Tomato Plant

Coop's Secret Tricks for Growing Better Tomatoes in Central Texas!

As a Texan gardener, growing tomatoes is one of the most common crops people like to grow. Today, I’m delighted to share my personal opinions and tips for cultivating this mouthwatering crop right at home.

Tomatoes are the one crop I've grown consistently since 10 years old. If I had a picture of young Cooper with his veggie garden I would share it...Now I am here with Bachelors in Agriculture from Texas A&M, and some more growing seasons under my belt. Pictured below are this years' plants as of May 14, 2024, measured over 6-feet tall! WHOOP!

Tomato Plants on Fenceline

I am going to share the juicy knowledge up front and tag some University articles and troubleshooting guides at the end! Happy planting!

 

Soil Conditions:

Tomatoes thrive in deep, well-drained soils; digging a 1' hole in the ground and adding a potting soil compost mix is a good start! They will grow in almost any media you can think of, but in my experience filling the hole with a compost/potting mix works best. A 5-gallon container also works well for tomatoes, just make sure BOTH the soil and container can drain well.

When planting tomatoes it is necessary to add a healthy amount of fertilizers and compost DIRECTLY into the hole you are planting in. I use an initial helping (1 Tbsp ea) of Bonemeal, Osmocote, FoxFarms, and compost to the planting hole, and as a surface application after planting. Add these to your list, I'll go over more on them later!

For lighting, South facing full sun is best for Tomatoes!

Fox Farm Fertilizer

 

Plant Types for Texas:

First off, avoid Big Box stores like the plague, these plants cost 2-3x. The best places to buy are local nurseries or plant sales; the reason being is you can select from a larger variety of Non-GMO tomato types. For example, I have brown, yellow, lobed and ribbed tomato varieties that cost me $1.50 a plant.

The big things to look for a disease, pest, and drought resistant varieties; these are often denoted by an "Improved", "Better", or "Best" or a string of letters. If you can get plants with drought resistance and a "N" modifier, these are for nematodes that I'll talk about later. Here is a guide to Every-Single-Tomato-Variety in existence...

The ideal situation is here is to buy Tomato varieties that suit your specific conditions. This usually takes a season or two to understand, but once you identify your variables, then you can select plants that will faire better!

 

Initial Planting Phase: Setting the Foundation

My tomato planting begins with careful preparation to give these plants the best start. Firstly, pruning the lower leaves off using my thumb and index finger. I bury the stem deep, sometimes up to two-thirds of the entire plant, which encourages a strong root system (rhizome) from the buried stem. You can also lay the tomatoes down and bury the root ball and stem with soil. This will get you an even larger root ball and is a fun experiment.

Before planting, add a mix of fertilizers to the bottom of each hole. I use a tbsp. of Bonemeal, FoxFarm tomato fertilizer, slow release fertilizer (Osmocote), and finally some compost. This ensures your tomato plant will have a rich supply of the necessary nutrients to achieve a large plant earlier in the season.

I cannot stress enough the importance of doing this when you plant, because it will save you time and effort later!

 

Pruning Essentials: Suckers and First Flowers

As the plants grow, I regularly prune the "suckers," which are the small shoots that appear in the crotch between the stem and a "fan leaf" branch. Removing these EARLY helps direct the plant’s energy towards growing TALLER and better fruits. I also pinch off the first 2-3 sets of flowers that appear. This might seem counterproductive, but it encourages the plant to vegetate longer and become able to support a larger crop. 

I mainly remove flowers from larger varieties, if you are growing Cherry or Roma tomatoes you can leave the first flowers. PROTIP: While you're watering, you should check your plants for suckers.

 I will also prune lower branch sets as the plant grows taller, along with any damaged leaves. You are not going to hurt the plant by removing or plucking off leaves, it can actually stimulate growth.

Tomato Plant Sucker

 

Fruit Setting Phase and Fertilization

During the fruit-setting phase, tomatoes have specific nutritional needs. I prefer organic fertilizers like fish emulsion, seaweed spray, and chelates. These not only feed the plant but also improve the soil structure and increase microbial activity. The seaweed/kelp can be applied as a foliar spray at dusk for immediate plant uptake overnight.

Alternative products like water soluble FoxFarms work very well for all-purpose garden feedings. I would suggest purchasing a dissolved solids (TDS) meter and pH meter to test the strength of your liquid feedings if you want to achieve precise feeding and nutrient uptake.

  • Total Dissolved Solids: measures the concentration of salts and minerals in PPM
  • pH: very important, can influence what nutrients are availble for uptake by your plants. Look at Nutrient Lockout to learn more - here!

You do not want to burn your plants like I did last season, you'll stunt your plants for the rest of the season. 

Regular feeding helps produce a bountiful harvest of plump, juicy tomatoes. It also helps eliminate aborted tomatoes and blooms, as well as gives the plant everything it needs to continue providing you food.

If you underfeed, you run the risk of a nutrient deficiency that results in a yellowing of leaves. This is also called "chlorosis" and should be diagnosed by first asking if the perceived deficiency is appearing on the OLD or YOUNG leaves first! See the chart below to help, this applies to almost ALL Plants!

 

Nutrient Deficiency Flow Chart

 Credit: Montana State University

 

Watering Techniques: The Art of Hydration

Proper watering is crucial, especially in our hot Texas weather. Make sure to only water the ground, and not on the leaves! Water on leaves will promote blight and mold growth. Ideally, use a drip irrigation system to deliver water directly to the roots. I water with a wand at the base of the plant, this is where PRUNING early can help you actually reach the base of the plant.

It’s important not to overwater, as tomatoes prefer their soil to be moist but not soggy. A common rule of thumb or test with watering in Agriculture, is to avoid watering a few days and see how long it takes for you plant to wilt and go from there.

 

Pest Control: Keeping the Critters at Bay

In Texas, pests like hornworms, nematodes, whiteflies and other pests can be a real threat to tomato plants. Well go over some of these pests later, but lets discuss the different options for pest control!

I treat ALL of my pests with either Neem oil, Bacillus Thuringiensis (BT), or diatomaceous earth. All of these options are considered standard for organic agriculture and are all pet-safe.

  • Neem Oil: foliar spray used for mites, aphids, and whiteflies. Make sure you "bend" the plant over and get the underside of the leaves.
  • Bacillus Thuringiensis (BT): Naturally occurring soil bacteria that produces endotoxins on contact with caterpillars (like the Tomato Hornworm).
  • Diatomaceous Earth (DE): non-toxic to animals and humans. Powdered form, use as a surface application in a "ring" around the plant protects against insects. Perhaps one of safest forms of pest control, also good for around the house.

Now let's get into my top 3 pests:

1. The Hornworm

Tomato Hornworm

Credit: Haley Parson

Hornworms can proliferate and destroy a healthy plant if left unattended for a few days. You'll usually first notice the fresh leaves being eaten and little poops left on the leaves. This is your sign that some Tomato Hornworm eggs have hatched on your plant!

I like to get up early to check my plants first thing, which is when these worms are active and easy to find! I always look for 2-3 more worms when I find the first one. I inspect my plants often, removing pests by hand when I spot them. The BT spray mentioned earlier is a good preemptive tool to use when getting into June-July season.

2. Root Knot Nematodes

Root Knot Nematodes

Credit: University of Maryland

Nematodes are integral to all soils and feed on a other microbes to maintain competition in soils. Nematodes are harder to control in urban gardens, this is due to the importation of red clay loam to stabilize areas around residential foundations.

We refer to this soil in the gardening community as RED DEATH! The nematodes thrive here because they attach to clay particles and love wet soils. None of the treatments mentioned above will cure the nematodes, because they are present in all soil. However, you can purchase beneficial nematodes to combat the bad ones. The only long term solutions are subsoil replacement or growing in raised beds and containers. You will know after a season or two if Nematodes are a problem where you live!

3. Whiteflies & Aphids

These 2 are easily identifiable and treatable if you check the undersides of leaves frequently. They will multiply and even clone, quickly if not checked with a foliar application of Neem Oil. These are important to treat as soon as you find them or they will proliferate and you'll have an infestation on your hands.

Here is an resource by the City of Austin on Sensible landscaping.

 

Tackling Common Problems

Tomato growers often face challenges like blossom end-rot, root nematodes, and high soil temperatures. To combat these, I suggest making sure your feeding and watering schedules are adequate and consistent. Next, use mulch to keep the soil temperature stable. If using a liquid fertilizer, make sure you adjust your pH of the solution so it is near neutral (7).

If you can feed, water, and protect the plant - it will yield well.

 

Fertilizer Schedules: Timing for Optimal Growth

I've found that a consistent feeding schedule significantly benefits tomato health and yield. Starting with a balanced fertilizer at planting, I then switch to a high-phosphorus formula to promote blooms. Once fruits begin to set, I apply a potassium-rich fertilizer every four to six weeks to support fruit development. The Fox Farm schedule shown below, is easy to follow for beginners! I use their products on most of my garden.

Fox Farm Feeding Schedule

Growing tomatoes in Texas is a delightful endeavor that fills my summers with a fun experiment and my belly with BLTs. Whether you’re a seasoned gardener or just starting, I hope these tips help you on your journey to grow better tomatoes. Happy gardening!

For more expert tips on gardening in Texas, check out our guide on growing vibrant and flavorful peppers in your garden!

 

Additional Resources:

  1. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension - Guide to Growing Tomatoes 
  2. Texas Gardener - Growing Tomatoes in Texas Organically
  3. State Fair of Texas - Growing Tomatoes in Texas
  4. Rutgers University - Guide to Tomato Varieties
  5. Royal Horticulture Society - How to Grow Tomatoes

Troubleshooting Guides:

  1. Epic Gardening - Pest Identification and Prevention
  2. Mississippi State University - Common Problems with Tomatoes
  3. The Natural Gardener - Tomatoes Common Issues
  4. Montana State University - Nutrient Deficiency and Toxicity

 

Back to blog

1 comment

This is awesome information. Super helpful regarding fertilization and pruning. I haven’t been doing enough of either. May be watering too much. We have had an infestation of hornworms. Used a blacklight on them at night and pulled off about 15. Haven’t seen anymore since.

Tyler Boykin

Leave a comment