Tomatoes are among the most popular garden plants. Store bought tomatoes cannot compare to the flavor and texture of fresh, homegrown tomatoes, still warm from the sun and there are few vegetables (fruits!) more versatile in the kitchen. While tomatoes are a popular plant for beginners, they can present challenges if conditions aren’t just right. Luckily, they aren’t too picky as long as they have good sun and moist soil.
Selecting Your Tomatoes
Before planting, it is important to decide what sort of tomato you wish to grow. Your decision may be ruled by the size of your garden, in which case you’ll want to choose based on growth habit, or the intended use for your tomatoes, in which case you may want to look primarily at fruit type. Or you may be restricted by your growing season, in which case “days to maturity” will be your primary concern. Most of us are looking at a variety of considerations when choosing a tomato variety to grow. Personally, I like to mix it up so that I have plenty for sandwiches, salads, sauce and just eating right off the vine.
There are countless varieties of tomatoes available and I really can’t talk about them all, but rather some features that they can be grouped by, and you can choose the varieties of each group that best suit you and your situation. Tomatoes are generally grouped by growth habit and fruit type.
The two growth habits we get with tomatoes are indeterminate and determinate. Indeterminate tomatoes are vining tomatoes that grow as tall as the support they are given. They will also vine downward as far as they can go if you plant them in a hanging basket and will ramble all over the ground if you don’t give them any support, but their leaves and stems get damaged and they don’t tend to produce as much fruit. Flowers and fruit appear along the stem on indeterminate plants, so it’s important to keep these healthy. Once they start blooming and subsequently setting fruit, indeterminate tomatoes will continue to do so as long as your weather conditions support it, giving you a big plant, with a constant supply of fresh tomatoes from their “days to maturity” until frost. Determinate tomatoes, aka “bush” tomatoes have a bushy growth habit and their flowers and fruit appear at the tips of their shoots. They reach about two to four feet high and don’t necessarily need support- though a tomato cage or stake to keep them upright in strong winds and help them support the weight of their fruit is helpful. These plants set a bunch of fruit in a short period of time and then quit. This is ideal if you like to process your tomatoes into cans of stewed tomatoes and sauces and want to do it over the course of a couple of weekends.
Tomatoes are also grouped by fruit type. These are slicing tomatoes, paste tomatoes and cherry tomatoes. Slicing tomatoes, sandwich tomatoes, or beefsteaks, are big, meaty and juicy, great for slicing for fresh eating on a sandwich or burger or in a salad. These also make an adequate tomato sauce and a great fresh salsa. Paste tomatoes (aka stewing or sauce tomatoes) tend to be more compact, less juicy and more fleshy and are usually sausage or pear-shaped. A quick dip in boiling water and they can be peeled and processed into a can or sauce. They have less liquid cook off than a slicing tomato and, because they tend to be smaller, generally involve less chopping. These can also be eaten raw, cut or sliced for salads and sandwiches, but they tend to taste much better cooked. Cherry tomatoes, or, slightly larger plum tomatoes, are small and sweet and great for eating out of hand or adding to salads. Cherry tomato vines tend to produce prolifically, giving you a refreshing garden snack plus extras to share with the chicken helpers. While cherry tomatoes can be canned and cooked, they are kind of small and fiddly to process and, at least at my house, rarely make it as far as the kitchen anyway.
I guess I should mention color in my discussion of fruit types. We tend to think of ripe tomatoes as bright red, but tomatoes of all types do come in many colors including yellow, green, brown and purpley black (though sauce tomatoes, I find, are usually red). I am not sure that tomato color is a true predictor of flavor, but I am told the green tomatoes are naturally tart. I have not tried these as I am perfectly happy to pick an unripe tomato if I want a tart tomato. My mother swears the yellow ones are less acidic, and they are tasty but have not subjected them to a litmus test. I find the darker colored tomatoes to have a more complex flavor. One of my favorite varieties is “chocolate cherry”, a prolific vine with delicious little brownish-red fruits. It grows reliably for me, even in bad tomato years. I saved some seeds from last year’s crop instead of buying new this year, so we’ll see how that works out for me. I am told that the darker brown and purplish tomatoes have more anti-oxidants.
Days to Maturity Tomatoes can take up to 90 days to produce fruits, though some early season varieties can be harvested as early as 60 days. This is often indicated in their name with the word “Early” or similar. Check the “days to maturity” information on your seed packet to get a good idea so you can plan accordingly and remember that “days to maturity” should be calculated from the time of transplant in most cases. You should select a tomato with a “days to maturity” number that is less than the number of days between your predicted first frost date and your predicted last frost date.
Growing Your Tomatoes
Deciding how many tomato plants to plant depends largely on how many people you are feeding and what you would like to do with them.
If you like fresh, sliced tomatoes as a side or on a burger or in a salad in season, you should plan to plant at least one plant each of an early slicing tomato variety and a standard variety per person who enjoys them. These can also be stewed and canned or frozen, so if you are planning to do that, you should plan two to five more plants per person. So if you’re just going to eat them fresh, 1 early and 1 standard per person, if you’re going to store them 2-5 more of whichever variety you prefer per person.
If you like to make your own sauces, juice and/or tomato paste you should plant at least 3 paste variety tomato plants per person for making fresh sauce in season, and 5 more per person for canning.
Cherry tomatoes are prolific and good for snacking, but they can also be sliced in half and dried. One plant each of an early and a later variety per person will keep you snacking all summer, and plant one or two extra for drying. If you prefer the cherry tomatoes to the slicing tomatoes for your salad, plant an extra cherry tomato per person.
I always start twice as many tomatoes as I think I want, just in case I kill half of them. I am going to lose some of them to carelessness, ineptitude, weather, and wildlife. So we plan for disasters and, if they don’t happen, we share our good fortune and abundance with friends.
Season Tomato is a warm season crop. They require temperatures of at least 55 degrees for survival and considerably more warmth for good growth and fruit set. A hard frost will turn your tomatoes into shriveled and blackened post-apocalyptic shadows of their former selves and put an end to your tomato growing season. Cloches may protect them from a late or early nighttime frost, but don’t count on it. Tomatoes require 60 to 80 days to produce a crop and so must be started indoors before the season begins in most areas.
Hardiness Tomato is a frost-tender perennial that can be grown as an annual in places with cold winters. Tomatoes can be grown indoors in these areas. Tomatoes handle heat quite well if they are kept watered, though extended periods with temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit will cause them considerable stress and may cause them to go dormant. Consider giving them some afternoon shade if heat is an issue. Tomatoes are not drought tolerant. Adult plants can handle a few days of dry soil, but if this occurs at the time of fruiting, it will damage the fruit. Overwatering can also damage fruit, so care must be taken to find a happy medium. Planting tomatoes in well-drained soil with a good thick mulch on top is your best bet.
Light Requirements Tomatoes require 6-8 hours of bright sunlight daily for good growth and fruit set. In the South, tomatoes like a bit of afternoon shade to help them weather the heat.
Soil Requirements Tomatoes like loamy soil with a PH of 6.0 to 6.8 and can tolerate an acidic PH as low as 5.5. Alkaline soils, with a PH of 7.0 or greater will present a problem with nutrient uptake for tomatoes. Adding manure and mulching with pine needles may help lower PH, depending on your situation, but lowering PH is difficult. Alkaline soils often contain limestone which is constantly breaking down, reacting and neutralizing anything you put into the soil with it. If this is your situation, you may wish to turn to containers or raised beds filled with a commercial soil mix.
Nutrient requirements Tomatoes require Calcium and Magnesium for good growth throughout their lifespan. These can be supplied by mixing crushed eggshells and Epsom salts with the soil at the time of transplant. Nitrogen and Potassium are needed by tomatoes for proper fruiting but excessive supplementation of these can cause lush growth of leaves and little fruiting as well as interfering with the uptake of calcium, which can cause blossom end rot. I spread used hay from my rabbit pens on my tomato beds in the fall and let my chickens run through in the spring before planting and find my tomatoes do quite well without added fuss. I also sprinkle thoroughly crushed eggshells around the base of the plants once fruiting begins to give them a calcium boost and to keep slugs away. I do not know if this helps, but I have plenty of eggshells to waste.
Moisture Tomatoes need well-drained soil, but they also need constant moisture to stay healthy. A good mulch of woodchips or straw will help keep the soil moist while also keeping weeds down. Water young tomatoes frequently and older tomatoes when temperatures exceed 75 degrees Fahrenheit or when it hasn’t rained in 48 hours. It is very important that your tomato plants be kept evenly moist during fruiting to prevent splitting. If you are in a very hot, dry area, you should look for split-resistant varieties as added insurance. When watering, you should do your best to avoid splashing water and soil onto the leaves and fruit to avoid fungal and bacterial infections. Drip irrigation is wonderful for this, but, of course, we all work with what we have. Mulching with straw or woodchips will also help prevent backspash.
Start tomatoes indoors 6-8 Weeks before last frost date, plant outdoors after your last frost date. Seeds should be started in pots under lights with a soil temperature of about 70 degrees. Plant them at a depth of about 1/2 inch and keep the soil constantly moist. they will germinate in about 10 days. Started tomato plants are readily available in garden centers and this is a good option for beginners, as garden center plants are grown in ideal conditions to make them sturdy and strong. Before I purchased a grow tent to start my plants in, my homegrown seeds always started out leggy and frail-looking, but they do catch up within a few weeks of planting them out, though they seem to experience more transplant shock. I am not sure what the deal is with that, since I plant them in peat pots which are planted directly in the soil and the store plants them in plastic pots that I have to figure out how to recycle afterward. I may not be hardening them off properly (experiments continue) or it may be the fact that they are using a greenhouse and I have none.
Transplant tomatoes into your garden after all danger of frost has passed in the spring. Begin by putting your seedlings outside for a few hours each day to “harden them off” while you prepare their site- loosen the soil, remove any weeds, mix in some compost. When transplanting tomatoes, bury the stem right up to the bottom leaves. New roots will form from this stem to make your tomato’s root system that much stronger. All those roots will give your tomatoes their best chance at finding the nutrients they need to make plump, firm fruit. Planting on an overcast day and watering deeply immediately after planting will help your seedling tomatoes adjust to their new home in the garden.
Space your tomatoes about two feet apart. If you have very humid summers, plant them 3 feet apart to encourage more air flow. Air circulation between plants is important to prevent fungal infections and blight, especially during periods of high humidity. If your summers are very dry, planting tomatoes closer together will shade the soil under the plants and help keep the moisture in the soil. The more upward support you provide your tomatoes, the closer you can plant them.
Support indeterminate varieties of tomatoes with a trellis or a fence that will allow them to grow quite tall; plan for about 6 feet. Some will grow even taller than that if you give them a tall enough support, but there’s no point in growing tomatoes where you can’t reach them. Determinant tomatoes say they don’t require support, but they can get top-heavy and a tomato cage or a stake will protect these plants from blowing over in windy areas. Support systems should be installed at the time of planting and vines gently woven into the support system as the plant grows. Forcing an adult plant to conform to a tomato cage or trying to weave its stiff branches into a trellis is likely to result in broken stems. Make sure your support system is sturdy. If a strong summer storm blows over a fully laden tomato trellis, you’ll probably do more damage trying to right it than letting your tomatoes continue to develop in the dirt. I use sturdy galvanized steel fencing and heavy steel T-posts. I want to be able to climb on it. We get serious winds around here and I’ve had to have my husband hold up the plants while I crawled underneath to harvest. We’re not doing that again!
Growing tomatoes in containers Tomatoes grow quite well in pots, though water management is a bit trickier this way. Provide a big pot with lots of room for root growth. I have found that depth is more important than width here. Well-draining soil and plenty of sun and your tomato plant will do well. It should be repotted in fresh soil every few years. Determinant or bush-type varieties fit best in small spaces and are generally recommended for growing in pots, but they die back after fruiting while indeterminate tomatoes will continue growing indefinitely. Will a determinate tomato grown in a pot regrow after dying back? I will perform the experiment (stay tuned).
Companions basil, borage, mint, calendula, marigold, garlic, nasturtium, carrots and lettuce are said to be good companions for tomatoes.
Borage is said to improve the flavor of tomatoes and to repel tomato hornworms. I have never had tomato hornworms (and I’m actually disappointed because they are marvelous chicken and lizard food) but I get mixed reviews from other people regarding whether they are actually repelled by borage.
Marigolds are said to repel root knot nematodes but only Tegates minuta is the only one that has demonstrated this ability and it is HUGE and an impractical companion for tomatoes, though a good idea for a cover crop.
Quick growing, cooler weather vegetables like lettuce and carrots can share your tomatoes space early and late in the season, when the tomatoes are just getting started or on their way out. The taller tomatoes can also provide some shade for cooler weather leafy greens during the warmer season, perhaps extending your season for lettuce, which in turn can act as a living mulch, helping to keep the soil moist and preventing water and soil from splashing on the tomato leaves.
Peppers can grow well alongside tomatoes because they need much the same conditions (though I am told that if you want really hot peppers you shouldn’t keep them quite as moist as a tomato likes it) and critters that like tomatoes may not like peppers and vice versa and their similarity in close proximity may confuse them. I find that critters seem to prefer the leaves and stems of the pepper plants, and the fruit of the tomatoes and I find they find them just fine if they’re growing next to each other. Perhaps I need to mix them up more.
Garlic is planted in the fall or late winter and isn’t quite ready to harvest when it’s time to transplant tomatoes, but if you plan ahead and space your garlic appropriately, you can plant tomatoes between garlic rows. This is said to prevent invasion by many common tomato pests.
Basil is said to help repel insects and improve the flavor of tomatoes. I do not know if this is true, but it does like similar conditions to tomatoes and has a similar growing season and so they do well planted in the same bed together. I sprinkle basil seeds in my tomato beds while I’m transplanting my tomatoes and I have fresh leaves to harvest as my tomatoes start to ripen.
Dill and all members of the cabbage family are said to inhibit the growth of tomatoes.
Tomatoes are sensitive to juglone, a toxin produced by black walnut trees and some closely related species, so they should not be planted near these or where their fallen leaves have collected.
Crop Rotation Tomatoes are members of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family and should not be planted in the same ground as any solanaceous plant within three years. This way, any diseases or pests that are attracted to the plants will have been starved out or moved on, before the new plants move in. Aside from tomatoes, solanaceous plants include eggplant, potatoes, tomatillos, peppers, tobacco and several ornamental plants, including various datura, like angel’s trumpet, and petunias. I like to plant all my peppers, eggplants, potatoes and tomatillos together(ish) and I grow them after my brassicas (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, etc.) and before my corn.
Pests For me, the worst pests for tomatoes are birds and small critters. As soon as they start to ripen, the whole neighborhood comes in for a bite, including my own traitorous chickens. Fences are a big help and bird netting can be used if the scourge comes from above. Tomato hornworms are the quintessential pest, but I don’t find they are too troublesome to me. I have them, but they usually come with a bunch of wasp eggs strapped to their back, so I let them be. I like parasitic wasps more than I hate hornworms. And if they don’t have eggs, the chickens think they are delicious.
Diseases the worst potential disease problems for tomatoes are fungal. The best way to prevent them is with proper spacing- to allow free air flow between plants, trimming away the leaves near the bottom of the plant as they start to fade, and careful watering to prevent mud splashing up onto the plants. I like to water my tomatoes before sunrise, so the water has a chance to soak into the soil and then any splashes dry along with the dew. I am told that spraying the plant with diluted milk will also help prevent fungal problems.
Maintenance Indeterminate tomatoes require more maintenance than determinate tomatoes as they need to be trained up a trellis and they should be pruned to ensure that sunlight and air circulation reaches all the leaves, flowers and fruit. Little shoots start to grow out at the joints, you can just pinch these off. You should also quickly trim away any plants that turn yellow or show spots or shriveling and take them away from your tomato plants. Keep up with harvesting, tomatoes that splat on the ground attract fruit flies and slugs that wouldn’t bother with your intact fruit if you hadn’t invited them in with the squished stuff.
A tomato picked and eaten at peak ripeness is an incomparable summer treat, but some tomatoes start to crack before they look just right. I like to go by feel, rather than appearance with many varieties, especially cherry tomatoes. If they come away easily when I give them the slightest tug, I know they’re ready. Once the first tomato is ripe, I check daily, sometimes twice a day, to make sure I get them all before they crack, drop or are raided by the neighborhood critters!
Process or eat your ripe-harvested tomatoes as soon as possible for best flavor, or store them at room temperature. The refrigerator robs tomatoes of flavor, though, if it’s super hot and the fruit flies have found you, sometimes it’s your only option.
If your tomatoes aren’t quite ripe and you’ve had to harvest them anyway, you can ripen them by putting them in a dark, enclosed space with other tomatoes, or a banana (or both). A paper bag works well. The gasses released by the fruit trigger ripening in the other fruit.
My tomato schedule
Novemberish to Januaryish – Spread used hay from the rabbit pens over tomato beds.
Marchish – Turn chickens loose into tomato beds.
April 1- Plant tomato seeds indoors, under lights and on a heat mat.
May 10- Let the poultry forage in the garden
May 15ish – Get the garden ready, paths, rows, etc. pull up any weed stragglers, check the fence, etc.
May 20ish- Get out the tomato cages, stakes, etc.
May 25ish- Transplant 1/2 of tomatoes into the garden- in case we get a late frost.
June 5ish – Transplant the rest of the tomatoes to the garden
July 10ish- Mulch tomatoes with woodchips and lawn clippings
August 1ish- sprinkle powdered eggshells around the tomato plants in a nice thick layer. It adds calcium and deters slugs- they like to eat holes in low-hanging fruit.
September 1ish- Can tomatoes
October 1ish (or whenever I get a frost warning)- Collect green tomatoes, make salsa
Novemberish – clean up and compost tomato plants, let the birds finish it off.
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