This guide has everything you need to know on how to grow tomatoes. Tomatoes are the most popular vegetable in home gardens. No other vegetable comes close to its popularity. There is nothing better than a ripe tomato straight out of the garden. Many tomatoes never make it past the garden fence. It’s a joy to take a ripe, juicy fruit from the plant, and eat it while you are still in your garden.
Growing tomato plants is easy. Most varieties produce an abundance of fruit. The best-tasting tomato ripens on the vine. With a wide range of varieties to choose from, there is a tomato plant that’s just right for every home gardener.
Did you know? The world record tomato is 7.76 pounds, grown in1986 by Gordan Graham, Edmond OK. What variety did he use? It was “Delicious”. More on Giant Vegetables
Tomato plants are members of the nightshade family While many people believe that tomato plants originated in Europe, they actually are native to Central America. Explorers who traveled to the New World, found the Aztec Indians growing them. These explorers brought tomatoes back to Europe in the 16th Century. Southern Europe readily accepted them, and they quickly became popular in Italian cuisine.
Thought for the Day: Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.
Did you Know? The first reliable tomato variety was cultivated by Alexander Livingston in the mid-1800s. At the time, they were considered poisonous. Tomatoes were once prized more as an exotic ornamental, than an edible vegetable. More on Livingston Seed Company.
There are hundreds of different varieties of tomatoes to choose from. The varieties of tomatoes can be found in the following groups:
Cherry Tomato – A favorite of kids and adults. These bite-sized tomatoes are easy to grow, ripen early, and are a perfect snack right in the garden. Leave a bowl of cherry tomatoes on your kitchen counter, and they disappear in a hurry. They are used in a variety of ways, including salads, vegetable trays with dip, and shish-ka-bob.
Main Crop – These are the mainstay in home gardens. Main crop varieties mature from early to mid-season, are big, round, meaty, and prolific producers.
Plum or Roma – Often called paste tomatoes, they are small and plum or cylindrical in shape. They usually have a pointed bottom. They contain far less “juice” than other varieties and are not as sweet. Plum tomatoes are used to make a paste, sauces, canning, and even ketchup.
Beefsteak – Beefsteak tomatoes are the King of the tomato crop. They grow so big, that one slice covers an entire sandwich! They also have a big, flavorful taste. Beefsteaks have the longest maturity dates. They are well worth waiting for.
Long Keepers – This variety is small, usually yellowish-orange in color. They can be stored in a cool, dark place for several months. How long you ask? My neighbor showed me his leftovers in June from the prior fall. As he discarded his remaining supply, he culled a few good ones for his evening meal!
Heirloom Varieties – Varieties can be found in most of the types above. More on Heirloom plants
Tomato plants are usually started indoors. Planting tomato seeds is an exciting time. It is one of the very first gardening projects of the year. After a long winter, you are itching to get your hands back into some “dirt”.
Begin starting tomato seeds indoors in small containers, eight to ten weeks before the last frost date for your area. Sow tomato seeds about 1/8″ inch deep, using seed starting soil. Seeds will sprout in 10-14 days, depending upon soil temperature. Sprouting tomato seeds is quicker and more productive when using a heated germination mat.
As soon as the seedlings emerge, they need full sunlight to grow sturdy. Lack of sunlight causes the plants to grow “leggy”. Use grow lights to supplement the amount of available sunlight.
Tip: To help your plants grow sturdy, place a small fan on low nearby. Or, lightly brush the tops of the plants with your hands a couple of times each day.
Growing tomato plants is easy. It’s one reason for their popularity in your home garden. Just before planting tomato plants in your garden, “harden them off” by bringing them outside during the daytime and for increasing hours, until you are leaving them out overnight. Use of a cold frame is recommended, but not a requirement. If frost is predicted, bring them indoors.
On planting day, pour liberal amounts of water with a soluble liquid fertilizer on them. Plant them in the garden carefully. To minimize transplant shock, avoid disturbing the roots. Normal spacing is 24 ” apart, in rows 30″ to 36″ apart.
Fertilize plants regularly. Early applications should be high in nitrogen. As blossoming occurs, switch to fertilizers that are higher in Phosphorus and Potassium. Too much Nitrogen fertilizer results in lots of lush green leaves, and little fruit. A fertilizer specifically formulated for tomatoes will help to maximize your crop.
Keep your tomato plant well watered. Deep watering is preferable, over more frequent, light watering. You want moisture to go deep to all the roots of the plant. Water directly to the roots. Keep water off the leaves if at all possible. Tomatoes are susceptible to plant disease that grows in wet, humid conditions.
Tip: Find a place along the back of the house for just one tomato plant. This one plant will be the last to succumb to frost in the fall. The warmth of the house, and a light plastic sheet or cloth tossed over it at night, will allow you to harvest fresh tomatoes after the first frost, right when prices are rising in the grocery store.
Cold and hot spells will affect fruit development and growth. Fruit set will not occur below 55 degrees or above 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
Tomato Cages and Staking – Maximize your crop, and minimize disease and insect damage, by staking or caging tomato plants. They will reward you with more tomatoes. The fruit will be cleaner, as they will not be sitting on the soil. More on staking tomatoes.
Cherry Tomatoes: 65 – 75 days
Regular Tomatoes: 70 – 85 days
Days to harvest (or maturity) are counted from the time tomato plants are set out into the garden. The range is broad, as there are many varieties. Generally, cherry tomatoes ripen first, followed by early varieties. Beefsteak tomatoes require the longest days to maturity.
The race is always on in my neighborhood to get the first ripe tomato of the season. Most of us also grow and await the beefsteaks. One slice from these delicious beauties more than fills a sandwich.
Tomato plants can experience insect problems with tomato hornworms, cutworms, and a few other garden pests. Also, if not staked or caged, snails and slugs will munch on the ripening fruit.
Birds will occasionally peck holes in red fruit.
Did you Know? Tomato plants emit a mild toxin that discourages many small insects from bothering them. This toxin can also cause skin itching and irritation.
Did you Know? Tomato plants (not the fruit) are used to make an organic insect repellent. See Tomato “Juice” Spray
Several plant problems can arise, usually in the mid-summer heat and humidity. Blights and fungus infections can occur in high humidity. Early treatment with fungicides is effective. Spacing plants too close cuts down air circulation and promotes disease.
Blossom end rot can also affect the fruit. This is a round, brown, indented spot on the bottom of the tomato. It is caused by either uneven watering or a lack of calcium in the soil. More on Blossom End Rot.
Tip: Do not water at night if possible in hot and humid weather if possible. Moisture and humidity combined with high temperatures promote plant diseases. If possible, water at the roots.
Tomatoes like it hot! They will die if exposed to frost. Make sure to plant them after the last frost.
Tip#1: Cover your young seedling if frost is predicted. A simple and easy cover for small seedlings is to buy large or extra large plastic disposable cups. Place them over the seedling at dusk, and remove them in the morning. It is usually little or no wind on nights with frost, so they are not easily tipped over.
Tip#2: If you get a light frost overnight and you did not cover up your plants. Go out early before the sun rises, and spray your plants with the garden hose. This melts the ice off the plants and may save them.
Tomatoes store well in a cool, dry location. Do not put them in the refrigerator. While they last longer in the refrigerator, they will lose their flavor and texture. Keep them out of direct sunlight.
Just before frost, pick tomatoes while they are still green or orange. Wash them thoroughly. Rinse in a light solution of 1 gallon of water and a tablespoon of bleach. This kills off bacteria that rot the fruit. Allow them to dry, then put them in a cool, dry, dark place.
To ripen tomatoes indoors, bring a couple at a time to a warm, sunny window.
Tomato Canning Guidelines – Information on canning tomatoes and other vegetables.
Are tomatoes a fruit or a vegetable? It’s a frequently asked question. While we all grow tomatoes in our vegetable garden, they are classified as a fruit. The U.S. Congress debated this in 1893.
May we suggest:
Fried Green Tomatoes – It’s a great way to use up those end-of-season tomatoes that didn’t ripen before frost.
When making large amounts of juice or sauce, you will need a tomato strainer and sauce maker, to easily remove seeds and skin. See Tomato Strainers.