top of page

Bigger, Better Tomatoes (And Peppers)

Updated: Dec 21, 2023

Tomatoes and peppers are by far the most popular edibles to grow, so how could we not devote a class on how to grow these must-have veggies?


In Episode 3 of our series on how to plant, tend and harvest all your spring vegetables, we show you how to plant tomatoes and peppers, plus we update you on the overall progress of our demonstration garden we started in Episode 1. As we progress through the series, you'll learn how to control pests and diseases for each type of vegetable we've planted and show you when and how to harvest your bounty.

The following is a transcription of the accompanying video. It has been edited for readability.


Garden Update

Everything we've planted so far has come up and is producing. The only thing that has not worked well are the carrots. We're not sure why.


The onions have gone wild over the last 4 weeks. They've gone from little things that you could hardly see for everything else, to towering over everything.


The garlic and potatoes we planted 2 weeks ago have come up. The potatoes probably need another week or 2 before we hill them. But they are already about 2 inches tall, so that's good.


If you've been following along, our tepee garden blew away in one of the recent storms, so we had to rework the tepee. I got longer bamboo this time so they go all the way into the bottom of the pots.


The peas have started climbing and the beans are coming up and growing. They did suffer a little bit of cold damage 2 nights ago. So we need to follow the weather a little more closely so that we can cover them if it's going to frost.


Growing Tomatoes

Now let's move on to tomatoes.


One of the questions with tomatoes is what is the coolest temperature that they can tolerate?


Tomatoes can go down to 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Below 35 degrees you will start to see some damage. And they can't take frost on their leaves. The growers we use at Marshall Grain start their tomatoes in cold houses instead of hot houses. And so all of the tomatoes we sell don't have to be hardened off.


"Hardening off" is when you slowly adapt your plant to a change in temperature by moving it outside for a few hours at a time and then bring it back indoors until they become accustomed to the lower temperatures.


Because ours are grown in cooler temperatures to start with, they are already adapted, so chilly weather won't hurt them to take them home and plant them outdoors right away.


You still need to watch the weather and be sure to cover your plants if the temperature is going to dip below 35 degrees.


If there is any kind of wind, you don't need to worry about frost. But if it's totally still and it gets down to 35 or so, that's when you'll start to see frost on your plants. If that happens, you should cover them with the frost cloth that you bought for "Snowvid."


Choosing Your Tomatoes

When you're picking out your tomatoes, it depends a lot on the area that you're putting them in. If you've got a small area, or if you're doing them in pots, if you're doing it in a raised bed that's not very big, you're going to want to pick out a determinant tomato variety.


Determinant tomatoes are more bush-like and more compact than indeterminant tomatoes, which grow more like vines that can extend several feet or more. They'll still get to be 4 to 5 feet tall, but they're not going to get crazy like a SuperSweet 100, which is an indeterminant and can grow to be 8 feet tall.


So you want to look at that first.


Second, the size of the mature tomato determines how many fruits you'll get. So, for example, if you're growing a big Beefsteak slicing tomato, you will get fewer tomatoes than you would if you grow a Sweet 100, which makes very small cherry type tomatoes.


This is important because when daytime temperatures get up to about 90 to 95 degrees, your tomato plant is going to stop producing. Likewise, if the nighttime temperature stays above 70F, your plants will stop producing. So here in Texas, where our summer daytime temperatures are often above 95, your plant is going to shut itself down to save energy and reduce stress on itself. So they're not going to put any more flowers on and if they don't flower, they won't give you any more fruit. Whereas the smaller varieties like the mid-size Celebrity and the smaller grape and cherry sized tomatoes will continue to produce at a slightly higher temperatures, so you're more likely to keep getting fruit all through the summer.


The smaller the tomato, the more fruit it's going to produce. Small tomatoes include Sweet 100s Rapunzel, Cherries -- a lot of those guys are going to produce the whole summer for you.


Problems

Most of the tomatoes grown today are more disease resistant. They'll be more resistant to things like wilt and tomato blight. It's common for tomato leaves to turn yellow, which can be mistaken for blight. But a few yellowing leaves around the bottom of your plant are usually nothing more than a water issue. Never water from the top. Water the soil -- not the plant. Keep water off the foliage. Also, tomatoes like to be kept evenly moist. They don't want to dry out all the way and then be watered. And they like to be watered first thing in the morning. They also like to be mulched, so it's a good idea to mulch around them.


The other thing that can cause your tomato leaves to yellow is spider mites. Spider mites love tomatoes but they also love anything that's under stress. So if you're plant is stressing out because it's not getting watered the way it wants to, then the spider mites will come in and attack.


Spider Mites

If you look on the bottom side of that yellow leaf and feel it, you might feel a grittiness. You can also take a plain white piece of paper and hold the leaf over it and tap it to see what falls onto the paper. If there are spider mites, you should be able to see them moving around on the paper.


Leaf infected with spider mites.

One of the things that people have been doing for years is companion planting and marigolds are great to plant around your tomatoes because the spider mite is going to go to the marigold instead of the tomato.


Choosing a Spot

Plant your tomato where it will be sure to get at least a full 8 hours of sunlight. You can't do anything without full sun.


When you put your plant in the soil, you're going to take the first probably 4 leaves off of here. And you're just pinching them off. And then when you plant it, plant it all the way to where you pinched those leaves off. Because those points where you pinched the leaves off will form roots. Doing this is going to make for a sturdier plant. It's going to make a bigger main stem.


When you plant, dig your hole, add some soft rock phosphate and add epsom salt. What Epsom salt does is it adds magnesium and sulfate into the soil, which in turn, lets the plant take up all the nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium that's in there. So it's not a fertilizer. It's an additive that enhances your fertilizer.


When you're starting with a 4-inch starter plant, you want to add a tablespoon of the Epsom salt to each planting hole and then put some more dirt over the Epsom salt before putting your plant in the hole.


After that, about once a month put another 2 tablespoons around the plant's root zone. Make sure that you water it in and that you see it dissolve.


The other way that you can apply it is to mix 2 tablespoons in a gallon of water and use it as a foliar feed. And you can do that every 2 weeks.


The type of Epsom salt you use in gardening is a very fine grade. It's almost like sugar. It's very, very fine and so it dissolves really easily.


One of the things it does is help with blooms. It helps create more blooms and it helps with fruit production. It works really well for both peppers and tomatoes.


To Pinch or Not to Pinch

Should you pinch back your tomatoes? If you've got an indeterminate tomato, I would say pinch, and pinch as hard as you can. If you start off with a 6-inch tall plant, you can pinch off the top 2 inches of it. What that does is, it causes the stem to get heavier and to branch out.


If you've ever grown an indeterminate tomatoes, that thing can get wild. And you've got arms going everywhere and you can't reach in to get to the tomatoes because there's just not a whole lot of space. So if you keep that pinched back, you'll get a stronger plant with a nicer shape. So you're pinching to create the shape that you want.


The other thing you need to do is, as the plant is growing, you'll get sucker limbs that come in. You need to pinch those back and you need to create air space. Suckers grow right next to another stem. You don't want 2 stems right there, so you're going to pinch off the newest one. You can also pinch off anything around the bottom that you don't like.


Determinate tomatoes are bred to have that patio shape to where you're not getting all of that cross branching and that kind of stuff. But you still won't have the air space that you need. And so you can go in there and pinch back to where you have a little bit better air circulation. That way your tomatoes are also getting more sunlight and everything that they need.


Insect Problems

Insect problems are going to be tomato horn worms. Everybody gets tomato horn worms. For worms, you can use BT. Bacillus thuringiensis is an organic control for any of your worms, caterpillars, that kind of thing. You can spray it on your plant. Don't spray it on your blossom. I don't like spraying anything on the flowers because you don't want to hurt any of our pollinators that come in. Because even a nasty little horn worm is going to be a beautiful moth when it comes out. So we don't want to do any damage to that.


Tomato horn worms can devastate your plant overnight.

Pruning

Make sure that when you are pruning if you're not using your fingers, and you're using, say your utensil or your clippers and that make sure that you clean them before you start pruning. Because anything that you've pruned back that had disease on it you can transmit to the next item. So always make sure that you clean it. And you can clean them with alcohol and water. Bleach. Or probably even vinegar. We use vinegar around here because it's so acidic.


Drawing in Pollinators

Because even though tomatoes are self-pollinating, you still need a pollinator to come in and visit this flower and visit that flower. When it says self-pollinating, you still need the pollen to move from one flower to the next. And your pollinators are going to be the best way to do that. With your bees, your butterflies, any of those guys. So you need to plant to draw those guys in. African Blue Basil does absolutely wonderful. The basil draws in the bees like you would not believe. So you can plant that. Or you can plant any kind of flower that produces nectar. Borage, marigolds. So you can plant some flowers around.


Make sure you are attracting pollinators.

Like with us, we're growing in raised beds, but we're growing in pots also. So you could do your color. So you could bring pots in and sit them around your raised bed and that would work really well. That will bring in a lot more pollinators for you and you'll get a better stand.


A lot of time your tomato will drop its buds or dropping the fruit off before -- when it's still really teeny tiny. That's usually a calcium deficiency. And when it get bottom end rot, it's a calcium deficiency. So you can use the Cal-Mag to add calcium into it. We also carry a product by Ferti-Lome called Yield Booster that corrects it. You just spray it on. A lot of people crush egg shells to put in the planting hole at planting time. If you're going to use egg shells make sure you crush them really, really fine. And before you do that, pop them in the microwave for about 5 seconds. That will loosen the membrane that's inside the egg shell and you want to take that out and discard that. Because things like meat and dairy products can be infected with e. coli or other harmful bacteria that can infect your plants.

Blight

If you see any type of blight, you want to cut it off. When you do, you need to sterilize your prune after each and every cut to avoid spreading it to the remaining healthy parts of the plant. You can treat Fire Blight with Fire Blight Spray. It's actually Streptomyacin -- an anti-biotic and Fire Blight is a bacterium that also infects certain types of fruit trees like apples, pears and peaches. But it will also work on your veggies. It's a powder that you mix with water into a liquid and then spray. Tomatoes can also get Late Blight, which is a fungal disease.

Tomato Blight

Peppers

Peppers should be started when it gets warm -- after any chance of frost. Peppers like their nighttime temperatures to be at least 50 to 60 degrees F. You may be tempted to start earlier in the spring but in Texas we usually have a really good freeze right around Easter. So watch your garden. Watch the weather closely. There are sweet peppers and hot peppers. They may grow slowly at first and you might start to think it's not doing anything and then all of a sudden when our weather turns really hot and ugly, they will take off. And that's all of them, whether its a hot pepper or a sweet pepper. They really need our Texas heat to get going. But if you start it early and protect it, you'll have a really big plant when it does decide to start producing for you. So it's not too early to plant it. You just have to be prepared to protect it.


One of our attendees asked if she can plant peppers in a grow bag on top of concrete or a driveway where it's going to get more heat. You could probably do that. Because if its out on the grass and there's green all around, it's a little cooler. So you might get a quicker fruit set that way.


Best Soil for Containers

We're using the same blend as we did for our raised beds. It's Mayer Raised Bed Mix along with Cotton Burr, Rejuvenate and Texas Green Sand. We mixed it all up together in the bed. The ratio is about 1 to 1 to 1. Things have been doing really, really well, but it's been a month so I'm planning on doing a fish and seaweed fertilization this week. If you'd rather not use fish and seaweed, you can use Espoma Tomato-tone or Garden-tone. It's all good stuff. It's not going to hurt anything. You could use Tomato-tone on the whole garden and then every 3 weeks spray with fish and seaweed. When you're using organic fertilizers, it's not as easy to burn something as when you are using chemical fertilizers.


You can plant directly in Mayer Raised Bed Mix without any waiting.

What size container should you use? It depends on what you're growing. We're using anywhere from a 5 gallon to a 15 gallon container. I wouldn't go any smaller than 5 gallon. For example, you could use a 5 gallon paint bucket that's been cleaned out really, really well. Just make sure that you put plenty of drain holes in the bottom. None of our veggies like to sit with water on their roots. So make sure you drill plenty of holes. There's nothing set in stone on what you can grow in. Or what your raised bed should be made out of. It just has to hold the soil and the plant and have good drainage. So have fun with it.


Heirlooms vs. Hybrids

An heirloom is going to be a tomato that's been out forever. It's a tried-and-true variety, like Celebrity or Purple Cherokee. Hybrids are new varieties that they've created by crossing 2 other types of tomatoes -- usually to emphasize a certain characteristic, like better disease resistance or larger fruit. An example of a hybrid is the Green Zebra


Whether you plant an heirloom or a hybrid just depends on what you want.


When your spring tomato stops producing should you just yank it out and plant something else? Given how inexpensive it is and how readily available they are, I would say, yes, yank it out and plant a new one for fall.


Last year we planted a Rapunzel tomato and that plant produced tomatoes all summer and into October.


That concludes this episode of our spring gardening series. In our next segment, we will talk about how to grow squashes and cucumbers.


Watch the next episode in spring vegetable gardening series:


More Episodes

269 views
bottom of page