Illustrated Guide to Growing Tomatoes

Reader Contribution by Michael Feldmann
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There’s no doubt about it, vine-ripened tomatoes are one of the best reasons to garden. Whether added to a salad or garnished with basil, nothing beats the taste of a succulent tomato ripened to perfection in a home garden. Another advantage of homegrown tomatoes is the unusual cultivars that gardeners can choose from. Plus, you only need a little space to grow an assortment of different tomatoes for special uses -cherry tomatoes are perfect for salads, big slicers are great for sandwiches, and firm-fleshed paste tomatoes are ideal for canning, and freezing.

Choosing the Right Variety

There are hundreds of tomato varieties. From marble-sized cherry tomatoes to juicy salad tomatoes, paste tomatoes, and huge, sweet, beefsteak tomatoes. Illustration courtesy James Keon

When you start considering which tomatoes to grow, you’ll find two different types of growth habits – determinate and indeterminate – and three different major fruit types – cherry tomatoes, slicing tomatoes, and paste tomatoes. Disease resistance is another very important consideration. To choose the best tomato for your garden, grow and taste a variety of cultivars. Even if your garden is small try growing at least three different cultivars each year, and make one of them a cultivar you’ve never grown before.

Determinate tomatoes tend to flower and set fruit all at once and then decline. Many modern cultivars listed as determinate blur the distinction between the types, though, because they produce all the season. Cultivars described as strongly determinate usually are compact plants that require no pruning and minimal staking. So-called vigorous determinates need substantial staking or trellising to hold up the heavy tomatoes they produce. If you prune them back after the first heavy crops of fruit ripen, they will frequently bear a nice fall crop.

Indeterminate tomatoes produce over an extended period of time instead of setting one major crop. Most have long sprawling vines rather than stocky limbs. You can let indeterminates sprawl or you can prune them by pinching out all or most of the suckers (the shoots that emerge between large leaves and main stems). Either way, you’ll have to trellis, stake, or cage indeterminates to keep the tomatoes off of the ground.

Cherry tomatoes are very popular for salads, snacking, and appetizers. Vigorous indeterminate cherry tomatoes do a very good job of setting fruit in hot weather, and they tend to be quite disease-resistant.

Slicing tomatoes. There are hundreds of juicy slicing tomatoes to choose from. As a general rule, large-fruited plants like beefsteaks don’t produce as many fruits as cultivars that bear small or medium-size fruits. If you are a new gardener, start with a local favorite and then branch out into a more unusual selection. Deep red tomatoes often deliver the most intense flavor. Yellow tomatoes often taste milder, and pink-fleshed ones tend to be firm, mild, and sweet.

Paste or processing tomatoes have small seed cavities, extra-thick walls, and fleshy inner membranes. They hold together well when cooked and yield thick sauce when processed. Most processing tomatoes are determinate, so they conveniently bear their fruits all at once.

In addition to these three major types, you’ll also find special-use tomatoes, including stuffers, which are almost hollow inside. Small pears, which are similar to cherry tomatoes, and various Italian heirloom cultivars, which have convoluted or elongated shapes.

And finally, look for disease resistance. In catalogs, you’ll find that many cultivars have capital letters after the name. These indicate genetic resistance to several common diseases, including Verticillium wilt (V), Fusarium wilt (F), root-knot nematodes (N), and tobacco mosaic virus (T). Your local extension agent can tell you if these diseases are common in your area. Disease resistance has nothing to do with tomato flavor, other than the fact that resistant tomatoes often continue to thrive long after nonresistant ones a dead. Most tomato diseases strike just as plants begin to set fruits.

Planting Seeds Indoors

Growing tomato seedlings from seeds are very simple, interesting, and after about two months, your home-grown seedlings can be planted in the garden. Illustration courtesy Paul Anderson

For many gardeners, learning the art of sowing seeds indoors begins with tomatoes. Fortunately, they are very easy to grow from seeds. If you plan on experimenting with the wide variety of cultivars that are available, you’ll have to grow them from seeds.

Sowing seeds. Sow seeds indoors six to eight weeks before you set them out. Use plastic cell packs or 2- to 3-inch-wide peat pots, or sow your seeds in rows in well-drained flats. (If you start early, 3″ containers are best.) Fill the container to the top with any good potting soil. For better germination and to control damping-off, soak seeds in the compost tea for 10-15 minutes before sowing. Sow two or three seeds in individual containers, or space seeds 1″ apart in flats. Cover the seeds with ¼” of soil. Firm the soil gently with your fingers and water them well. The seedlings will germinate in about one week. Once they germinate, move the pots to your sunniest windowsill or beneath a plant growth light in a warm (60°-85°F) room.

Seedling care. Make sure that your seedlings receive very intense light, and keep them warm and well-watered. Daytime temperatures between 65° and 85°F and nighttime temperatures between 60° and 65°F are best for growing tomato seedlings. A few days after germination, thin to one seedling per container or transplant to individual containers. Water whenever the soil feels dry to touch. Bottom watering is best. Begin adding a few drops of compost tea to the water after the first true leaf has unfurled, if you must hold back seedlings that are large enough to be planted, move them to the roomier container (4″) so roots growth is not restricted.

Hardening off transplants. Begin hardening off tomato seedlings grown indoors (or purchased plants that were greenhouse-grown) two weeks before transplanting. Set them outdoors on mild, warm days in a site protected from strong winds. keep them outdoors continuously for three days prior to transplanting.

Transplanting Tomatoes into The Garden

There are two considerations in growing tomatoes, one is to grow indoors from seeds and another is to buy transplants. When buying tomato transplants, look for young, vigorous plants with stocky, stiff stems. Bypass tall, spindly specimens and plants with dark spots on their leaves or leaves that are purplish or yellowish. Look closely for insects such as aphids and whiteflies on stem tips and both above and below the leaves.

Soil considerations. Tomatoes can be grown well in almost all types of garden soil. But as with most vegetables, they grow best in well-drained, fertile loamy soil with a pH range from 5.8 to 7.0. The soil should also deeply worked and rich in both major and minor nutrients. Potassium is more important than nitrogen. Tomatoes are sensitive to shortages of calcium and magnesium. To make sure your tomatoes find the nutrients they need as they stretch their roots through the soil, dig two shovelfuls of good compost or rotted manure into each planting hole. Homemade compost made with manure, leaves, and grass clippings is usually sufficiently rich, but you may boost its nutrient content by mixing 1 cup each of bonemeal and greensand into 10-gallon wheelbarrow loads of compost.

Choosing the right location. Tomatoes grow best in a sunny, sheltered spot in the garden. They are also sensitive to light and heat, which means that they need to be planted in places well-lit and reliably protected from cold winds. The best place for tomatoes is on the south and southeast side of the plot, where the sun shines in the morning and afternoon.

In addition to the light and soil conditions, crop rotation plays a central role in the choice of location. Plant tomatoes after beans, peas, or other legumes. Never plant tomatoes after or next to potatoes: early blight, a common leaf spot disease, can quickly spread from one crop to another. Also avoid planting after eggplants and peppers, which are in the same family. Tomatoes are also grown great with cucumbers, carrots, garlic, lettuce, onions, parsley, peas, squash, celery, asparagus, basil, beans, and marigolds.

Spacing. Spacing depends on whether you plan to stake or cage plants or allow them to sprawl, as well as on the vigor of the cultivar. Space staked plants 1½ -2 feet apart, 3-4 feet if plants are allowed to sprawl. Most gardeners grow big, indeterminate tomatoes in 2 feet-diameter cages, with one plant per cage. For easy harvesting, space cages 4 feet apart. Allow enough space between plants to permit good sun penetration and air circulation.

The best time to plant tomatoes. Tomatoes like warm soil and don’t tolerate frost, so wait until warm spring days and soil temperatures above 60°F to plant. Begin setting out seedlings two weeks after the last expected spring frost, earlier under well-insulated cloches. You can set additional plants out until 12 to 14 weeks before the first fall frost is expected.

For a greater harvest. Stagger planting dates to extend the harvest season and reduce problems with pests and diseases. Unless you live where summers are very short, plant just a plant or two of an early cultivars for a quick first crop and plant a mixture of mid-season and late tomatoes for the bulk of your harvest. Include one cherry tomato because they resist diseases and nutritional disorders and set fruit under extreme temperatures. After tomatoes bear heavily in midsummer, try cutting some plants back to encourage healthy new growth and a fall crop of fruits.

Planting purchased or home-grown transplants. Drench plants with a weak compost tea before transplanting. Put 1 cup of kelp meal and 1 cup of bonemeal into each planting hole. Set transplants so the lowest set of leaves is at the soil level or remove all but the top few leaves and bury the plant horizontally. At least two sets of leaves should show above the soil line, Press the soil down gently and water them thoroughly. Protect plants with cloches or row cover if nights remain cold or days are very windy. Remove cloches when plants show strong new growth.

Illustration Of Hanging Tomato Basket

Fertilizing, Mulching, Watering and Care

Fertilizing. Seedlings planted in well-prepared soil need no supplemental fertilizer, but if the garden soil poor, fertilize your plants with 1 cup of fish emulsion mixture weekly until the first blossoms appear. In long-summer areas, top-dress plants that are pruned back in midsummer with 2″ of compost. Or drench with fish emulsion mixture or compost tea in late summer when vigorous new growth begins. If the lower leaves on your tomato plant are blotchy and yellow, spray your plant with a mixture of 1 teaspoon of Epsom salts per gallon of water.

Mulching. Mulch your tomato plants a few weeks after transplanting them into the garden to retain moisture and to control weeds. Apply between 2 to 4 inches of organic mulch such as straw, hay, or bark chips.

Watering. The tomato plant should well-watered. Water your tomatoes generously the first few days after planting them into the ground. Throughout the growing season, you should water them well about 2 inches (1.2 gallons) per square foot during the week. In watering, it is also very important to water plants deeply and preferably in the morning. Water deeply is to encourage a strong root system and morning watering gives the plant moisture it needs to make it through a hot summer day. And Avoid watering your plant in the evening, as this can encourage disease.

Training. Some stocky, compact cultivars can be grown unstaked, but they take up more room than staked plants. Unstaked plants should be heavily mulched. most tomatoes should be tied to sturdy stakes, restrained inside cages, or trained to grow on a trellis.

Some tomato varieties may require some support such as a stake or trellis. Illustration courtesy Paul Anderson

Begin training plants when they are 1 foot tall and growing vigorously. Tie compact determinate plants to sturdy 5- or 6-feet stakes, or place stakes between plants and weave taut twine in a figure-eight pattern between plants and stakes. support sprawling indeterminate plants with cages or multiple stakes or tie them to a trellis.

Problem Prevention Tips.

Take a close look at the leaf symptoms to identify tomato diseases. Illustration courtesy Paul Anderson

At planting, place paper collars around seedlings. Take this precaution at transplant time to prevent cutworms from cutting down seedlings.

After the soil is warm, mulch heavily with straw. Fluctuations in soil moisture can lead to fruit cracking and blossom end rot. In northern areas, apply black plastic two weeks before planting instead.

During hot weather, apply kelp sprays to foliage on mild, cloudy days. This prevents calcium and magnesium deficiencies, which cause black spots on the blossom ends of fruit. The disorder is aggravated by hot weather.

During the growing season, pinch off speckled leaves. To reduce leaf loss from early blight, late blight, and other leaf spot diseases, remove infected leaves as soon as you see them, and spray affected plants with compost tea.

During the growing season, handpicking tomato hornworms. If these colorful caterpillars are numerous, use bacillus thuringiensis to bring them under control.

Gathering the Harvest

When cared for properly, a tomato garden will award you with a rich harvest as well as an abundance of small yellow flowers in summer. Illustration courtesy Mary Peterson

For the best flavor and texture, harvest your tomatoes when it is dry and cool – when it’s not raining, and ideally, after the heat of the midday sun has passed. Once tomato plants start ripening, check vines daily. Cut or gently twist off fruits, supporting the vine at the same time. For the best flavor, leave the fruit on the plants for as long as possible. At the first sign of severe frost, harvest all the fruits. Greens will mature over time if stored in a warm place out of direct sunlight. Tomatoes take 90-140 days to ripen from seeds, and 60-90 days from the date of transplanting, it is also depending on the variety.

After harvesting, in late fall, pull up all dead tomato plants and spread compost over the garden bed, and cultivate the soil well. You can also sow cover crops such as clover, wheat, or rye.

Storing & Preserving

Storing at home. Ideal storage conditions for tomatoes depend on the stage of ripening. Perfectly ripe tomatoes should be kept at room temperature away from direct sunlight. If tomatoes are picked at mature green, store them in 66 to 70°F with 90 to 95% relative humidity would encourage uniform ripening. Temperatures above 81°F reduce fruit shelf-life. Do not store tomatoes in a refrigerator.

A good method of storing tomatoes is by placing them in layers between newspapers in a basket, crate or cardboard box. Alternatively, each individual tomato can wrap in newspaper. Do not put more than two layers as the bottom tomatoes may bruise.

Freezing, pickling, and making tomato sauce. Ripe, sweet, juicy summer tomatoes, are available for a so small period of time, but luckily there are many great ways to store and preserve them so you can enjoy their delicious taste all year round. Here are included several ways of preserving tomatoes for a long time. Freezing, drying, pickling, or just simply cook down into the tomato sauce.

Illustration Of Snowy Landscape With Cabin

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Michael Feldmann is a farmer and writer in Oklahoma, who studies agriculture and has worked as a journalist for magazines and newspapers around the country. His writing has been published in Acres USA, Rural Heritage, Farming magazine, Farmers Weekly, Permaculture magazine, MOTHER EARTH NEWS, and as a column in Poultry World. Read all of Michael’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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