Growing tomatoes is one of the most popular hobbies for vegetable gardeners of all skill levels. The difference in flavor between a vine ripened tomato and one bought from the store is astonishing. Tomatoes that are ripened artificially tend to have a watery taste and mealy consistency. In contrast, freshly plucked fruits have a distinctive gourmet taste and boast a firm texture.
Tomatoes are divided into two main classes: determinate (short fruit season with no need for pruning) and indeterminate (constant fruiting as long as conditions are within range; needs pruning).
Determinate varieties stop growing once the terminal flower cluster appears. They aren’t as sweet as indeterminate ones, but they are a good choice for zones with a short growing season and for indoor gardening. Indeterminate plants always grow their flower clusters as a branch or lateral shoot; so they continue to grow and vine. They may feature many lateral shoots as added growth away from the main stem. Popular varieties include:
- Cherry: Ideal salad topper since it is bite sized and tartly flavored
- Grape: Perfect for snacking because of its sweet taste
- Globe: Lovely eaten fresh with a little salt or in a mozzarella salad
- Beefsteak: Ultimate sliced topping for sandwiches and burgers
- Roma/Plum: Often used for cooking but also tasty raw – easy grower
Each of these varieties has dozens of sub-varieties. This can make it hard to figure out where to start. Ask your local plant nursery experts for suggestions for beginner gardeners in your planting zone. Once you get the hang of growing tomatoes, you can branch out and start experimenting.
What About Those Famous Heirloom Tomatoes?
Heirloom tomatoes are simply those that are not hybridized and will grow true from seed from one year to the next. This makes them a favorite with organic gardeners. Heirloom tomatoes can be determinate or indeterminate and elongated or spherical in shape depending on the species. They tend to have a delicate, gourmet flavor but are not as resistant to disease as hybrid varieties.
Tomatoes generally like soils that are slightly acidic. Many will do fine within a pH range of 6.0 to 6.8. Optimal pH is about 6.4 to 6.5. You may need to amend the soil if it is alkaline, so test it before planting tomatoes. Generally, a silt or clay loam soil that is maintained at the correct pH level is most productive for growing tomatoes. However, sandy soil can lead to faster maturation. In either case, good drainage is very important. Planting & Care
It’s a good idea to begin planting tomatoes early indoors before transplanting them outside in your garden. This will keep birds from picking away at the seedlings. Transplanting outdoors after the first flower cluster appears is a good plan (as long as all danger of frost is past).
Tip for Transplanting: The stalk of a good sized seedling can be buried a few inches deep without harming the plant. The bottom section of the stalk will grow a root system that makes the plant stronger and healthier.
If you don’t mind replanting a few times to replace casualties, you can sow seeds directly outdoors after the last frost. Seeds should be planted 1/8-1/4” deep. Appropriate spacing will depend on the variety – but overcrowding is always a bad idea.
Temperature Requirements: Tomato plants like hot temperatures and require lots of sun. However, they often fail to pollinate properly above 90 degrees depending on the species and humidity. Generally, growth only occurs when the temp is above 50 degrees. Temperatures anywhere near freezing begin killing the plant. If the temperature drops below freezing, most of your tomato plants will die very quickly.
Growing Tomatoes Tips
Stake tomatoes immediately upon planting the seed if you are growing them in pots. Otherwise, the stake can damage the root structure. Wait to actually tie the plant to the stake until after the initial bloom. Use ties that will not dig into the stalk of the plant. Strips of old pantyhose are great for this. Remember that Beefsteak tomatoes and other varieties with large fruit may require extra support such as a cage.
Water as evenly as possible on a set schedule, preferably early in the morning. The growing tomatoes can be harmed by uneven water uptake. This can create calcium deficiencies which will cause blossom drop and/or blossom-end rot – particularly during periods of extreme heat.
Watering the ground around the plants is considered the best practice. It will help control the spread of fungal or viral diseases to the upper portions of the plant. Spraying the whole plant can sometimes reduce spider mite infestations; but this practice will severely limit pollination once blossoms begin to appear.
If you are serious about getting the most out of your tomato plants, you will want to learn how proper pruning and pollination practices can supercharge productivity. Time from planting to harvest varies depending on the specific variety and growing conditions. Fruits should be plucked immediately when they are ripe and used within a week. They can be picked as soon as they begin to turn yellow and ripened at room temperature indoors if birds or other animals are eating them. The flavor will be affected slightly, but they will still taste excellent.Additional Notes
The most common pests that attack the tomato plant are spider mites, aphids, and various types of webworms. You want to be aware of these, especially when you grow vegetables indoors. When these pests are separated from their natural outdoor enemies, they can quickly overwhelm a plant. Spend a few minutes with your growing tomatoes daily inspecting them for pests. Take a close look at the leaves and note any abnormalities. Also, use this opportunity to check for signs of disease.