Hydroponic Tomatoes

Image from www.thisiscolossal.com
In addition to the aquaponics setup at Better Farm, we're installing a hydroponics system this year in order to grow tomatoes all winter long. While researching the best methods for a prolific crop, I came across a great tutorial at Vertical Hydroponic that walks you through the whole process. Those instructions are below.
Tomatoes are one of the most popular species of plants to grow hydroponically. Although many types of plants exhibit faster growth rates and accelerated fruit development in hydroponic systems, soft-tissue plants like tomatoes do especially well.


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Tomato Seeds or Starts
Since tomato seeds germinate relatively rapidly, most growers will begin their tomato plants from seed. Tomatoes seeds take approximately 10 to 14 days to germinate. A tomato plant will become fully mature in about two months. There are hundreds of different cultivars of tomatoes, including determinate and indeterminate varieties. Cherry, Roma, and Beefsteak are just some of the many popular tomato cultivars. Determinate varieties produce a large crop of tomatoes all at once and may also top off at a specific height. Indeterminate varieties produce multiple crops that grow in overlapping stages. Most heirloom varieties of tomatoes are indeterminate. It’s a good idea to research the different cultivars to find out which variety works best for your gardening situation. After about two weeks, your tomato plants should be ready to transplant into your hydroponic system.

After inserting the strongest plant starts into your hydroponic system, your tomato plants will begin to produce fruit within 60 days. Make sure you plan ahead and have an appropriate support system for your tomato plants. Tomatoes are a soft-tissue vining plant that requires a lot of support. Without a trellis or support stakes, the stems of your plants will most likely break under the weight of the tomato fruits.

Although spacing will depend on the particular variety that you are growing, typically tomato plants should be spaced about 18 to 24 inches apart. However, you can place the plants closer together if you train the vines appropriately to allow enough room for the fruits to develop. Vertical hydroponic systems such as the Bio-Tower are especially well suited to growing vining plants like tomatoes since the vines can easily hang off the sides of the growing containers.

Like many other fruiting plants, tomatoes require pollination in order to develop fruits. This will naturally occur in an outdoor environment from wind movement or bee activity. If you are growing indoors, you can either manually pollinate your flowers by touching different flowers with a small brush, or you can use alternating wind currents to induce cross-pollination.
Light
Tomatoes like a lot of light but can thrive with as little as seven hours of sunlight per day. However, tomatoes in too much strong direct sunlight may eventually show signs of heat stress.

Temperature
Ideally the temperature for tomatoes should remain between 65 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and between 55 to 65 degrees during the nighttime.

Nutrients
As a fruit-producing plant, most tomato varieties require relatively high levels of phosphorous and potassium. A typical hydroponic nutrient solution for tomatoes has a pH between 5.5 and 6.5. Tomatoes may also require a calcium supplement since the creation of fruit uses significant amounts of this secondary nutrient. However, make sure to follow the instructions for your particular brand of nutrients before adding any supplements to your reservoir.

Harvesting
After approximately 60 days, you should begin to have tomatoes that are large enough to harvest. Although there are many different varieties, most tomatoes turn red when they become ripe. You can pick off immature fruits and blossoms to maximize the size of the remaining fruits. You can also increase your harvest by “suckering” your tomato plants. “Suckering” is simply removing internodal branches that are not producing fruit. This encourages the plant to devote more nutrients to the branches that are producing fruit.

Pests and Diseases
Tomatoes are susceptible to a variety of plant diseases; including tobacco mosaic virus, fusarium wilt, and various other mildews and fungi. Tomato plants require significant amounts of calcium for fruit development so blossom end rot is another common problem that growers encounter. Common pests include the cutworm, aphids, and the tomato hornworm. Check with your local garden supplier to find the best pest prevention treatments for your particular environment. Remember, birds, squirrels, and deer will also eat tomatoes if they can get access.
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Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.