Growing Tomatoes

Healthy, vigorous tomato vines can produce a lot of fruit. If you’re new to gardening, try growing just a few tomato plants at first – perhaps two or three plants of two to three different varieties. But of the thousands available, from cherished heirloom types to the hottest new hybrids, how do you narrow your choices?

Criteria for Choosing Varieties

When does fruit ripen? Since varieties mature at different times, you can stretch your harvest over many weeks. If you’re buying seeds to start your own plants, read catalog descriptions carefully to discover “days to maturity.” This indicates approximately how soon you can expect ripe fruit once you’ve transplanting seedlings to the garden. Plants sold at garden centers are often labeled “early,” “midseason,” or “late” to indicate when the variety should start ripening.

Determinate vs. Indeterminate. Another consideration in choosing tomato varieties is whether the vines are determinate or indeterminate. Determinate plants stop growing once the flower buds emerge. Because of their more restrained size, many determinate varieties need no staking or caging, but providing support can improve the quality of the fruit. All the fruit ripens within a relatively short period of time – usually about a week to 10 days. This can be a boon if you’re canning, but for the gardener who prefers to have a fewer number of tomatoes over a longer period of time, indeterminate varieties are better. The vines continue to grow and set fruit throughout the season, and won’t quit until the weather turns too hot or too cold to sustain fruiting and growth, or kills plants outright.

For gardeners with little space to spare or only a deck or balcony to grow on, patio and bush varieties are a good option. They’re more compact than determinates, yet produce fruit throughout the season like indeterminate types. They are bred to succeed in small spaces.

What to do with the fruit? When selecting a tomato variety, keep in mind what you plan to do with the fruits. There are varieties suited for just about every purpose – eating fresh, making tomato paste, canning, drying – even for cultivating into a county fair prizewinner.

Seeds or Transplants. The easiest way to get your tomato patch started is to purchase young plants, also called transplants or starts. You can pick up plants at garden centers or order them through catalogs or the Internet. For years, gardeners who bought plants had a very narrow field of various choices, but thanks to an expanding mailorder trade, the options are greater than ever.

That said, starting your own seed gives you an almost endless list of varieties to choose from, allowing you to get just the type that will suit your growing conditions and tastes. Starting seeds gives you a chance to start “gardening” earlier in the season, and nurturing plants from seed to harvest is a great experience. Plant seeds six to eight weeks before the last frost date for your region, and place them under fluorescent light. (For seed starting details go to Starting Tomatoes from Seed. Call cooperative extension Master Gardeners or your local weather service to find out your last spring frost date.

Disease resistance. By planting tomato varieties with built-in resistance to diseases, you can have a bit more control over your garden’s success.

For instance, many tomato varieties are resistant to soil-borne diseases such as verticillium and fusarium wilts and nematodes. Most seed catalogs indicate resistance to these diseases by putting F (fusarium), V (verticillium), N (nematodes) after the variety name. You’ll also see varieties with resistance to viruses such as tomato mosaic virus (T), and to alternaria (A), the fungus that causes early blight.

Talk to the Master Gardeners office or to neighboring home gardeners. They can tell you if certain tomato diseases are common in your area.

Experiment! If you’re not counting on your garden as your only food source, you can certainly afford to risk planting the varieties that appeal to you – perhaps an heirloom that, though not resistant to disease, is reportedly producing the most delicious tomatoes in the world. Experimentation is part of the joy of gardening, and part of your harvest is what you learn along the way.

About tomatoes

With hundreds of varieties to choose from, and more being introduced every year, there is a tomato for every garden situation and every personal taste. The size of the fruit is no indication of plant size — tiny “currant” tomatoes might grow on huge, vining (indeterminate) plants, while large “beefsteak” varieties can be found on more manageable bush (determinate) plants. Newer hybrid varieties have been bred for disease resistance, but don’t overlook heirlooms that are famous for their rich flavors. By planting early-, mid-, and late-season varieties, you can extend the harvest.

Choosing a site to grow tomatoes
Select a site with full sun and well-drained soil. In very hot climates, light afternoon shade may help prevent blossom drop. Prepare the garden bed by using a garden fork or tiller to loosen the soil to a depth of 12 to 15 inches, then mix in a 2- to 4-inch layer of compost.

Planting Instructions
If you don’t purchase plants, start seeds indoors in flats or pots 6 to 7 weeks before the average last frost date, and set out transplants when the soil is warm and all danger of frost is past. Set up trellises, cages, or stakes at planting time. Dig planting holes 18 to 24 inches apart if you plan to stake or trellis the crops, 36 to 48 inches apart if the plants aren’t trained. Pinch off two or three of the lower branches on the transplant and set the root ball of the plant well into the hole until the remaining lowest leaves are just above the soil surface. The plant will form additional roots along the buried stem. Water generously and keep the plants well watered for a few days.

Ongoing Care
Provide an even supply of water all season. If staking or trellising, prune suckers to allow one or two central stems to grow on staked plants, two or three central stems for trellis systems. Apply a thick layer of organic mulch 4 or 5 weeks after transplanting. Contact your local County Extension office for controls of common tomato insect pests such as tomato hornworms and whiteflies.

How to harvest tomatoes
For best flavor, harvest tomatoes when they are firm and fully colored. Fruits will continue to ripen if you pick them when they are half-ripe and bring them indoors, but the flavor is often better if you allow fruits to ripen on the vine.

Matching plants under this entry:
Solanum pimpinellifolium
Solanum lycopersicum
Lycopersicon lycopersicum
Lycopersicon esculentum
General Plant Information
Plant Habit: Vine
Lifecycle: Perennial
Sun Requirements: Full Sun
Water Preferences: Mesic
Minimum cold hardiness: Zone 11 +4.4 °C (40 °F) to +7.2 °C (50 °F)
Plant Height: Varies greatly by species and cultivated variety.
Plant Spread: Varies greatly by species and cultivated variety.
Leaves: Other: Varies greatly by species and cultivated variety.
Fruit: Showy
Edible to birds
Fruiting Time: Other: Varies greatly by species and cultivated variety.
Flower Color: Yellow
Bloom Size: Under 1″
Flower Time: Other: Varies greatly by species and cultivated variety.
Uses: Vegetable
Suitable for Annual
Edible Parts: Fruit
Eating Methods: Raw
Resistances: Rabbit Resistant
Toxicity: Leaves are poisonous
Roots are poisonous
Propagation: Seeds: Self-fertile
Other info: Direct sowing into the garden not recommended. Sow seeds into sterile seed starting mix, 1/8″-1/4″ deep, indoors, 6-8 weeks prior to last expected frost date. Optimal germination occurs in 7-14 days with constant moisture and soil temperatures of 75-90F.
Propagation: Other methods: Cuttings: Stem
Pollinators: Self
Various insects
Containers: Preferred depth: Some tomato varieties, primarily dwarf and determinate varieties, are suitable for container gardening. Large, vining, indeterminate types can be grown in 5 gallon or larger containers but may require extra attention.