation. It seems that successfully growing tomatoes is a subject of great interest in my area. Plus, my tomato sauce gets around—lots of it went to college with my daughter, and I share it with neighbors and friends in the hopes of inspiring more people to try growing tomato sauce.
Expert Tomato-Growing Tip #3: Pick the Right Plant for Your Climate
Nominee: Leslie Doyle
Home Digs: Las Vegas, NV
Business: Sweet Tomato Test Garden
Follow on Social Media: Leslie R. Doyle (Facebook)
Books Authored: Growing the Tomato in Las Vegas in Terrible Dirt and Desert Heat, self-published (1996); Growing the Tomato in Las Vegas in Terrible Dirt and Desert Heat (2nd edition), self-published (2002); Slam Dunk Easy Desert Gardening, self-published (2009)
Fast Fact: I actually don’t usually eat vegetable greens. I prefer berries; tree fruit; nuts; grilled steak, fish or chicken; and chocolate (yum!).
Claim to Fame: I wrote new directions for growing tomatoes and veggies in the desert—including new ways to irrigate and fertilize the farm or garden, a way to increase light on the plants, and a method to repel insects and avoid disease. I also developed a soil/compost that is very popular and widely used in the desert.
Top Tomato-Production Tip: Help them be all that they can be. You get more reliable results when you grow a variety that is known for prolific production and then give them ample water, nutrients, and sun—and grow them in the right climate.
On Less-Than-Ideal Growing Conditions: Gardening in Las Vegas is very, very different for new residents—and impossible for them without some coaching by a successful gardener. Growing here is actually easy, but there are growing rules. Wherever you live, pay attention to your plants, and learn how to fulfill their needs and diagnose their ailments.
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Favorite Tomato Variety: My favorite tomato variety is Hawaiian Tropic for several reasons: It has an 8- to 10-ounce average size, is simply delicious, and is very prolific. It grows extremely well in our hot desert climate and has been disease resistant. Hawaiian Tropic tomato is only available through me at this time. I also like Juliet, a smaller Roma-like tomato. It is easy to grow, delicious, and an All-America Selections winner.
Sharin’ the Love: We sell our harvest here at the Sweet Tomato Test Garden and donate extra fruit to the Lutheran Social Services Food Panty. Some is also shared with friends. Over the years I have written articles and tips for various publications, including Organic Gardening magazine, where I worked for almost 10 years. I publish a subscription-based e-newsletter for desert gardeners, and I have decades of teaching and speaking experience at our Desert Gardening School, the library, our local university, civic events, and nurseries. People are welcome to visit my garden, and I am delighted to answer questions!
This is an updated version of an article that was originally published on May 28, 2018.
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I am in Washington State also (the wet side of the mountains) Last year I bought three tomato starts and grew them successfully on my back stair landing. It is an unheated but covered area. I also bought a couple of starts this year since I couldn’t seem to find tomato seed this year. Every one was out. My starts this year are growing vegetatively but the coolness of this summer hasn’t prompted much fruiting. I’ll see what later summer brings. I have never tried making sauce, just want them fresh. Maybe next year I”ll try to make sauce but I’ll need to put in a lot more plants.