Backyard Bounty’s Guide to Terrific Tomatoes

Use our 6 P’s to help you achieve Tomato Bliss this summer:

  • Picking
  • Placing
  • Planting
  • Pruning
  • Pairing
  • Protecting

If you follow these steps carefully, you’ll be able to really enjoy the 7th and best “P”: Plate!


There are 2 major types of tomatoes to choose from; select the one that best fits your space

  • Indeterminate: Vining type that needs physical support – such as trellises or stakes. These are grown in beds
  • Determinate: best type for containers as they are not a vining tomato and grow more like a bush
    Heirloom or cultivated varieties? We love our heirlooms, but recommend that you also purchase disease resistant cultivars,- Verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, and nematode resistance are bred into tomatoes labeled ‘VFN’


  • All Tomatoes require at least six hours of sunlight
  • Vegetables should not be planted in a spot where any of the same plant family has grown the previous season. Rotate where you plant your tomatoes each year when you can; tomatoes are in the Solanaceae family. Do not plant following other tomatoes, potatoes, peppers or eggplant
  • Optimal soil pH for tomatoes is between 6 and 6.8. Perform a soil test every three years if possible to understand the soil you are planting in. Backyard Bounty can perform and interpret soil tests for you and help with interpreting them


  • Plant after last frost date for your area (
  • Spacing: Indeterminate and Determinate varieties need an average spacing of 15” apart, so long as they are supported by stakes. Unsupported determinates need to be 24” apart
  • Prepping the tomato bed: Don’t stand directly on your tomato bed or you will compact the soil, reducing air pockets in the soil where roots grow
  • Loosen the sub-soil at a depth of 12-18” by pushing the tines of a garden fork back and forth across the planting area
  • Amend the top 12” of soil with a third compost and turn it into the soil underneath. If this is a new vegetable bed or one that has not been amended with organic matter in a long time, spread a layer of compost 6” deep over the top of the bed and turn it in to the soil underneath to a depth of 12”
  • Plant deep, deep, deep!! Dig a hole deep enough that only 4” of the tomato plant is showing above the soil
  • You do not need to remove any lower leaves that are being buried. New roots are going to grow from both the main stem and from the leaf branches
  • Place plant in the hole and fill hole with a mix of 1/3 compost and 2/3 soil
  • Place the stake or tomato cage in the hole at the same time. If you leave this until later you will kill roots when placing the support system near the tomato plant
  • Plan on routinely adding 1-2” of compost to your vegetable garden in spring and fall each year. A good compost should be dark, crumbly and have an earthy smell to it. ‘Leafgro’ is a reliable form of compost that you can purchase in bags in most nurseries. Keep “side-dressing” plants with compost throughout the growing season to increase nutrient availability and to add further water-holding material to the soil


  • Not so necessary for Determinate varieties, but essential for Indeterminates.
  • Pinch the tip off of tomato plants that are long and leggy when you purchase them. Pinching the tip will create a bushier plant. You can also pinch off the tip of an established plant once the plant reaches the top of its stake or trellis
  • Once the plant is in the ground a couple of weeks or so, start pruning out the suckers as soon as they appear. These are the shoots produced in between the main stem and a leaf (in the “leaf crotch”), that will become further main stems- you’ll sacrifice some tomatoes with this pruning, but the fruit you get will be bigger and tastier


You can plant smaller plants around tomatoes to shade the soil and to keep down weeds and prevent the soil from drying out

  • On the north side of tomatoes plant either salad greens or peas (up a trellis which will also protect young tomato plants from the drying effects of wind)
  • Attract beneficial insects by plantings nearby that have flowers attractive to pollinators (including basil, cilantro, hyssop), as well as native perennials that attract pollinators such as milk weed, asters, goldenrod, and Black Eyed Susans
    Some folks believe African Marigolds and Nasturtiums help repel pests from tomato plants, but the research is inconclusive. However, they make the vegetable garden prettier so go for it

Protecting – Water and Mulch

Watering:  An average of 1” of rainfall is needed per week for most vegetables to grow well. Measure rainfall with a rain gauge

  • Hand watering is the most common source of additional water
    Avoid watering tomatoes from overhead so that leaves don’t get too wet. Wet leaves spread fungal diseases such as Early or Late Blight and bacterial diseases or viruses such as various kinds of wilt (e.g. verticillium and fusarium
  • Water in the morning when possible so that the sun can help dry leaves that get wet. It is best to water deep and long; frequent, shallow watering encourages shallow roots and weaker plants
  • Decrease amount of water for tomatoes once you start to harvest the fruits.
  • Mulch tomatoes well. The best organic mulches for tomatoes include: shredded leaves, compost and grass clippings from a non chemically-treated lawn

90% of our water comes from where???

The Potomac.  Yes, that’s right- the Potomac provides 90% of the water we drink.

Please join us in the effort to keep our drinking water clean by reducing the pollution and chemicals that enter the river from our yards.  (New Pollutants in the Potomac and Beyond).

Here’s how:

  • Avoid using chemicals in your garden and on your lawn; these often wash into our the streams during storms, which then send the chemicals and fertilizers into the Potomac
  • Improve the way your yard handles storm water runoff; rain gardens and conservation landscaping help keep pollution from our driveways and roofs from running into our streams. Check out the resources on the newly redesigned Backyard Bounty website including a video on how to design and install a stormwater management facility in your garden.
  • Join us in supporting organizations that work to improve the cleanliness of the water in the Potomac- this year, a portion of BB’s sales will go directly to the Potomac Conservancy to help them advocate for clean water

Backyard Bounty is committed to helping our environment by helping customers and communities design, build and maintain sustainable, clean water landscapes.

We were honored to recently receive the Carol Carter Excellence Award from Montgomery County for our work on environmentally-friendly yards.

Now more than ever, it’s up to all of us to do what we can at home to take care of our natural resources.

Green Mulch

Backyard Bounty landscape/garden design & installation, Silver Spring Maryland phone:301 221-4931 email: info@backyardbounty.netGreen Mulch? Yes, Green Mulch!
Not because Saint Patrick’s Day is around the corner, and not because we’ve given up all our principles and recommend using one of those dyed mulches that leach scary chemicals into the ground…
‘Green mulch’ isn’t shredded hardwood that is colored green- it’s green plants used in place of shredded wood mulch. Mulching is an important practice in sustainable land care and mulching with plants instead of wood is a great way to get the benefits of mulching plus more.

Why mulch at all?
A 2-3” layer of mulch helps retain soil moisture, keeps surface temperatures down, and helps to keep weeds from emerging in empty spaces. As the cliché goes: ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’ and voids at the ground layer are easy opportunities for weeds to enter. Mulching is part of a 5-part organic land care practice that keeps plants healthy without chemicals. Read more about these 5 practices below.

Why Green Mulch instead of traditional mulch?
Beyond the appeal of more plants and more color in the landscape, Green Mulch can be a more economical way to maintain your garden. Instead of adding mulch year after year, plants fill the voids that mulch traditionally fills; for the gardener that means less weeding and less mulch to buy and apply. We recommend reading Thomas Rainer and Claudia West’s new book: Planting in a Post Wild World for more information about plant communities, Green Mulch and vertical layering.

How to try it?
If you are interested in testing Green Mulch in your garden this year, let us know. During the early spring, Backyard Bounty is offering our clients the opportunity to substitute a flat of 32 or 50 Green Mulch plants for a cubic yard of shredded pine mulch. An ideal spot to trial Green Mulch in your garden would be under shrubs that don’t have a ground-hugging layer of plants – a bank of azaleas, for example, or a bed with screening trees that have yet to fill in are both good places to begin.

What are some good Green Mulch Plants?
Some of our favorite green mulch plants to select from are listed below. If you are not familiar with these plants, please let us help you select those that would be ideal for your garden situation:

5 Best Practices of Organic Land Care
Our gardens are an opportunity to make both our lives and the environment better by encouraging pollinators, creating wildlife habitat, keeping storm water from running into our streams, providing us with fresh vegetables, and beautiful outdoor living spaces. However, if we install plants to nurture wildlife and then spray our gardens with weed killer or over fertilize we lose many of the benefits of these sustainable practices.

At Backyard Bounty, we look at garden maintenance the way we look at taking care of our health. We stay well by eating right, practicing good hygiene, getting enough water, protecting ourselves from extreme weather and getting enough rest. Our landscape maintenance program takes these 5 elements and adapts them for the garden. When we take care of ourselves, we don’t have to rely on medication to lead a healthy, happy life. Likewise, plants growing in healthy soil perform at their best and are better able to stand up to disease, pests and weather without chemical support.

What does this kind of garden maintenance involve? Five things:

What Why When
Pruning Keeps plants healthy by improving air flow, removing damage that may draw harmful pests, and getting rid of disease to prevent spreading Mostly in late winter/early spring, Any time for dead or diseased branches. Some plants should be pruned in late spring/ early summer
Natural process fertilization Feeds plants by keeping the soil healthy and alive with compost tea applications Spring and fall
Mulching Retain moisture, inhibit weed growth Early spring
Periodic tending Keep the garden orderly so you enjoy it
Patrol for unwanted pests and disease
A monthly visit, April- September
End of season clean up and winter mulching Remove excess leaves on garden beds and lawns to avoid matting and top-dress beds with compost to feed the soil over the winter November or December

Backyard Bounty’s Pruning Primer for early season plant care.

Believe it or not, the snow in our region will be gone at some point. When the first warm Saturday comes around, you’ll probably notice some broken branches and a garden eager to be cleaned up for spring. Pruning is the first chore for this prep. (Earlier information about pruning here:).

No matter which type of tree, shrub or bush you wish to prune, there are a few simple rules to use as your guide and four basic cuts that are useful year-round.

Simple Rules for Pruning

• How to know what to prune? at Backyard Bounty, we always start by determining which cuts will maintain the health of the plant. We follow the rule of the “Four D’s” in determining what these cuts are, looking for Dead, Diseased, Damaged or Displaced (crossing) branches.
• How much can I cut out from a tree or shrub? Remove no more than one-fourth of most plants at one time and no more than one-third in one year
o FYI: In general, the harder a plant is cut back, the more vigorous the re-growth.
• Where do I start on an overgrown shrub:
o It is generally healthier for plants to remove older stems and branches over a 3–4 year period.
o Never just randomly trim or shear the ends of branches on an overgrown woody plant (unless it’s a hedge-like plant), in order to reduce its size. This will stimulate a lot of increased growth over the whole plant, which prevents light from entering the inside of the plant causing dieback. This will often then lead to pest and disease problems.

The Four Types of Cut
There are four basic pruning cuts, each aimed at producing a different effect.
• Pinch-pruning
• Thinning
• Heading back
• Shearing

1. Pinch-Pruning (Pinching) of the shoot tips

Where: Used for some Ornamental Shrubs (such as Fuschia and Chrysanthemum) and many herbaceous plants (including some vegetables).

Why: To produce a bushy plant.

How: Use the thumb and forefinger to pinch at the tip for cutting.

2. Thinning

Where: All woody plants

Why: Selective thinning reduces the density of a woody plant without stimulating a lot of new growth.
Thinning also opens up the plant, allowing light in and helping maintain the plant’s natural shape. New growth occurs only on the remaining stems and branches.

A thinning cut removes a lateral stem, limb or branch back to its point of origin on the main branch, trunk or back to the ground (see diagram below)

How: Use hand-held pruners, loppers, or a pruning saw to make thinning cuts, depending on the thickness of the branch/stem being cut.

(from the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s website

3. Heading Back

Where: Woody plants (as with thinning), but to produce a different effect

Why: A proper heading cut is made to reduce the height or length of just a few branches at a time. (See diagram above)

How: The cut is made farther back from the end of a shoot than you would for pinching, but always just above a lateral bud or shoot that is heading in the right direction for the new growth to go (normally an outward-facing bud).

Note: A common mistake of inexperienced gardeners is to make an indiscriminate heading cut (by cutting anywhere on a branch or stem to shorten it), when what’s needed is a thinning cut.
This is incorrect pruning (unless shearing a hedge), because heading cuts stimulate vigorous new clustered growth from lateral buds below the cut (and even more so if the cut is made just randomly anywhere on the stem). This makes a plant denser and not smaller.

Therefore, to reduce the density of a shrub, use thinning cuts, because you remove a number of lateral buds along with the stem or branch, making it less likely for you to end up with clusters of unwanted shoots than you are when you make heading cuts.

4. Shearing

Where: On hedging plants or when cutting some herbaceous plants back after blooming.
Since this method cuts right through leaves, it’s best done on small-leafed plants, where damage is less noticeable.

Why: This causes vigorous new growth just below the cuts. Therefore for hedging plants, it needs to be done regularly in order to maintain a desired shape.
For some herbaceous plants, it is done to promote further flowering (Threadleaved Tickseed – Coreopsis verticillata for example)

How: These are random heading cuts that are made with shears or electric hedge trimmers.

Pruning plants in February? Are you crazy? Or crazy not to?

1. Why to prune in February – Proper pruning helps ensure attractive, healthy, productive plants when spring arrives.
2. Get ready – Sharpen your tools. A sharp pruning cut is essential to a plant’s health.
3. Do your pruning right – Stay tuned next week for Part 2 of our pruning guide to make sure you’re getting the results you want.

1. Why to prune in February

There are plenty of reasons to stay inside in February:
− Every instinct wants to continue our hibernation inside in the warmth this month. It’s part of our natural seasonal rhythm.
− “No way can I get outside on these cold, miserable grey days! I don’t even walk the dog right now!”
There are also plenty of reasons to get outside in February:
− As garden lovers we know the many benefits of the exercise and sunlight, as well as the rewards from nurturing something we love and of being once again close to the earth after months away.
− Proper pruning helps ensure attractive, healthy, productive plants when spring arrives.
− From late Winter (from mid-February) to very early spring (before the buds show) is the time to prune Summer-flowering deciduous woody plants such as Butterfly Bush, Beautyberry and Japanese Spirea.
− These plants bloom in summer on the current year’s new growth. If you prune too late and remove the buds, you will have no flowers this year.
− Many deciduous shrubs don’t produce attractive flowers. These shrubs may possess attractive bark, fruit, or fall leaf color. Prune these shrubs now in late winter or very early spring before the buds show.
− Above all, deciduous shrubs should not be pruned in late summer. Pruning shrubs in August or early September may encourage a late flush of growth. This new growth may not harden sufficiently before the arrival of cold weather and be susceptible to winter injury.
− Old, neglected spring-flowering shrubs often require extensive pruning to rejuvenate or renew the plants. The best time to rejuvenate large, overgrown shrubs is late winter or early spring before the plants begin to leaf out.

2. How to get ready

Sharpen your tools. A sharp pruning cut is essential to a plant’s health.
− Clean the pruners/loppers with warm soapy water and wire wool.
− Then apply a lubricant such as WD40.
− Clean cuts allow the plant to heal well. Many people are unsure as to what to use to sharpen pruners.
− Backyard Bounty suggests DMT “Diafold” sharpeners. We have years of experience in using them and have learned to love their high quality and their convenience. Much faster than other sharpeners, and no oil needed. They fold to pocket size. The blade is protected at all times once folded and they last for many years even when used continually.
− We suggest the “coarse grit’ (blue) for any neglected blades and the red one (“fine grit”) if you are just maintaining a keen edge on a regularly sharpened blade (ie red is for the gardener who is good at maintaining their tools……………not so many of us in this category!!!)
− Method: Hold the “Diafold” sharpener at a 20-30 degree angle against the blade of the pruners or loppers. With pressure on the outer edge of the pruners’ blade, file all the way along the blade in one direction, away from you. Lift and repeat. Don’t go back and forth. Test for sharpness on a small branch if needed.

− Backyard Bounty has found ‘AM Leonard’ to be a good and reasonably priced source for a varied selection of high quality garden tools.
Link to DMT “Diafold” Coarse Grit (blue) sharpener mentioned above. They also supply the “fine grit” sharpener (red).

3. Do your pruning right

Stay tuned next week for Part 2 of our early pruning guide to make sure you’re getting the results you want.

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