Caring for Tomatoes, by Emma Biggs

Emma Biggs tomatoes

When I start my seeds in early spring, I’m full of energy and excitement that has built up over winter. At the end of the season, my excitement is replenished by fresh tomatoes. It’s that time in the middle that I find the hardest. The time when you spend most of your effort weeding, watering, training, and pruning‒not harvesting and eating. Here are a few tips to keep your tomato plants healthy to ensure a bountiful harvest.

As an urban grower with a limited amount of garden space, how I choose to train my plants affects how many plants I can squeeze into my garden and how much work I will have to put in. Training my plants also keeps the fruits off the ground so they don’t rot and are farther away from pests like slugs. It helps prevent soil-borne diseases from getting on the leaves. The three main ways to train tomato plants are:


Emma Biggs tomatoes

No, I do not mean the skimpy, three-pronged, knee-high “tomato cages.” For an indeterminate tomato, which will keep on growing and producing until killed by frost or disease, these are nowhere near big enough. Indeterminate plants can get 6-8 feet tall by the end of the season, so if you choose to train your plants with this method, you’ll need to find big cages, or make your own. For dwarf or determinate varieties, which get to about 4-5 feet tall, you can train them up until they reach the top, and then let them cascade over the edge. If that doesn’t appeal to you, look for a cage that is about waist-high.


Emma Biggs tomatoes

This is how commercial greenhouse tomato farmers often train their plants. This is my preferred method because I can fit the most plants into a small space‒about 1 foot apart. Basically, you grow your plants up a piece of dangling twine, and prune your plants so there is 1 main stalk, though sometimes I do 2 or 3. This requires more pruning and care, but lets you grow more intensively.


Emma Biggs tomatoes

I like to think of staking as the middle ground between trellising and caging. You can grow your plants closer together than with cages, but not as close together as trellising, and it’s more work than caging, but not as much as trellising. There are many different types of stakes, from wooden and plastic ones, to bamboo poles.

Additional care

It’s been a dry few weeks in Toronto, so watering has been very important. I know, this is kind of obvious, but it is so important, especially if you are growing in containers! One very important thing to note is to try and avoid getting water on the leaves as it can spread disease. Water in the morning or midday if you can so that any moisture you get on the leaves will evaporate.

Fertilizing helps your plants develop, become stronger, and produce more tomatoes, and is especially important if you’re growing in containers. There are many different types of fertilizers out there, but I’d go for an all-purpose vegetable one. As to how often and how to dispense it, that depends on which one you use, and will be on the label. 

To keep your plants happy, I’d recommend inspecting your plants daily. That’s the first thing I do when I go outside. I just walk around and see what’s ready to be picked, check for pests or diseases, and see what needs watering. This is a sure way to always know what is happening in your garden. Happy growing!

Emma Biggs tomatoesEmma Biggs is a 15-year-old Toronto gardener with a passion for growing unusual edibles, and lots of tomatoes. She gardens in straw bales on her driveway, on her garage rooftop, and grows tomatoes under a black walnut tree. Emma shares her love of gardening and hopes to inspire more gardeners in her book, Gardening with Emma, and on the Food Garden Life podcast, which she co-hosts with her dad, Steven Biggs. Check out her website and her Instagram: @emmabiggs_grows

Searching for Inspiration


As we continue to be in a season of change, I am pretty sure I am not the only one in search of inspiration and support to renew my spirit not only for my work with youth gardens, but also for life in general in the time of Covid-19. This spring was exhausting and frankly, the upcoming school year is looking like it will be more of the same. Change is an inevitable part of life and it is good and necessary, but does anyone else feel like you are a GPS that is in a constant state of recalculating right now? So looking for a bit of recharging, I want to put in a plug today for the upcoming National Children and Youth Garden Symposium.

Launched in 1993 as a grassroots effort to bring youth garden advocates from across the country together to share our experiences and collectively help us gain momentum, the conference has been held at sites all over the country and always attracts a diverse audience including formal and informal educators, garden professionals, and a wide range of community volunteers. This is one conference where simple introductions are never enough because the programs represented are always uniquely designed to meet local needs and I always want to find out more. I have only had the chance to attend a handful of the events over the years, but I wish I could have gone to them all. I always leave with an amazing wealth of new ideas and knowledge that I can immediately put into practice. The information I have gained has helped shaped my work at KidsGardening, my volunteer time at our school garden, and even my activities gardening at home with my own kids.

Like most conferences these days, the 2020 NCYGS is moving to an online platform using a combination of live and pre-recorded events. I know it will not be the same as being in person and experiencing the hands-on activities and the live discussions, but I hope that many of you might take this opportunity to check it out in this highly accessible format. As always, the costs are being kept as low as possible and they are devising ways to creatively provide live interactions too. The conference will be held July 8 – 10th and registration is available now.

Check it out and get it on your calendar! The more of us that participate, the more impactful it will be. Find the time to recharge your batteries to keep growing!

Love Makes Me Grow

gardening programs for families

This week I want to share with you another inspiring story from one of our 2020 Gro More Good Grassroots Grant Winner. Their organization’s name, Love Makes Me Grow, should tip you off to the scope of their mission and the amazing work they are doing in their community and around the country. Below you will learn more about how they are responding to the needs of families during COVID-19. Their work is a great example of gardening programs for families.

Love Makes Me Grow, Kissimmee, Florida

Partnering with a local elementary school, Love Makes Me Grow is a nonprofit in central Florida focused on teaching families how to grow their own gardens to secure a sustainable food source and make healthy lifestyle choices. Participants in the program come from a variety of high needs circumstances including those who are challenged by food and housing insecurity. Families sign up to participate in a nine week program that includes a diverse offering of educational programs focused on nutrition and exercise, but also featuring topics such as careers in horticulture, affordable housing, financial literacy, and self advocacy. Each family is provided with the resources they need to begin home gardens (containers, soil, seeds, and plants) and they also contribute to the planting and maintenance of the school garden whose site they use for their weekend programs. During a normal year, they are able to offer four different sessions and reach 100 families annually.

As many community garden programs, this spring the educators at Love Makes Me Grow had to get creative about how to reach their audience. Fortunately, they were still able to provide the garden supplies to the families, but they had to find alternate ways to provide the educational support and in doing so they ended up expanding their audience far beyond their own community. The president of the organization, Nilisa Council, shares this about their spring efforts:

“We had to adjust with the times. Our website, Facebook and Instagram have been instrumental during these uncertain times. We have also collaborated with RadioMision 105.5 (transmitted in Spanish) on Facebook Live. They have provided a timeslot of 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm on Saturdays where we can educate and demonstrate our work. As a result, families throughout the U.S. have been in contact with us requesting seeds. Love Makes Me Grow has been able to assist over 800 families ranging from Florida to California. Along with the seeds, if requested, we do send a harvest guide, a planting calendar, and instructions on how to plant. We have also created several Power Points, which will be used during the Facebook Live show (depending on the week).

We have received incredibly positive feedback from our families. We have families that have planted a handful of seeds while they are at home with their children just to see what happens and others who have taken on bigger projects such as creating their own raised garden beds. Dads that have decided to build greenhouses, moms that have bucket gardens, and grandmas that have planted herb gardens. There is never a seed too small or too big. We are here to guide and educate.”

A key point of advice that the educators at Love Makes Me Grow pass along to new gardeners is for families to really think about how they plan to use their harvest. Instead of planting all their seeds at once, they recommend planting a few seeds at a time so that they are also able to harvest continuously and in the quantities needed by their families. They also promote the idea of saving seeds and other plant parts for their garden such as drying tomato seeds and planting potatoes that have started to root.

One last aspect of the Love Makes Me Grow program that I would like to emphasize is their focus on whole families. The program requires that adults and children participate together. In doing so, they are creating an opportunity for the family to spend valuable time together and also reaching multiple generations. The work they are doing will not only impact their community today, it will also help shape the future.


Eliada Homes Therapeutic Tea Garden

Eliada Homes

Throughout this tumultuous spring, those of us at KidsGardening have been encouraged and comforted by all of the remarkable stories of families, schools, and community organizations who are using gardens and garden activities to offer hope and joy to the children in their lives. Many of these stories have been shared with us by our 2020 Gro More Good Grassroots Grant winners. This year’s recipients were notified of their award on the first day of spring right in the midst of a rapidly changing world. We offered them the opportunity to decline or delay their award or to alter their plans to meet more immediate needs wanting to be as flexible as possible, but the overwhelming response we received was one of determination that the garden programs would continue. It was amazing to me how quickly they created new plans and adapted their programs to meet pressing needs arising from the pandemic. Over the next few blogs, I want to share with you some of these inspirational stories from our Grassroots Grant winners which I hope will bring you as much hope as they have brought to me.

Eliada Homes Therapeutic Tea Garden
Asheville, NC

Eliada Homes
Completed green house

Eliada Homes is a residential facility offering a wide variety of treatment programs for youth who have experienced trauma and abuse. From substance use issues to juvenile justice involvement, Eliada residents are there to focus on learning how to overcome their personal mental health challenges. Many have bounced through systems of care as children and are distrusting of adults and the systems they represent because of the way they've been failed in the past. Three years ago, a garden and farm program was started on the grounds of Eliada to provide a therapeutic activity that would help staff build trust with youth and offer experiences to help them regulate their emotions, manage their impulses, and help them develop the coping skills they need for the future.

Eliada’s gardening program currently centers around a geodesic grow dome and a growing tunnel. Hydroponics and aquaponics methods are used to produce large quantities of leafy greens, herbs, and fruits. Everything grown is used in the cafeteria on a daily basis. With their Grassroots Grant award, Eliada plans to expand beyond the enclosed indoor gardening spaces to create a no-till, regenerative educational garden. They plan to dedicate one section of the garden to a therapeutic tea garden.

Assistant Director of Development Nora Scheff, shares this about why planting a tea garden is so important: “Youth living at Eliada are in our high-level treatment program. Youth in this program have experienced trauma which results in internalizing such as self-harm or externalizing such as aggressive behaviors that make it unsafe for them to live at home. Their time at Eliada is for healing, and one of the things the kids love most is herbal tea. Many of the kids in the program have bounced around in the mental health system for years, and have been hospitalized. They have been prescribed a menu of medications, and they have often felt out of control of their treatment experiences. Self-soothing techniques like drinking herbal tea are popular because the kids have agency around their use.”

Due to the pandemic, the installation of the tea garden has been delayed, however as an essential and residential service, Eliada’s garden has continued to grow strong. Nora mentioned that with students unable to leave their facility, “Expanding on-campus opportunities has been really important so that we can continue to offer enriching activities that help with healing and build resiliency.”

She continues, “This is such an unprecedented time. For youth living at Eliada who have experienced so much trauma, it has been important to us to create as much normalcy as possible. Having a structured routine and keeping kids engaged has been vital. Having gardening opportunities offers so many sensory experiences from taste and touch, to smell and sight. Youth who have experienced trauma often struggle with emotional regulation. While at Eliada they learn what coping skills they can use to calm themselves and deescalate when feeling angry, anxious, depressed, or out of control. Visiting the garden can be a coping tool, same as drinking herbal tea. The garden offers so many opportunities for youth to identify personal strategies for achieving calm and focus. While in the garden, youth also get to help out with farm chores, work off some excess energy, learn a new skill, and take their mind off of everyday tasks. Gardening gives their brain a chance to focus in on something else that is alive and growing, too, and kids learn how to be gentle and handle fragile plants and animals. They get to help plant seeds, watch food grow, and harvest their dinner salad- getting a sense of pride and taking responsibility for feeding themselves.”

Gardens offer so many ways to help heal and I hope Eliada’s efforts are as encouraging to you as they are to me.