Tomatoes are a classic vegetable to grow in a home garden and they are the most popular plant in the garden for a reason! With so many varieties, from rich red beefsteak types or tiny little orange cherry tomatoes, there is a tomato out there for everyone, not to mention thousands of delicious recipes for you to enjoy.
These vegetables are actually considered fruits and can be grown in many different climates around the globe. With the right conditions, gardening techniques and strong young plants, you’ll be growing tomatoes in no time.
Let’s dive in!
1. Planting Tomatoes
Tomatoes are best grown when they are transplanted as seedlings into your garden. Controlling indoor conditions, particularly light and heat, help to establish your plants and give them a jump-start on their growth for the growing season. Tomatoes can be grown in Hardiness Zones 4-11 and do not tolerate cold conditions.
Starting Your Seeds
Starting your own seedlings will open up your options for plants. There are many interesting heirloom varieties of tomatoes not found in nurseries and you can find some unique plants to grow looking through online catalogues and seed libraries.
If you’re starting your tomatoes from seed, you should sow indoors about 6-7 weeks before the last expected spring frost date in your area. Sow your seeds in a high quality growing medium or peat pellets, reserving one seed per pellet and watering thoroughly. Watering is crucial at this point and if your seedlings don’t get enough water they will not germinate.
Similar to growing peppers from seed, tomatoes germinate quicker when they have added heat. Add a heat pad under your tomatoes if you can or move your seedlings to a warmer spot in your home, like on the top of a refrigerator.
Once your seeds sprout, move them under grow lights right away. Grow lights are highly recommended, as they can provide constant and adjustable light during the growing process, but if you don’t have them you can use a south-facing window if that’s all you have. Your seedlings get around 12-14 hours of sunlight a day to grow. To avoid leggy tomato plants, avoid having too much distance between the light source and your seedlings- a longer distance will encourage legginess of your seedlings.
The goal when you’re growing your seedlings is to produce stocky stems on your plants. This makes them stronger plants and as they grow during the season, they’ll have a better chance of bearing fruit and not toppling over. You can do this by not crowding your seedlings, give them plenty of space to grow by making sure you have only one tomato seed per peat pellet or pot and by providing strong, direct light that is only a couple of inches from the lights. This keeps them from “reaching” for the light source and becoming leggy. You can adjust your growing lights as your plants get taller. Another benefit of using grow lights!
When the seedlings are about 6 weeks old or so, the plants should be developing their true leaves. Once you see two true leaves on your tomato seedlings, transplant them into larger pots about 3 inches in size and continue growing them indoors. At this point you can start to strengthen your plants for life outdoors. You can achieve this by stimulating a breeze, you can brush them along with your hands (be gentle!) or add a fan for a light, using its lightest setting. Not only will this help you grow stronger seedlings, but you get an added bonus of air circulation, which can prevent any mold or mildew from growing on the soil of your seedlings.
When your frost date approaches, when it’s about a week or so away, you should begin hardening off your seedlings. Gradually start taking your plants outdoors during the day for a few hours at a time, building their tolerance up to eventually being able to leave them out overnight. This will ensure that your seedlings are not shocked by the elements when you transplant them into your garden and you end up losing your seedlings. Tomatoes do not like cold weather, so avoid moving them outdoors if the temperature is below 50 Fahrenheit or 12 Celcius.
Where To Grow Tomatoes
Tomatoes can be grown in most zones during the summer months. They were originally cultivated in the Andes, areas of Bolivia, Chile, Columbia and Peru, but if you plant them with the right conditions they can do well in most regions.
Choosing the best site in your garden should be based on where you get at least 6 to 8 hours of full sun each day and where it is the warmest. A spot with good drainage is vital for good growth and to avoid disease later on.
When To Plant Tomatoes
Tomatoes need a long growing season to establish themselves and bear fruit. They don’t tolerate frost at all, so wait at least a week after your last expected frost date to avoid any potential late-season frosts that could occur. But if you’re ready to get your plants in and do not want to wait, then keep an eye on your local nighttime temperatures and if you see a potential for frost, cover up your seedlings with frost cloth or cloches to prevent them from being damaged.
Prepping Your Planting Site
As mentioned above, tomatoes love the sun and heat, so its vital that you choose a planting site that gets lots of both. Tomatoes are heavy feeders, so a best practice would be to amend your soil with organic matter before you plant them, working in about 2 inches or so of manure or compost. You could even add worm castings or an all-natural, balanced fertilizer to the site if you wish, just make sure you read the instructions before you add to the soil.
Tomatoes do not like it when their roots are wet, so make sure you avoid a planting location that doesn’t drain well. If you want to improve water drainage at your planting site, you can add some sand when you amend your soil to increase drainage. A sandier soil allows for better heat uptake too, so it might be worthwhile to add some sand or silt to your soil or potting mixture since tomatoes love the heat. If you choose to amend with silt, it can help with nutrient retention.
If you grew tomatoes or nightshade vegetables last year, it is advised that you don’t plant your tomatoes in the same spot. Practicing crop rotation helps to avoid pests and disease.
Planting Tomato Seedlings
When all chance of frost is gone and the soil is at least 60 DEGREES/CELSIUS, it’s time to plant your tomatoes! Frost will destroy tomato seedlings, so make sure you do not have a risk of frost in your area. A good method is to wait about 2-3 weeks after your last frost date, just in case your zone experiences some fluctuating weather.
When you’ve successfully hardened off your seedlings, now it’s time to get them in the garden. At this early stage, you should get stakes or cages ready and into the soil at the same time as your plants. By having these structures in place, you won’t disturb the growing roots later on if you put them in at a later date. Adding these structures not only provide support when your plants get large and unruly in the summertime, but they also allow you to keep fruits off of the ground later on in the season and this is important to avoid pest infestation.
Once your soil is amended and ready to go, its time to get your tomatoes into the ground. When you put them in the soil, pinch off the bottom few leaves of your plants and then when you go to place your tomatoes into their hole, bury them deep- right up to the lowest set of leaves. This helps your plants establish a vast root system, since tomato roots can grow all along the stem when planted in the ground. You can even add some bone meal or organic fertilizer to the tomato hole when you plant for added phosphorus, but not one high in nitrogen.
Because tomato plants get large and bushy, it’s a good idea to plant them about 18 to 24 inches apart so they have space to grow.
Direct Sow Tomatoes
If you’re lucky enough to live in warmer zones where you get 8-10 hours of sunlight per day and your average temperatures don’t fall below 50 DEGREES during the night and day, then you can direct seed your tomatoes into the soil. Plant the seeds at about 1/2 deep or just barely covering the seeds and 2-3 inches apart. Make sure you water well to promote germination.
Tomatoes In Containers
Tomatoes are great for growing in containers. Pick a large container, at least 20 inches in diameter so their roots have lots of room to grow and with good drainage holes in the bottom. Do not put more than one tomato in each pot, or you are just asking for trouble! It is advised that you keep a tray under your pot to catch any excess water, but it isn’t crucial. Make sure that you use loose, well-draining potting soil in your pot and amend with organic material for added nutrients. Choosing a plastic or metal container is best, but avoid terracotta since that material will absorb moisture away from the soil.
There are many different varieties that you can grow in containers, but ones that do best are bush and determinate varieties. Cherry tomatoes do well in containers too.
The heat likes to stay in containers, so when the temperatures begin to rise during the summer make sure you are watering your plants daily. Check the soil and see if the top inch is dry- if it is, give you plants a good watering at their base.
2. How To Grow And Care For Your Tomatoes
When you get your tomatoes into the ground, now the maintenance begins. You want to provide the ideal conditions to get your tomatoes to fruit and by following some best practices, it can be easy to get them to do so. The goal is to get your tomatoes to produce lots of flowers as these end up being the site for fruit production later on. Once these flowers begin to drop, then the plant will begin to form a tomato.
If you can establish good watering techniques, provide some added nutrients throughout the season, prune properly and often, and encourage pollination, you’ll have a flourishing tomato crop.
Watering your tomatoes
Tomatoes need a lot of water to grow and produce fruit. This can be challenging, especially since they don’t like wet roots, but if you provide the appropriate amount of drainage and water properly, you can maintain their water levels. Water your tomatoes, every 2 to 3 days, preferably in the morning hours and very generously when you transplant them or start your seeds. On hot days check your soil with your finger, if the first couple of inches are dry you may need to water again. Always water your plants at their base, to discourage pests and avoid disease.
If you notice that your tomato plants have droopy leaves, that is a good indication that you’ve overwatered your plants and you should let them dry out as much as you can before you water them again. You can use a moisture meter, which can help you to determine when to water your plants and can be purchased at most gardening supply shops.
Tomatoes are very heavy feeders, which means they require a lot of nutrients during the growing season. Adding bone meal to your planting hole when you planted is a good first step in feeding them, as well as amending your soil.
It is recommended that you side dress your tomatoes by applying a liquid seaweed or fish emulsion every two weeks and when your tomatoes are about 1 inch in diameter. You should continue to fertilize your tomatoes through the growing season for optimal results.
Mulching your tomato plants will conserve water and prevent not only root growth around your plants, but prevent soil borne illnesses from attacking your plants. As well, mulch maintains heat around the root system, so if you are experiencing colder nights (but not a frost) then your plants can get some insulation from the mulch. Wood chips, straw, hay or even grass can all work well.
Depending on the type of tomato you are growing, you will have to use different pruning tactics. If you are growing vining tomatoes, it is a good idea to pinch off any suckers (the tiny stems that grow in between the branches and main stem) as this helps with air circulation and promotes more growth. Trimming off the lower leaves of the plant when it starts to get bigger as these are generally the ones that develop fungus first, so get rid of them before they cause problems. Don’t go wild and prune like crazy, be strategic about the suckers and the lower leaves you choose to take off, because fewer leaves means fewer tomatoes.
Tomatoes are a self-pollinating flowering fruit and contain both male and female parts, so they don’t need help to reproduce. That being said, tomatoes can still greatly benefit from pollinators, especially during stressful times, so it’s a good practice to plant a pollinator mix in your garden that includes flowers and herbs that can attract beneficial insects to promote pollination. If your tomatoes fail to pollinate, you’ll be left with too many flowers with no fruit.
If necessary, you might have to hand pollinate your tomatoes. The process can be time consuming, but if you aren’t getting the pollination you need then it is an option to get your plants to fruit. During mid-day, take a small paintbrush or a cotton swab to gently transfer pollen from flower to flower from the same plant. Do not cross-pollinate, or mix two separate plants together.
You must, must, must stake or support your tomatoes! These plants can get massive and they need all of the structural support they can get, so staking them early is your best bet to promote stronger plants. When you notice that your tomatoes are starting to fall over from their weight, use some gardening twine or tape or even string to attach your stalk or stem to whichever structural support you’ve used. Your staking support offers a guideline for where and how you want your plants to grow, so use what you have and secure your plant while it grows to give it all of the extra support it can get.
3. Pepper Heirloom Varieties
Tomatoes come in a wide variety of shapes, colours, flavours and sizes- it’s hard to limit yourself when you’re in the nursery or shopping for your seeds! Tomato fruits are actually considered a berry and originated in South and Central America and have been bred and domesticated around the globe. Whichever kind you choose, tomatoes offer a wide-range of culinary experiences and fall into two categories, determinate and indeterminate.
Determinate tomatoes are the bush types and can grow up to 3 feet tall. These kinds generally have multiple fruits on a vine at one time, and do not produce a lot of leaf growth after it begins to fruit. These are generally more productive earlier in the season and ideal for containers or smaller areas.
Indeterminate tomatoes are the vining type of tomatoes and produce the bigger fruits later on in the growing season, but are more consistent than determinate tomatoes, as they continuously grow more leaves and fruit throughout the season.
Whether you choose a determinate or indeterminate type, there are a plethora of heirloom tomato varieties to choose from. Below are some of the common varieties of heirloom tomatoes:
Amana Orange-Slicer: Indeterminate tomato will be gorgeous, large yellow fruits that are low in acid with a full flavour. Great for slicing. Matures in 80 days.
Amish Paste: An indeterminate, vining tomato with large plum fruits, with few seeds and very meaty, that are acorn-shaped and excellent when used in sauces. Will mature in 80 days.
Aunt Ruby’s German Green: Another indeterminate slicer tomato. These large, yellow-green fruits are very rich in that classic, somewhat tart but not sweet green tomato flavour. Will mature in 80 days.
Beefsteak: This heirloom tomato is very popular for its unique, imperfect shape. The fruits can get very large so make sure they are supported strongly. Few seeds and highly acidic flavour. Will mature in 80 days.
Black Cherry: Cherry tomato where the plants can reach 6 feet or higher. 1-2 inch, sweet fruits that are dark purple in colour. Will mature in 75 days.
Black Krim: An indeterminate slicing tomato, these fruits are a purple-black tomato that is renowned for its sweet flavour. Will mature in 75 days.
Black Plum: Smaller, plum-sized red and purple fruits that are on the sweeter side for a paste tomato. Will mature in 75 days.
Black Prince: Large, vining, indeterminate fruits in a brownish-red colour with a distinctive flavour. Will mature in 75 days.
Blush: A cherry tomato with oblong fruit with a yellowy-pink skin. Very juicy and low in acidity. Will mature in 70 days.
Brandywine (Pink): A beefsteak-style, pinky-coloured tomato with a balanced acid-sweet taste. An indeterminate style of tomato. Will mature in 90 days.
Brandywine (Red): Beefsteak bright red tomato that produces vigorous vines for bountiful fruits. Will mature in 85 days.
Brandywine (Yellow): Another Brandywine but with pale yellow flesh and has a great flavour for slicing. Will mature in 78 days.
Cherokee Green: Indeterminate tomato with a tangy flavour, these green tomatoes have a marbly-like skin and are very pretty fruits. Will mature in 72days.
Chocolate Cherry: Indeterminate chocolate-brown in colour cherry tomatoes that are very sweet and grow on medium-size vines. Great for containers. Will mature in 75 days.
Early Siberian: A determinate red tomato that is fleshy and good for slicing. Will mature in 70 days.
German Johnson: An indeterminate tomato that produces large, pinkish red coloured fruits. Will mature in 80 days.
Hillbilly Potato Leaf: An indeterminate tomato with large, bi-coloured (yellow and red) fruits. Will mature in 85 days.
Hungarian Heart: Heirloom variety from Budapest, this is beefy tomato with an ox-heat shape. Full flavour and great for sauces and canning. Will mature in 80 days.
Isis Candy: Red cherry, indeterminate tomatoes with a striped, tiger eye look to them. Fruit are very sweet and a bit fruity. Will mature in 67 days.
Mortgage Lifter: A large, popular red heirloom tomato that is great for slicing. Will mature in 85 days.
Pineapple: An indeterminate tomato with very eye-catching, large yellow and orange fruits. Will mature in 80 days.
Red Pear: Large plants that produce lots of medium-size, bulb-shaped tomatoes that resemble pear fruits. Very sweet in flavour. Will mature in 78 days.
4. Common Insects & Disease
There are some common pests and ailments that can affect your tomato crop. There are proactive measures you can take to avoid these problems and ways to reduce the damage on your crops if you catch the issues early.
These tiny insects can destroy your tomato crop by spreading fungal diseases. Spray the aphids with cold water to dislodge them from your plants or use a spray bottle filled with water and a dash of dish soap, spray and wipe the plant thoroughly, repeating every 2 to 3 days for 2 weeks. If aphids persist, an insecticidal spray or oil, such as neem oil, might be needed. Read the directions carefully before applying to your plants.
Companion planting is a good way to distract aphids from your tomato plants. Planting rosemary and nasturtiums nearby will help lure them away from your plants.
These caterpillar-like grubs will eat your plant stems during the nighttime and can even take out your newly planting seedlings in the process. If you see them, make a “collar” around your plants by using cardboard, paper or even aluminum foil and place it around the base of your plant, forming a circle. This will make it more challenging for the worms to crawl out of the soil and up your plants.
Flea beetles will leave tiny (flea-size) holes in your tomato leaves. Row covers, cleaning up plant debris and mulching will help to deter these pests.
These large caterpillars will eat your plants. Pick them off when you see them, but if the problem persists you may want to spray an insecticide spray to get rid of them for good.
Nematodes are challenging to deal with and greatly affect the nutrient uptake of your plants. Crop rotation or soil sterilization, which can be expensive and toxic, are ways to deal with nematodes if you are struggling with this pest.
This tiny insect will feed on your plants and leave a residue that can cause mold. The best way to deal with these pests are how you would deal with aphids, which is discussed above.
Blight is a fungal disease that can cause your tomato leaves to drop. This is caused by constant highly humid temperatures. This is easy to spot, you’ll see brown or black spots on your tomato leaves, so pick them and destroy them as soon as possible. Make sure your tomatoes have good airflow and have good exposure to sunlight, so any dampness from humidity can be combated by the warmth of the sun.
Blossom End Rot
Blossom-end rot can affect your tomato crop and turn the ends of the fruits black. This can be quite devastating and ruin your whole harvest. Blossom-end rot is caused by a lack of calcium, which is needed to grow the cell walls of the tomato fruits and if the plant isn’t getting enough calcium, the walls of fruit begin to collapse, which causes a fungal growth on the fruits.
A calcium deficiency can be caused by a lack of calcium in the soil or periods of drought followed by heavy amounts of rain or even over watering.
The good thing is that blossom end rot is preventable. Make sure you are watering your plants evenly, never overwatering and use mulch. Choosing a fertilizer that is lower in nitrogen and potassium can help with calcium absorption or by adding calcium directly to your soil.
If you find that your tomato plants are cracking or splitting, just try to pick them sooner as their fruits begin to outgrow their skins if they continue to ripen on the vine.
5. Harvesting Tomatoes
Tomatoes are ready to be picked as soon as they are large enough to eat, or reached the level of maturity you want for the variety you planted. Tomatoes are generally ready in about 80 days, but it will depend on the variety you’ve planted, so take a look at your seed package information for when your tomatoes would be ripe and ready. Make sure you harvest your tomatoes before any frost, as frost will destroy your crop.
How to Harvest
Leave your tomatoes as long as possible on their vines, to allow for optimum ripeness. Tomatoes should be firm and rich in their colour when you harvest them. If you do pick your tomatoes early and find they are a bit bland, keep them out on your counter in your kitchen and let them ripen further before you eat them (but out of the sun! or else they may rot), you’ll notice that they will deepen in colour during that time.
Don’t put your tomatoes in the refrigerator! The cold spoils their flavour and texture, so leave them out in your kitchen when you harvest them.
Canning is one of the best methods to store your tomato harvest. There are numerous recipes for tomato canning, from sauces to jams to salsa, so deciding how you want to can them can be a fun exercise. There are of course specific instructions you need to follow when you can your tomatoes to prevent food-borne illnesses, so make sure you look into whatever recipe you decide to use to preserve your tomatoes and follow their health and safety instructions.
Freezing tomatoes is very simple. You can freeze fresh, raw tomatoes, but it can change their texture a bit with their skins on or off (if you decide to blanch them and remove their skins, that is a personal preference and makes for smoother sauces or soups). Just place your tomatoes in plastic bags and label them with the date you froze them. Don’t forget to wash them before you freeze them! You can also freeze them in sauces, just choose a container with a bit of room before you freeze so your container doesn’t burst or crack when the water expands from the freezing process.
Tomatoes have many seeds and you can save these easily. Simply dry them out on a paper towel and store them for later. You can ferment the seeds as well, which involves drying them in water for a few days if you wish to remove the gelatinous coating, but it isn’t always necessary.
6. Companion Planting
There are many companion plants that will benefit your tomatoes and it’s a wonderful garden technique to practice. Not only can companion planting help increase the yield of your crops, but this method can be beneficial in deterring pests and disease, or act as a growing aid or help with nutrient absorption. No matter the reason to experiment with companion planting, it is a great practice to increase the productivity of your garden.
Good Companion Plants
Amaranth – Amaranth can repel pests by enticing predatory useful insects.
Basil – Basil not only repels insects, but it can enhance growth, and improves flavor. They also repel mosquitoes and flies.
Borage – Borage will enhance the growth of your tomatoes and will repel worms. Win-win!
Carrots – Carrots, when planted near tomatoes, help with loosening up the soil (because they are root vegetables) which allows for more air flow and circulation to prevent soggy roots.
Garlic – Planting garlic near your tomatoes will repel red spider mites.
Lettuce – Planting lettuce around your tomatoes when the weather gets warmer will provide them with some shade so you can get a harvest of them in the heat of summer and will also keep the soil cool and moist.
Marigolds – Plant marigolds near your tomatoes to repel pests and the dreaded nematode.
Cabbage – Planting any member of the cabbage family near your tomatoes will hinder the plant’s growth so don’t plant any near your tomatoes.
Nightshade Family – Eggplant, potatoes and peppers attract the same pests and diseases as tomatoes, so don’t plant them near each other and make sure you practice proper crop rotation.
Corn – The same type of worm that attacks corn will attack tomatoes. Plant these far away from one another.
Fennel & Dill – These related herbs secrete a substance from its roots that will inhibit tomato plant growth.
7. Cooking & Eating Peppers
Tomatoes are one of the most popular vegetables (wait-fruits!) around. They are used in countless recipes and cuisines around the world, and there are no storage of tomato recipes. Tomatoes are delicious raw and cooked, and how you eat them depends on personal preference.
Tomatoes flavour can be amplified by herbs and spices, and compliment other ingredients as well. There are endless combinations! A freshly sliced tomato on a sourdough sandwich, a tomato and basil pasta sauce, or a roasted red pepper and tomato soup, no matter what your taste buds prefer, you will most likely find a way to enjoy a tomato- either in raw form or cooked!
A Final Note
Tomatoes are a classic staple in any vegetable garden. With dozens of unique heirloom varieties to choose from, there are no shortage of seed choices for the home gardener. For a successful tomato harvest, establishing strong seedlings (or buying good quality plants from your local nursery) are a crucial first step for tomato harvesting success. Planting your crop in the right location and making sure there is adequate sunlight, watering (but not overwatering!) and a good amount of heat are all best practices to follow when maintaining your plants.
Companion planting and knowing which plants to avoid around your tomatoes will make your harvest even more bountiful.
Have fun growing!