How to Grow Tomatoes
Harvest this summer garden favorite with flying colors.
During a Gardening Q&A at my local farm store this spring I was struck by the fact that nearly everyone I saw left with at least one tomato plant in their basket. Whether full-grown or started from seed, tomatoes are always on the gardener’s menu of must-have plants. The reason is obvious: homegrown tomatoes are delicious, and once you taste one you will never eat a store-bought tomato again. Happily, tomatoes are also an easy crop to grow. With a little know-how you too can experience these sumptuous wonders of summer.
Grow What You Love to Eat
Ready-to-eat Roma, Cherry and Beefsteak tomatoes are commonplace at the market, but there are countless tomato types you can grow at home. Good garden centers offer dozens of varieties as seedlings, or “starts,” ranging from ubiquitous hybrids like Better Boy and Sungold, to heirlooms like Green Zebra and Amish Paste. Seed sources offer hundreds more. With so many types of tomatoes available, it’s easy to grow what you love while also including new-to-you-varieties to keep things fun.
Know What You Grow
Time for a brief botany lesson. One way to classify tomato types is as determinate or indeterminate. Simply put, a determinate tomato plant will grow to a certain size, produce fruit and finish. An indeterminate tomato plant will grow all season long and produce fruits until the first frost. Savvy gardeners grow at least one of each type to ensure a steady supply of fruits.
Tomatoes are also classified as either heirloom or hybrid. Heirlooms have been around for generations and will grow true from seed. This means if you collect the seed from an heirloom tomato, that seed will make a plant that will produce the same tomato. Hybrids are a cross between two types of tomatoes to make a sort of super tomato with the best attributes of both parents. Seeds from a hybrid tomato will not necessarily produce a plant that makes the same tomato. On a more practical note, heirlooms are considered to have better flavor while hybrids typically produce more fruits.
Starting with Seeds or Seedlings
If you compost (and I hope you do!) you may have seen tomato plants growing out of your pile from the wayward seed of some summer salad leftovers. While tomatoes are easy to start from seed, direct-sown seedlings often languish in cool climates. In this case it is best to start tomato seeds indoors, in early spring, to get a jump on the season. Or simply skip the seeds and buy professionally grown seedlings that are ready to go into the ground. This may limit the varieties you can grow but it will guarantee your plants get off to a strong start.
Prepare Your Plot
Tomatoes love sun and warmth so plant them where they will receive at least six hours of direct sunlight each day. The best soil for tomatoes is a rich loam that drains well. Top dress your soil with an inch of fresh compost or a light application of organic fertilizer scratched into the surface a few weeks before you plant. Wait for your final frost date to pass, then plant your seedlings at least a foot apart — two feet for indeterminate types. Tomato roots thrive in warm soil, so your spring seedlings may seem slow to start as the soil heats up, but that’s normal. Never grow tomatoes in the same plot two years in a row or disease issues may arise.
Water and Feed Frequently
Tomato plants, like us, love to eat and drink. Ample nutrients are required to make roots, leaves, flowers and fruits. Fertile soil prepared up front will promote good growth, but if you want a bumper crop, feed your tomato plants once a month with an organic fertilizer like fish emulsion. A single tomato plant will use 30 gallons of water in a growing season and the bigger your plants get the more water they need. Water moderately to start, then water more as the season progresses. Direct water to the root zone by soaking the soil. Avoid wetting the leaves to limit fungal infections. If your tomatoes are growing in pots, water daily and feed weekly for best fruit production.
How to Stake and Prune
A single 1” square hardwood stake in the ground right next to each plant is the simplest way to provide support for your tomato plants as they grow and set fruit. Attach the main stems with soft flexible ties or twine. A 3’ stake is tall enough for determinate types, but a six-footer may be needed for indeterminate growers. You can also use cages and trellises; anything that keeps the stems and fruit off the ground. Prune your tomato plants to limit leaves and encourage fruiting. For fewer, but larger fruits, pinch off a third of the flowers and let the rest do their best. It also helps to clip off stems that have only leaves to make room for the stems with flowers to make fruits while providing good air flow among the plants.
Prevent Pests and Disease
Fungal issues can pose a threat to your tomato plants, but by watering the soil, not the foliage, and pruning away non-flowering stems and leaves, you can keep fungal problems at bay. Bacterial diseases like blight are more dangerous, which is why we always rotate where tomatoes are grown. Pest problems include cutworms and thrips. The best defense against pests is to provide optimal growing conditions with ample sun, adequate water and a healthy organic soil. However, plant collars can be used to keep cutworms at bay, and floating row covers over seedlings can thwart thrips. Chipmunks occasionally nibble on tomatoes to get a drink of water, not to eat the fruit, so don’t worry about these blemishes. Even imperfect homegrown tomatoes taste great!
Harvest and Enjoy
There is nothing tastier than a fresh-picked tomato that has ripened on the vine, so let yours ripen naturally. Determinate types will slowly ripen all at once towards the end of the summer giving you a sudden, sometimes overwhelming supply. Indeterminate types make fruits that ripen throughout the summer so visit them daily and pick what you want, like cherry tomatoes, perfect for in-garden snacking. However, if an early frost threatens your crop, pick them all, set them on a sunny windowsill or in a brown paper bag, and they will ripen in time.