What You Need to Know About Growing Tomatoes

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Tomatoes are one of the most widely grown, most versatile vegetables available. There are red ones, green ones, blue, black, and pink ones. They’re useful in everything from ketchup to salsa, spaghetti sauce, and chili. While I have met a few who don’t like them, the majority of home gardens grow them.

But how?

Like any other plant, tomatoes have preferences. The conditions they’re grown in matter, and intended use matters in selection. There are pages upon pages of varieties in the average seed catalog to choose from, and that can feel overwhelming! Ditto the gardening center: there are shelves upon shelves upon shelves of tomatoes. In this article, I’ll discuss what you need to know to be able to choose well and grow a bountiful harvest of beautiful tomato treasure. 

Want even MORE awesome gardening information? Go here and check out our online Home Agriculture Comprehensive course!

Here’s an update on my indoor tomato project

First, an update on my indoor grow operation. I wrote about it here. The end result wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either. The determinant Tiny Tim did produce a few handfuls, enough to go with salad but nowhere near enough to preserve. The indeterminant Dancing with Smurfs hasn’t even produced that much and is now waiting to go outdoors to see if that helps.

Remember: I used both heat mats and grow lights to mitigate winter conditions. I also used an electric toothbrush to pollinate the flowers, and I fertilized them since neither seed starting nor potting mix really has enough nutrients for serious fruit production. The Tiny Tim has died off at this point. 

Determinant vs. indeterminant tomatoes?

So how do we pick our plants, and what’s this stuff about determinant and indeterminant? The latter question being the easiest, that’s where I’ll start. Tomatoes are classified as being either determinant, which means they produce most of their fruit at once and die, or indeterminate, meaning they keep producing fruit until a hard frost kills them. Which you choose depends upon how you plan to use them.

Some people prefer determinants for canning/freezing because the fruits are all ready at about the same time. I nearly always use indeterminant varieties and preserve them throughout the harvest season, finding that enough tomatoes are often ready at a given point to make my recipe. I tend to preserve as things are ready, whereas some gardeners prefer to do all of their tomato dishes at once. 

How will you use your tomatoes?

Another issue to consider when selecting your variety again relates to how you plan to use your harvest. Do you want tomatoes for sauce, condiments, or just salads?

I tend to plant a few varieties for each purpose. For example, I like Amish paste for sauce and cherry tomatoes for salads. Slicers are good for canning as well as for sandwiches. Cherokee Purple does well in my area, but who could resist the fun of trying Brad’s Atomic Grape?

Other factors in variety selection

Also, consider the length of your growing season. In my area, it’s much better to start with transplants than from seed because I have 5, perhaps 6 months at the outside to get my plants in the ground and the fruits into my pantry. Even gardener friends in more southern grow zones like to start with transplants as it saves time and they can get several harvests before the end. 

If you’re new to gardening, I’d get plants locally. Garden centers and plant sales are easy to find by using either the phone book or your favorite search engine. If money is a consideration, look for plant giveaways. My local University Extension office has one. Yours might also. Many high schools have botany clubs and sell plants to make money. I like all of the above because it keeps my supply chain local and supports my local economy. I’ve written about starting from seed here and when to plant your seedlings outdoors or not here. 

What are the right conditions to grow tomatoes?

So what conditions do tomatoes prefer?

Most vegetables prefer a soil pH of 6.5-7.0 or so. pH affects the ability of plants to take up nutrients through the roots and can be determined by soil testing. A simple Luster Leaf RapiTest, available online or from your garden center, is a color change test that will get you in the ballpark. Lab testing is more accurate but also more expensive. Your local Extension office will offer it, and many labs allow individuals to ship to them directly. However, be aware that most of these tests give information for pH and NPK only. Other tests may be available upon request at an added expense.

I’ve had great results with Soil Savvy. Their tests include all of the above plus the micronutrients and are comparable in cost to the average lab test. I lab test my soil every 3-5 years and use the RapiTests in between. Tomatoes, as with most other vegetables, tend to be heavy feeders so the soil environment needs to be able to support that.

Expert tip: adding a bunch of fertilizer to your soil on a wing and a prayer won’t work. Plants will use what’s there, and you may end up with the most lovely of plants but no fruits. I had this experience with potatoes, adding too much nitrogen one year. I had lovely plants but not a single tuber! 

Tomatoes also need lots of sun, 6-8 hours per day of direct sunlight at least. The more the better here! They’ll need some kind of support, either a tomato cage or a trellis, to keep the fruits from rotting on the ground. Our friend Laurie Neverman of Common Sense Homesteading offers some great trellis ideas here. 

Watering is another consideration. Most vegetables need about 1” of water per week, but irregular watering can yield cracked fruits and watering soil that’s already wet can lead to root rot. I check necessity by digging my finger down 2-3”. If my finger comes up dry, it’s time to water. If the soil is mud, let it dry out. Plant roots need that wet/dry cycle to stay healthy. If my finger comes out kinda wet, I wait and check again the next day. Since I have municipal water, I use a water filter that attaches to my main spigot. Nothing will make plants pop like rain, though! 

What problems should you look out for when growing tomatoes?

Tomatoes have their problems as well. Mine have Septoria leaf spot pretty much every year. I’ve written about that and how to manage it here. If you’re really (un)lucky, you may experience tomato brown rugose fruit virus. Learn more about that here.

There are some 30 diseases that can affect tomatoes, and that doesn’t even count your average squirrel! For a nice list along with organic management, go here. There are also good prevention strategies given at that link.

Harvesting tomatoes

When it comes to harvesting, just twist and pull your treasures from the vine. Look for a nice, even color and firmness of fruit. Some heirloom varieties are ripe before they completely turn color and cherries will often crack if they’re left on the vine too long. Experience is your best teacher here.

Temperature will affect this: if you’ve had a long stretch of days above 86F, tomatoes will stop ripening. Pick them when they’re between firm and soft. At the end of the season, tomatoes that are still green can sometimes be ripened on the window sill. You can also put them in a paper bag or box. Some people put a ripe apple or banana in with them to speed things up, but check daily for rot and mold. In my experience, not all tomatoes will ripen indoors, but it doesn’t hurt to try. 

What are your tomato tips?

If you’re looking for ways to preserve your harvest, check out these ideas! Daisy gives ten ways here and suggests some very cool books on preservation in general here.

How do you grow your tomatoes? Do you have any tomato tips you can share? Have you ever had bad luck with tomatoes? If so, what happened? How do you preserve them?

Let’s talk tomatoes! Share your thoughts and tips in the comments section! 

About Amy Allen

Amy Allen is a professional bookworm and student of Life, the Universe, and Everything. She’s also a Master Gardener with a BS in biology, and has been growing food on her small urban lot since 2010.

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Amy Allen

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  • Thanks Amy for the helpful hints. I had so much disease problems last year that I plowed under the garden patch and this year planted tomatoes and squash in outdoor containers.

    Here in NE Florida, I have already enjoyed a half dozen vine ripe tomatoes and some tiny little squash for salads and satuee.

    They consume enormous amounts of water. I have to water EVERY day (1 inch approximately) that it doesn’t rain. Even so, I get split skins from time to time. No real disease issues so far with the Better Boy variety. I love the Celebrity variety with tomatoe taste on steroids but died on the vine last year.

    Pinching off suckers and pruning/supporting seems to help my production volume. What helps the most is checking on them every day, pretty much without fail. And by checking, I mean really look closely and question the health of the plant top to bottom.

    The squash in containers is not doing so well. I think it limits the vine running free. A very little fruit and nice leaves. N rich soil maybe?

    • I’ve grown squash in containers with similar results. What are you using for potting medium? I used Miracle Gro, which isn’t even soil and contains only NPK. Squash are also heavy feeders and need more nutrition than container soil gives. You might try fertilizing.

      I also found that vines need space to run. You can prune them at 15ft and they’ll form side shoots. But yes, they need room. Squash is also very prone to powdery mildew so watch out for that! Copper fungicide will help but ultimately you’re in a race to get what you can before the plant dies.

      And yes, containers need water pretty much every day, especially in the heat! Thanks for mentioning that. Good luck!

  • I have never heard of anyone pollinating tomatoes. They are self pollinating.

    We start our plants indoors under shop lights, which are a lot cheaper than grow lights and work fine. In my area, the average last frost is mid April and I move the starts out to a glass greenhouse to continue growing until my husband has time to get them in the ground in the high tunnel. Because of the endless rain, we never plant them outside. They would all succumb to blight.

    Last year we planted over fifty indeterminate heirloom varieties and as we harvested them, I sliced them and put them in the dehydrator. I think I had that thing running for a month straight!

    I should have kept track of weights (this year I will). I made tons of salsas and the dehydrated tomatos make great marinara. We’ve canned it in the past, but it always seems too runny, even with paste tomatoes.

    Since our chickens, ducks, and geese spent the whole winter in the high tunnel and I dumped several large loads of goat bedding in there as well, we should have an amazing crop this year!

    • Tomatoes are self-pollinating but when growing them in my house, there’s neither a breeze nor an insect during winter. Shaking them can work but the electric toothbrush simulates the movement of the pollinator and I’ve found that it works better.

      Indeed, canned sauce is always a bit runny for me as well. I find it useful to drain off the water when I reheat it for eating. I wish I could have poultry in my urban yard! Wonderful fertilizer.

      Thanks for the tips and the comments!

  • I’m in Oklahoma and ‘the more sun the better’ does not work for my tomatoes. I plant them under a large tree which gives them shade in the middle of the day. They do well there. In open ground they wither and die no matter how much I water them.

    • Fair enough. I have a gardener friend in GA that gives hers shade during the hottest part of the day. Up here there’s no need but I can see your point for down there. Thanks for the comment!

  • Not mentioned was the temperature required to get the tomatoes to fruit. I live just off the beach in San Diego (May Gray/June gloom). If I plant too early, I get nice growth, but it’s too cold for the flowers to set fruit. The flowers will not set fruit until the weather warms up to shirt sleeve and shorts weather. Sometimes I estimate the onset of warm weather correctly and get a bumper crop right at the onset of flowering. Other times the weather doesn’t cooperate and I have to wait until the weather decides to warm up before I can get fruit.

  • Florida Zone 10 checking in. The everglades tomato thrives in this climate. I started by seed in November and its been producing non stop since then. Its a wild one growing more horizontal than vertical.

    I have tried others, but my experience was that they were too finicky and not worth the work.

  • Tomatoes like a lot of sun, but as you said, they don’t like a lot of heat. If it gets too hot, the tomatoes will not ripen or continue to grow. Then, when things cool off, they’ll try to complete their growth. Their skins will have toughened by then, and the tomatoes will most likely crack. I live in the Desert Southwest, where temps routinely go above 100* in the summer with single-digit humidity. I found that planting my tomatoes in the SHADE gives them a leg up on the heat. Also along that line, I don’t trellis my tomatoes. I let them run along the ground. This keeps the plants cooler. The stems of the plants will also put down roots wherever they touch the ground. This helps with water and nutrient uptake. Yeah, I’ll lose a few tomatoes that touch the ground, but overall I end up with plenty.

    I like indeterminate tomatoes. They’re the gift that keeps on giving, all season long.

    Ask the LOCALS which cultivars do best where you live. Different cultivars do better in different places. Most “home improvement stores” will sell Beefsteak tomatoes. The name sounds good, and fills buyers’ minds with a harvest of giant fruit. Beefsteaks do horribly where I live. Cherry, Roma, and yellow pear tomatoes, on the other hand, thrive. My neighbor found a tomato plant growing and THRIVING at the back of his property where it was getting next to no water at all. It was most likely a bird poop volunteer. He gave me a few of the fruit and I saved the seeds. The resulting plants did very well the next season! So well in fact, that I took cuttings from it, dipped them in rooting hormone, and planted them. Yes, that’s cloning. It was hit and miss. I planted four plants and only one survived, but that plant is going STRONG. I’ll be taking cutting from that one this year. Why not do the seeds again? I have no idea if the mother plant was heirloom or a hybrid. Plant the seeds from a hybrid, and you won’t know what you’re going to get. Plant a cutting, and the hybrid genes remain intact. You get an exact duplicate of the mother plant, fruit and all.

    • I totally agree about finding the varieties that do well in YOUR garden. I have a friend in Georgia that’s planted over 300 varieties in her garden, looking for that perfect cultivar. She does very well too!

      I also agree with adapting to your circumstances. I’m quite a bit north of you so excessive heat isn’t usually a problem, or at least not for long. Shade cloth might also help the kind of heat you get.

  • Squirrels were the bane of my regular size tomato experience last year! Went back to cherry variety this year. Was using pots but they degraded so I got a raised planter this year. Compost pile provided 35 year old compost added to top soil. Water needs for the planter will be a learning as I go method. I check for dryness before watering. We tend to eat the cherries as soon as they ripen all by themselves.

    • I too have had problems with squirrels! And they don’t take the entire tomato. They take a bite of one, then another, then another thusly ruining several tomatoes. Very wasteful! And they climb very well.

      Yes, containers do require watering more often than in-ground. Good on you to check first. Thanks for your comments!

  • I’ve found that if I feed my tomato plants with the cow manure tea I make from our cows, that it seems to feed the plants to the point where they can naturally fight off the usual and customary problems that the plants often present without the aid of any organic sprays.

    I accidentally stumbled on that when I began to spray them with the tea for fertilizing reasons alone. I couldn’t help but notice that usual garden issues greatly diminished and the only thing I had done differently is to spray them with the tea. I may be wrong, but my hypothesis was that feeding them something less common then the commercial products gave the plant the ability to fight these things off themselves without any intervention by me.

    • Yup! Commercial mixes often don’t contain the micronutrients, and those are what helps the plant fight disease. Compost tea can help, although I bought some compost last year that was shockingly nutrient poor. That’s why I harp constantly on soil testing. Know what you have and you’ll know what to do! Thanks for commenting.

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