Homegrown tomatoes are some of the best summertime treats. You just can’t beat the flavor of perfectly ripe tomatoes, right off the vine. If you’re planning to grow your own, here’s all you need to know about how to grow tomatoes.
One of the many culinary treasures from South America, tomatoes have become popular around the globe. Marinara, tomato soup, tomato sandwiches, ketchup…it’s hard to imagine a world without tomatoes.
We now grow more than 3,000 different tomato varieties. To get the best flavor and most beautiful varieties, you have to grow your own.
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Tomato plants may be either determinate or indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes are popular for canning and preserving. They grow to their mature size, then they flower, and produce fruit all at once. They are often “bush” plants that have compact growth habits that need little support, typically around 3 feet tall.
Indeterminate tomatoes are popular for fresh use or preserving in relatively smaller batches. When indeterminate tomatoes begin to produce, they continue to grow and produce more flowers and fruit repeatedly through the end of the season. They need to be staked, caged, or otherwise supported to keep the plants off the ground. Indeterminate tomatoes may grow more than 6 feet tall.
Heavy Duty Tomato Cage Supports, 5 for $25.49 from Target
Give your tomatoes proper support.
There are three main types of tomatoes: bite size tomatoes, cooking tomatoes, and slicing tomatoes. Grape and cherry tomatoes are bite-size round or oval fruits, normally eaten fresh (Sungolds are especially sweet). Common types of cooking tomatoes include plum tomatoes, sauce tomatoes, and paste tomatoes, all small to medium size, with a high flesh to pulp ratio and lower moisture content. Slicing tomatoes are larger and normally used fresh, thick sliced for tomato sandwiches or cut into wedges.
Hybrid tomato plants are the result of crossbreeding two specific varieties for traits like vigorous growth and resistance to viral or fungal diseases. Heirloom or open pollinated tomatoes are old fashioned garden favorites whose seeds have been collected and handed down through multiple generations.
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How to Plant Tomatoes
Tomatoes require a warm growing season. Prepare a location in full sun with rich organic vegetable garden soil.
The easiest and fastest way to plant tomatoes is to purchase seedlings at your local garden center and plant them after all danger of frost is past. The limited selection of available plant varieties will include solid performers of both hybrid and heirloom varieties for all of the different uses you might want.
If you want to explore the diversity of tomatoes, you will have to grow your tomatoes from seed. Start them indoors 4 weeks or so before your last frost date.
Fill a seed starting tray or other small container with seed starting mix. Sow the seeds ¼ inch down, two per cell or container, moisten the soil well, and cover with a humidity dome or a piece of plastic. Keep the containers in a location with average room temperature between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Seedlings need a minimum of 4 hours of direct sunlight daily.
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When the seeds begin to germinate, remove the plastic cover and keep the soil moist. Thin the seedlings with scissors, allowing only the strongest plants to remain in each cell. After the plants grow their second set of true leaves, fertilize weekly with ½ strength liquid fertilizer. Plant them into the garden after all danger of frost is past.
If you are planting into containers, fill an 18- to 24-inch pot with fresh potting mix. Plant the tomato seedlings deeply, so that their first sets of leaves are just showing. Keep the soil moist but not wet.
Hanging Organic Cherry Tomato Growing Kit, $19.99 from Wayfair
Another way to grow tomatoes in tight spaces.
If you are planting in the ground, prepare the garden soil by incorporating a liberal amount of compost. Add lime, bone meal, or crushed eggshells to boost calcium and reduce the chance of blossom end rot. Install your plant support system (if you’re using tomato cages, they will be installed after planting). Install the young plants deeply, up to their first sets of leaves. Space the plants 3 to 4 feet apart in rows 4 to 6 feet apart.
How to Grow Tomatoes
Mulch the plants when the summer temperatures begin to rise to protect the root system and maintain consistent soil moisture. As the tomato plants grow, remove any suckers. Suckers are the shoots that form in the intersection of the main stem and leaf stem. Tie the main stem to the plant support every 8 to 10 inches. Water deeply at the base of the plant (not overhead!) once or twice a week to keep the soil evenly moist.
Tomatoes have a few pests and diseases you’ll need to monitor. Prevent disease problems with good growing habits: Choose disease resistant varieties. Space the plants well for good air circulation. Water only at the base of the plants. Apply mulch to eliminate spore buildup and splash onto leaves. Promptly remove any diseased plants to prevent spreading.
Early blight is a fungal disease that overwinters in the soil and develops early in the season during warm, wet weather. It is recognizable by dark spots with concentric rings on lower leaves and stems, sometimes fruit as well, and yellowing and leaf drop of lower leaves.
Late blight is another fungal disease that overwinters in the soil and develops mid to late season during cool, wet weather. It is recognized by bluish gray patches on leaves (later turning brown followed by leaf drop), irregular brown “grease spots” on fruit, and possible development of white mold rings around spots on leaves and fruit.
If observed and treated quickly, early blight and late blight may be treated with garden fungicides. For greatest effect, these treatments cannot replace good growing habits. Once started, treatments must be continued on schedule for the duration of the season.
Blossom end rot is indicated by a black spot that forms on the bottom end of ripening fruit. This condition is technically caused by a lack of calcium. In practice it is normally brought on by inconsistent watering, because the plant cannot absorb existing calcium from dry soil. Mulch and consistent watering can help prevent, and virtually eliminate this problem.
Poor tomato fruit set may be brought on by extreme heat. If the plants are otherwise healthy, they will resume production when the weather cools again. Hot temperatures, above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, can also prevent mature tomatoes from ripening. Bring the mature green tomatoes inside and leave them on your counter for a day or two and the color will develop normally.
Catfacing is the appearance of either radial or concentric cracks on the ripening tomatoes. It is the result of environmental inconsistencies such as ripening during dry weather followed by heavy rain, wide day-night temperature differentials, or periods of fast fruit growth in high temperature and moisture. Use resistant varieties to prevent these problems.
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As for insect issues, read more about hornworms, aphids, and other tomato pests and how to fight them.
How to Harvest and Store Tomatoes
Tomatoes are ready to pick when they stop growing and the flesh gives slightly when you gently squeeze it. Each variety develops its color a bit differently. Some become fully colored on the vine as they ripen while others get to about 80 percent color development when they should be picked. As mentioned earlier, weather can delay color development to the point where you may even need to pick green tomatoes to let the color develop indoors.
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Store your tomatoes for fresh use at room temperature, stem side down, in a single layer. Use them within 2 or 3 days. For longer storage, up to a week, you can put them in the fridge, but take them out to come back to room temperature 24 hours before you need them. Long term preservation options include canning, freezing, and sun drying.
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