What’s the secret to growing good tomatoes in DC?

Photo by PoPville flickr user Clif Burns

From one of the garden haul posts:

“Following the entries, could you post on open thread on gardening advice for DC? I attempted to grow tomatoes and some herbs in my front garden this year, and got about 2 weeks of good growth before they withered and died (despite frequent watering). Would love to hear some tips from those with green thumbs!”

32 Comment

  • Have a good variety (Romas aren’t the best choice), plant it with lots of compost, and water it with drip. Tomatoes take a legendary amount of water once the fruit starts developing, and that’s usually right about the same time all the spring rains go away.

  • I always plant tomatoes with dill, just like my grandmother did.

  • 1. the right soil. I use a square foot garden method with raised bed and specific soil recipe. You can find online.
    2. the right variety of tomato. Something that tolerates heat.
    3. the right amount of water. Not too much. But enough. And on a regular basis.
    4. plenty of sunlight. At least 7-8 hours of direct light for the best outcome.

    Even with that, there are no guarantees. IF you get that far, then there’s there battle with vermin.

    Withering could indicate an infection, wilt, fungus, or parasite of some kind, too.

    • burritosinstereo

      so what’s the right variety of tomato? not being snarky, I am curious because next summer I want to take advantage of my balcony and try and grow some, and I don’t have a good track record with this kind of stuff.

  • It’s not easy, and much more difficult if you want to start from seed. Here are some of the more important variables that we’ve discovered: 1) Soil: DC soil isn’t suitable for growing vegetables without heavy amendment. The quckest way to success is raised beds with a new soil mix (start with the square foot gardening mix and go from there) 2) Pests: There are a number of afflictions that can strike your tomato plants at almost any time in the growing season– aphids, spider mites, root pests, hornworms– you have to carefully monitor the plants, especially early in the season. Aphids and spider mites are hard to see and harder to get rid of without destroying your plants. 3) Sun and Water: Tomatoes need a ton of sun. If your yard is shaded you might as well give up. They aren’t as susceptible to too much water as too little, but too much can cause problems and rot. 4) Protection: Even if you are able to get some fruit, the squirrels and birds are coming for them. We’ve used netting, scare owls, and strips of tin foil near the fruit to various degrees of success. 5) Support: get the young plants supported early and revisit the supports often. If the growing plants are not regularly secured a summer storm can destroy them in a matter of minutes. 6) Spacing: Tomatoes need a lot of room to grow, so resist the urge to put small plants near each other. They will fill out into all the space you give them.

    If you want to grow from seed you’ll need a decent grow light setup and start early (March). The easiest path is to buy starters but you’ll be limited to less interesting (and tasty) tomatoes that way.

    Good luck!

    • Bear


      I start from seed with a grow light setup, and have had mixed results with different varieties. Cherry tomatoes have always done better for me than larger ones – they seem to be more productive and lest vulnerable to pests. Definitely use some kind of netting or barrier for pests – last year I didn’t get a single tomato off of my larger plants.

      • Yellow tomatos have been my ‘tried and true” for many years – Yellow Boy for regular (determinate) and Sungold for cherries. The Sungold is a superstar in my garden this year

        • my sungolds are also flourishing. In the past, I’ve had good luck with black cherry and black krim — both of which are delicious and productive. Yellow pear has done well for me too.

  • My tomatoes plants have grown about three feet tall but are not giving me any tomatoes. Not sure what I am doing wrong. They have been in the ground since May. /:

    • Do they have flowers? If not, fertilize them with a bloom booster (high middle number). It might be a little late for this year, though.

    • Too much nitrogen in the soil, or not enough sunlight.

    • i’m a bit late to this conversation, but are you pinching them? As the plant grows, you will see a third leaf/stem where secondary stems branch off from the main one. Remove that third stem. otherwise you will get lots of lush foliage and few tomatoes.

  • Here’s what worked for me this year:
    1. Buying the plants way too late, and cramming 6 of them in a 1’x3′ plot along with some pepper plants.
    2. Being out of town in June and July, during which time they only got watered when it rained.
    3. In early August I staked them to some trellises I found on the curb, and started feeding them a daily regimen of spent coffee grounds. I’ve only been watering them if the soil looks especially dry.
    Last time I counted there were around 40 tomatoes and the plants seem very healthy. Now that it’s gotten cooler the tomatoes are starting to ripen (I read somewhere that they stop producing lycopene and carotene when it’s hotter than 85 degrees).

  • Echoing the advice above re right plant, right spot (with good light, soil, support, amount of water, etc).
    Last year was a great year for snow peas and cucumbers but tomatoes did not produce, This year, cucumbers succumbed to blight and tomatoes are going strong.
    Withering and dying was likely because of blight/fungus which is hard to avoid in this climate. Growing resistant hybrids (will have V and F after the tomato name) or grafted heirlooms on hardy rootstock helps, but resistant doesn’t mean immune.
    Be careful about watering – don’t get water on the leaves, water early in the day, slow and deep every few days rather than watering light and often. Cut off bottom leaves to about 1′ off the ground. Once a leaf shows signs of yellow or a brown spot, cut it off and throw in trash.
    My blog – heliosmonroe wordpress has more tips on growing tomatoes, also come to the next Gin & Gardening gathering where we can share more ideas on successful urban gardening, also discuss fall gardening. Tentative date – Sept 13th, The Heights, 6:00 pm (look for confirmation of date/time in R&R)

  • Lots and lots of compost! Like, when you prep your soil in the spring, mix in so much compost that it doesn’t look like you can add anymore, and then put more in. I harvested about 150 lbs of tomatoes from my 15×15 ft garden in my Petworth backyard last year, and that’s not even counting the other stuff I had growing like peppers, onions, berries, etc. Use a drip irrigation system and mulch really well. Straw is great for for this. I buy one bale and pile it on really thick–like 6 inches thick–all over the whole garden after I’ve put my seedlings in. And don’t forget to fertilize! Whether you use organic or not, follow the instructions and do it on schedule. Use a really good support system and don’t wait to install it until the plants already need it–it’s too late by then. Lastly, if you don’t get enough sun, you need to give up on tomatoes and grow shade loving herbs, lettuces, etc.

  • Compost and a wee bit of the correct organic fertilizer in spring, raised beds with loamy soil, drip irrigation if you can do it – otherwise consistent watering. Full sun for majority of daylight hours. I used an organic supplement to prevent root rot. If you’re really serious, have soil tested for pH level. Fortunately we haven’t had major pest issues the last 2 years. Plant heat and disease resistant varieties – very important in a region where temps exceed the 90s. I still struggle with how to control really large vines (7+ feet in August).

    The best urban DC tomato garden I ever saw used drip irrigation on a timer, large pots and zip-ties securing the vines to a large trellis that got great sun. Plants were carefully pruned. Massive red beefsteaks growing by June.

  • I grow tomatoes every year and its always hit and miss. Last year I had a huge haul, this year I got about 30 cherries from one of my 5 plants before they all withered and died.

    But! I’ll add this one piece of advice that has a very good effectiveness (not 100% but probably 80-90%) towards protect the fruit once it starts growing — the alley squirrels will feast on mine if left unprotected. Fill a spray bottle with a couple sliced open hot pepper and warm water, and spray the fruit every other day, and right after it rains. You don’t need to refill the bottle with warm water, just use the mixture until it’s empty. The capsaicin will ward off the rodents, and it doesn’t affect the taste of the tomatoes at all.

    • I’m going to sell like a salesman for them, but definitely try the Repels-All spray. So effective! And once you smell it, you’ll know why.

  • Squirrels are always my biggest problem. Last year I had success by making a homemade red pepper spray and keeping them coated with that. This year, the squirrels didn’t seem to care… or maybe the birds were the culprits this time.

    • Amen! We’ve seen plenty of fruit on ours, but by the time they are just about to get ripe, they are chewed up. Frustrating.

  • Here are a few of my tips:

    Repels-All is a great, natural spray that you can use around your garden bed to repel squirrels and racoons. It smells TERRIBLE and you want to make sure the wind is low when you spray otherwise you’ll get covered. The smell is attributed to the fact that its primary ingredients are dried blood and deer urine. Mmm. Available at Home Depot. It works great though. Reapply every time it rains. You don’t need much.

    Never plant tomatoes in the same bed every year. I didn’t know this but my dad, the expert farmer, told me this. Unfortunately, we made that mistake and our tomatoes didn’t do great this year.

    Here’s an article that has some good tips too. My dad swears by the egg shells. He dries them in the microwave before crumbling them with a burr grinder and then mixes it into the soil. https://www.yahoo.com/makers/9-weird-tomato-hacks-to-try-118224259075.html?soc_src=mags&soc_trk=ma

    We also love composted fish fertilizer. Wonderful all-around fertilizer for everything because it’s low in nitrogen. Good to help things get started and BIG and then supplement with some tomato-specific fertilizers once they start to bloom. Also available at Home Depot but other brands are available at organic gardening suppliers.

    • I LOL’d on reading “The smell is attributed to the fact that its primary ingredients are dried blood and deer urine.”

      • My husband learned the “don’t spray when windy” rule the hard way. He scrubbed himself in the shower for an hour and we burnt those clothes. LOL. But like I said, it works!

  • Fertilize, fertilize, fertilize. If you haven’t had success in the past, definitely go with seedlings rather than from seed.
    Also, what other people have said: water, but not too much. Sun. Trellis effectively.
    If you need help, the people at Johnson’s in Tenleytown are FAR more helpful than any other garden center.

    • Also… get nice seedlings. A lot of the ones at hardware stores are not great. Some of the farmer’s market ones are, some aren’t. Get there early the day you plan on buying and get big healthy looking ones.

      • This is a key point. You can also order seedlings online– they arrive in protective sleeves. This is a good middle ground, as you get generally higher quality plants, at the correct time, and access to some pretty awesome heirloom varieties that you’ll never find at the local stores.

  • Full sun and crazy water. Earthbox is a tomato MACHINE

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