Want to learn how to grow your own tomatoes? We certainly don’t blame you. Everyone enjoys the taste of a home grown tomato. The sweetness, the firmness, the juiciness – who wouldn’t choose a home-grown tomato over a store bought one? Tomatoes are also high in Vitamins A, C and Lycopene which has cancer-fighting antioxidants.
Home grown tomatoes are a wonderful addition to the garden, but good tomatoes do take a little work, a lot of water and a lot of sun. Below is information on growing tomatoes, handy gardening tips to get the best tomatoes possible, and information on companion planting to give tomatoes the best environment possible.
Growing Tomatoes from Seed vs. from Starter Plants
Many people like to grow tomatoes from seeds. This is okay as long as seeds are started long before the gardening season arrives. It’s also a good idea if planting Heirloom Tomatoes or if the garden supply centers don’t carry a wide variety of tomato plants. If, instead, the garden supply centers carry a wide variety – the fastest, easiest way to grow a tomato plant is to purchase it at the store.
What Type of Tomato is the Best Type to Grow?
Heirlooms, hybrids, determinate, indeterminate – what does all this mean in the world of tomatoes?
Heirloom tomatoes are tomatoes passed down from generation to generation by saving seeds at the end of each harvest. These seeds can be purchased from online or catalog sources, or a neighbor or relative may be willing to share their seeds.
Heirloom tomatoes are not as productive as hybrid plants, but the variety, color and taste are unmatched. Heirloom tomatoes come in colors such as salmon pink, yellow, purple, red, orange and even green. Some are striped and others grow in unusual shapes. A few of the more popular Heirloom varieties rated for flavor include Brandywine, Caspian Pink and Hillbilly.
Heirloom tomatoes also have a tendency to produce tomatoes continuously throughout the season.
Hybrid tomatoes are tomato plants that have been bred for specific reasons – to be disease resistant, to grow larger tomatoes, etc. Hybrids often produce higher yields of fruit, mature earlier, have a more uniform appearance and a higher fruit quality. Hybrid tomatoes are favored over other tomatoes for their disease resistance.
All hybrids are not alike though. In order to determine the diseases a tomato plant is resistant to, refer to the label. The letters on the plant tag will provide information on what diseases the plant will resist. Hybrid (F1) Tomatoes are hybrid plants that are a first generation cross between several tomatoes.
Determinate tomatoes have a pre-determined growth and are often called bush tomatoes. These normally get about three feet tall and are great for smaller gardens. They are also easier to keep contained in tomato cages than the more rambling tomato vines. Determinate varieties tend to bear fruit early in the season.
Indeterminate tomatoes don’t stop growing and are more vine-like than the other tomatoes. They tend to sprawl over the whole garden and have to be staked once they grow over the top of the tomato cage. Indeterminate varieties bear fruit later than other varieties.
Semi-determinate tomatoes have combinations of both determinate and indeterminate varieties.
Other types of tomatoes include early tomatoes, more likely to set fruit at lower temperatures; cool-summer tomatoes, more likely to prosper in the northern climates; small-fruit tomatoes like grape and cherry tomatoes; and plum tomatoes, with thick meat and a small seed cavity. Roma tomatoes are a popular plum tomato.
Tomato Label Information
V – Resistant to Verticillium Wilt
F – Resistant to Fusarium
FF – Resistant to Fusarium 1 and 2
N – Resistant to Nematodes
T – Resistant to Tobacco mosaic virus
A – Resistant to Alternaria stem canker
St – Resistant to Stemphylium which is gray leaf spot
SWV – Resistant to Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus
Growing Tomato Plants from Seeds
If growing Heirloom tomatoes, they will most probably have to be grown from seed. Very few garden supply centers stock heirloom tomato plants. Many people who wish to save money and enjoy starting plants from seed, also like to start other tomato plants from seed. In order to do so, seeds need to be started indoors 5-6 weeks before the last frost.
Plant seeds in two parts soil and one part compost, vermiculite or perlite. Place seeds in holes 2-3 inches apart. Keep in a warm, dark place until seedlings sprout. This will take form 6-14 days. Light isn’t necessary until plants can be seen.
Once plants appear, move them to a bright, cool location – make sure it doesn’t get lower than 40 degrees Fahrenheit at night though. This will keep plants from growing tall and spindly and will allow the roots to develop.
When plants have 1-2 leaves, they can be transplanted into larger pots, burying them a little deeper than they were grown before. About two weeks before transplanting outside, set them out in the shade during the day and bring them inside at night to slowly acclimate them to the outdoors.
Once plants are hardened off and the evening temperature is consistently above 55 degrees Fahrenheit plants can be planted into the prepared garden soil.
Purchasing and Planting Starter Tomato Plants
If purchasing plants from a garden supply center, there are a few things to look for to insure healthy plants; dark green leaves, sturdy stems, no signs of pest (like chew marks or holes in the leaves). If plants have yellowed or brown leaves or speckling on the leaves, this is not a good choice.
It’s also wise to leave plants that have flowers – they are stressed if they are flowering so quickly. It’s hard to turn away a plant that is sure to have a tomato in a few days – but it’s not always the best choice for the garden.
Plant seedlings in the ground after all danger of frost has passed and the nights are in the 50’s. Most gardeners suggest planting tomatoes by laying the roots and the bottom of the stem in a trench about 4 inches deep (removing all but the topmost leaves) and burying the stem along with the roots in the ground.
This vertical burial will enable roots to grow all along the buried stem, produce a sturdier foundation and give the plant a better chance to absorb water and other nutrients from the soil. With the root system closer to the surface of the soil, the plant will also have more heat, which will enable it to produce earlier tomatoes.
Of course, in really hot areas this could also backfire. If planting late in summer, it might be a good idea to plant the roots a little deeper so they don’t get too hot and burn.
Place plants about 2 to 4 feet apart in rows approximately three feet apart. Tomato plants need air circulation, so don’t crowd them. Plants can be planted in rows and watered between the rows, or you can plant them in rows, then dig a trench completely around the tomato plant.
This way each tomato plant will get water on all sides of the root system.
Growing Tomato Plants Indoors
Tomato plants can also be grown indoors in a pot with drainage holes in the bottom, but they will need a VERY sunny location. A south window or artificial light will provide the light necessary to enable tomatoes to grow and bloom. Fill the container with two parts soil and one part compost or vermiculite before planting.
Popular Tomato Varieties
Celebrity, Big Boy and Better Boy are well known, popular tomato plants. For high heat areas, Heatwave is a good choice. A popular Hybrid tomato is Beefsteak – one of the giants in tomatoes. And plum tomatoes, grape and cherry tomatoes are always popular for indoor gardens and for those who like to serve them in salads.
Roma is the most popular of the plum tomatoes. Smaller fruited tomatoes are Tiny Tim, Patio and Small Fry.
How to Grow Tomato Plants
Tomatoes like at least eight hours of full sun a day. If they don’t get enough sun, the plants will grow spindly and produce little or no blooms. When choosing a garden spot, make sure the area gets at least eight hours or more of sun during the day. In addition, the area needs to be a well-drained area that doesn’t hold pools of water when it rains.
Many tomato diseases are the result of poor drainage. If the only area in the yard for a garden isn’t well-drained, it’s a good idea to plant in a raised bed instead.
In order to give tomatoes a fertile soil to grow in, compost or organic matter (horse manure works great) can be tilled into the soil. A few weeks before planting, cover the garden area with about three to four inches of compost or organic matter, then till this in to the top five to six inches of soil.
This will also break up any clods and make the soil easier for the roots to penetrate.
At the time of planting, it’s a good time to put tomato cages over the plants or to ready the trellis or other device to support the tomato plants. Another way to grow tomatoes is by having stakes at each end of the garden and stringing rope from one stake to the other.
Since tomatoes are vines, they will enjoy climbing along the ropes. It’s important to check on the plants daily and train them to grow along the ropes though. It may also be necessary to lightly tie them to the ropes with gardening tape or a soft ribbon. Ties should be loose so plants won’t be cut when they begin to grow larger. Soft cloth or green florist tape can be used to tie plants so they won’t be harmed.
How to Water Tomatoes
Tomatoes like a lot of water – but they don’t want to have their roots sitting in water. An even amount of watering is important for the plant to do well. Too much water can cause disease such as flower drop, fruit-splitting or blossom-end rot. Not enough water can cause wilting. And uneven watering can cause cat-facing; lines, cracks and openings in the fruit.
So how much water is enough? Tomatoes need regular water, but they don’t like soggy soil. Soil should be kept evenly moist. In climates where the temperatures rise to 100 degrees or more during the day, this may mean watering every day. In cooler areas, watering every two to three days may suffice. Water slowly and deeply.
Another thing that helps control the watering and keeps the soil from drying out completely between watering is mulching. Mulch helps the soil retain water in dry climates and helps to keep the soil warm in cooler climates.
Mulching with three to four inches of compost, straw or hay will keep plants from heat stress and keep the roots from drying out. This will also help prevent weeds from growing around the base of the plants.
Never water the leaves of the tomato plant. Always keep water pointed toward the base of the plant, away from the leaves, and try to keep the leaves dry. When leaves become wet, tomato plants are more likely to suffer from diseases. Never use a sprinkler or overhead watering device on tomato plants.
Fertilizer for Tomatoes
Tomato plants can be fertilized once they begin to flower. In organic gardens, horse manure is a good fertilizer that will help tomatoes grow. Just make sure to put the manure at least two to three inches out from the base of the plant and water it into the ground thoroughly. Any closer could cause the manure to burn the plant base.
If fertilizing tomatoes, make sure the fertilizer isn’t high in nitrogen. Too much nitrogen will keep plants from blooming, or they will drop their blooms. It’s better to use a fertilizer formulated especially for tomatoes or one that is low in nitrogen.
How to Prune Tomatoes
Especially in indeterminate varieties that tend to sprawl and cover half the garden, pruning is often recommended. Pruned plants will have fewer but larger fruit. To prune tomato plants, clip the side shoots that grow where the leaf meets the stem. Plants should not be pruned once they put on fruits.
Many gardeners believe in pulling off the first flowers and allowing the plant to form roots and foliage. Plants are not allowed to form fruit until they are at least a foot tall.
Common Tomato Diseases and Pests
Cat-facing – Irregular shapes and lines appearing at the top of the tomatoes. This is caused by temperature shifts and can often be prevented by not planting too early in the season or by planting varieties resistant to cat-facing.
Blossom-End Rot – Tomatoes turn black at the end of the tomato and seem to rot from the bottom up. This is caused by inconsistent moisture and a calcium deficiency in the soil. It can be brought on by drought, uneven soil moisture or excess nitrogen and high salt levels. Adding calcium to the soil will prevent the problem from occurring.
Sunscald – Fruit will have sunburned looking spots. This is caused when there is a spike in the temperature. Normally the entire fruit rots before it ripens.
Split Skin/Cracking – Any time plants experience accelerated growth; when they get too much moisture after a dry spell or if the fruit has been left on the bush too long, skin will crack or split, exposing the soft fleshy insides of the tomato.
Flowers, No Fruit – Often blooms fall off. This can be caused by changes in the weather or not enough water.
Thick, Tough Skin – Some fruits naturally have a tougher skin than others. Dry, hot weather and inconsistent water will also produce thicker skinned tomatoes.
Tomato Hornworm – That ugly, fat caterpillar with the long spike on his head. They blend in among the foliage, are often difficult to spot and they will chew the foliage and ruin the tomatoes.
Blight – Early Blight is caused by a fungus that often survives on older vines and can be found in the soil. Late Blight is often seen in wet weather.
Wilt – Fusarium and Verticillium fungi cause wilt and can kill plants. Fusarium wilt turns branches yellow. Verticillium appears as yellowing between the major veins on the leaves. Southern Bacterial Wilt will kill a plant suddenly. Leaves will wilt while the plant is still green and healthy. If plants are planted in the same soil where the disease has occurred in the past, plants will almost always contract the disease.
Root Knot Nematodes – Microscopic eelworms in the soil harm the roots of plants, causing them to die.
Preventing Tomato Diseases
Many diseases can be prevented by solarizing the soil. This can be done at the end of the season – or the year before if you are planning a new garden site. In the hottest part of the summer, prepare the garden area and moisten the ground lightly.
Cover with a sturdy plastic tarp. Leave tarp in place for at least three to four weeks. This can also be done before readying the garden since most of the grass and weeds will be killed while under the tarp.
By planting disease resistant plants to start with, chances are less likely that plants will contract certain diseases. It’s also important to make sure you don’t plant tomatoes in the same places that other members of the tomato family have grown in the past two years, like peppers, eggplants or potatoes. They can leave diseases or pests in the soil that will attack the newly planted tomato plants.
Companion Planting for Tomatoes
Whether a person believes companion planting is just an old wives tale or whether they believe in it because they’ve actually seen the results, companion planting can often be utilized in the garden to help control diseases and insects.
Many plants have substances in them that repel or attract garden pests. These same substances often help other plants grow and enhance the flavor of their fruits. Plants that work well in companion planting with tomatoes are below:
· Amaranth – This helps repel insects.
· Basil – This repels insects and improves growth and flavor. Also repels some insects.
· Borage – This improves growth and flavor. The borage plant attracts bees and wasps though. It is also said to improve disease resistance of tomatoes.
· Bee Balm, Chives, Parsley, and Mint – These improve flavor.
· Carrots – Carrots are friends of the tomato, but the tomatoes will stunt the growth of carrots – but the flavor will still be great.
· Garlic – This repels red spider mites. A spray of garlic on plants will often control late blight.
· Nasturtiums – These can be planted as a barrier that deters many garden pests.
· Hot Peppers – Their roots have a substance that prevents root rot and other Fusarium diseases. Teas made from peppers can also be used as pest control sprays.
· Petunias – They repel the tomato hornworm.
Other friends of the tomato are Asparagus, Carrots, Celery, Geraniums, Onions, Parsley, Sweet Peppers (Bell), Head Lettuce, and Marigold. Although planting “weeds” in the garden is not always a good idea, below are some that aid in the flavor and growth of tomatoes.
· Stinging Nettle – This improves flavor.
· Thistle – This aids growth.
The plants below ARE NOT good companions for tomatoes.
· Cabbage and others in the cabbage family – These stunt the growth of tomato plants.
· Corn – Corn earworms will eat tomato plants as well
· Dill – Once the dill plant matures, it starts to inhibit tomato plant growth. It also attracts the tomato horn worm.
· Eggplant, Peppers and Potatoes – These are in the same family as the tomato and are susceptible to blight, which can be contracted if planted too close to each other. Planting tomatoes near potatoes will also make the potatoes more susceptible to potato blight.
· Fennel – This inhibits plant growth.
· Walnuts – Since the walnut tree produces a chemical that inhibits the growth of tomatoes, it’s not a good idea to plant tomatoes under walnut tress. Tomatoes can also contract walnut wilt.
Tomatoes also aid in the growth of other plants:
· Roses – Tomatoes protect them from black spot. Interplanted in a flower bed, these two make great companions.
Most tomatoes plants won’t set fruit until the temperature is consistently above 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
Fruit should be harvested when it’s fully ripened, a solid color and still firm. The longer the fruit is left on the vine, the better the taste. Cut or gently twist fruit off, making sure not to damage the vine.
Once harvested, tomatoes should not go in the refrigerator. The cold can take away the flavor of the tomatoes, so it’s best to store tomatoes on the kitchen counter or in a warm, dry place. Tomatoes will begin to lose their flavor as soon as the temperature falls below 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
If tomatoes are still on the vine when cold temperatures threaten, tomatoes can be harvested early and stored in a warm place away from the light. NOT ON THE WINDOWSILL! Those on the window sill will only turn red – they won’t have any of the sweet, vine-ripened tomato flavor. Those that are allowed to ripen naturally, away from the light, will eventually ripen and will have a better flavor.
Saving Tomato Seeds
Now that the season is over, seeds can be salvaged for next year’s crop. It’s wise not to save fruits from the first fruits of the season. A good rule of thumb is to pick at least one ripe fruit a day from several different plants. An easy way to get the seeds out is to use a juicer and strain the seeds out of the juice (The juice can be used in cooking or to drink).
Wash seeds and spread on a paper plate or paper towel to dry. When putting seeds away make sure to put them in a dry location and LABEL them! Enjoy!
Tracey Moore-Sweeney is a self-taught writer who started writing stories and newspaper articles at a young age. She has had several how-to articles published in addition to being writer and editor for a variety of church, school and organizational newsletters. With a wide variety of hobbies and interests, the sky is the limit on what Ms. Moore-Sweeney writes.