Feeding Your Tomato Plants through the Summer Months

Congratulations! You raised your tomato plants from delicate seedlings, placed them in the perfect spot in your vegetable garden, fed them a little compost, and now all that's left is to wait for those delicious fruits to ripen. Compared to the work tomatoes demand in the spring -- nurturing seedlings, preparing the soil, finding the perfect spot to plant, hardening off the new sprouts -- the summer months are a breeze. Your biggest challenge may be simply not to fuss too much, especially when it comes to feeding your plants.

As you count down the days until you can harvest juicy tomatoes for your salads, here are the steps you can take to make sure your plants get all the nutrition they need throughout the summer:

The perfect tomato diet: If you mixed compost with your soil as you planted your tomatoes, you are 90 percent of the way to having met your plant's nutrition needs for the season.  You should also spread compost about 5cm deep in an area at least 50cm around the plant, more for larger plants. This will act as a mulch to keep soil damp and weeds away, as food for the growing plant, and as a preventative shield against soil-borne diseases.

Compost, black garden gold: The key here is to use compost and not other mulches, especially not wood chips (which can harbor the diseases and fungi most fatal to tomatoes). If you haven't made your own compost, then you can find it in bulk or in bags at local nurseries and garden centers.

Other fertilizers: In all but the most extreme cases, commercial fertilizers are unnecessary and could be harmful to your tomato plants. The most common garden fertilizers are labeled 10-10-10, which represents the ratio of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in the mix. This is far too much nitrogen, the element that boosts leafy green growth, for a healthy tomato. The result of feeding with this mix will be lush and rapid development of the plant's branches and leaves and very few flowers or fruits. If you feel you must apply packaged fertilizer to your plants, try one labeled 3-1-2. Or better yet, use an organic liquid mixture of fish and seaweed, which will bring with it other hard-to-find nutrients that will help your plant thrive. Do not, however, use fish emulsion alone. Like the 10-10-10 mixes, it is likely to have too much nitrogen and will decrease your harvest.

A quiet summer is the key to a busy harvest season when it comes to tomatoes. Feed them the right food, not too much, and in the form of rich compost whenever possible. If you follow those simple guidelines, you are guaranteed a bountiful crop of delicious and healthy tomatoes.