While technically a fruit, most people consider tomatoes (Lycopersicon spp.) to be an essential part of the vegetable garden. Who can resist the delicious temptation of a tomato picked fresh from the vine? It comes as no that surprise that the tomato is the most commonly grown vegetable in the States. Funny to think that the Europeans who found the tomato considered it poisonous and it was not eaten on the Continent until a century after it’s introduction there!

How to Grow Tomatoes

Step 1: Decide What Kind of Tomato to Grow

First, determine what kind of space you want to put your tomatoes in. Tomatoes come in two different types; determinate and indeterminate. As the name suggests, determinates have vines that grow to a determined point and stop, making them more compact and bushy (They are sometimes listed as bush tomatoes). Indeterminates are more viney than determinates; their vines continue to grow and need support. Determinates tend to be early; indeterminates are a good bet for later fruit. Obviously the determinates are better suited for small gardens; they are also a better bet for containers (although you could always provide a cage or trellis for indeterminates in containers).

Step 2: Select Appropriate Tomato Breeds

Tomatoes are easy to grow from seed (65° F or 18° C to germinate). Unless you wish to grow heirloom tomatoes, you may wish to simply purchase your tomato plants if you want to spare yourself the time and trouble. (Check your better garden centers and greenhouses; as they may even have starts for those more common heirlooms like the Brandywine tomato). I recommend starts unless you have greenhouse space; it can be done, but unless you really want them to be YOUR tomatoes, (or you need two hundred plants) it’s worth the outlay to get plants that you won’t need to baby-sit for two months (time is money…).

How to Pick Healthy Tomato Plants

Be sure to pick out healthy plants with no yellowing or speckling on the leaves (fusarium or leaf spot). If you’re not sure what tomatoes you want or need, checking the tag can be a big help in selecting a good tomato. Look for a string of letters on the tag. They denote resistance to disease:

Tomato Disease Resistance Codes

  • A – Alternaria leaf spot
  • F – Fusarium wilt
  • FF – Race 1 & Race 2 Fusarium
  • L – Septoria leaf spot
  • N – Nematodes
  • T – Tobacco mosaic virus
  • V – Verticilium wilt

So a tomato with an FFLT code is resistant to both common strains of fusarium wilt, septoria leaf spot, and tobacco mosaic virus (Don’t even THINK about smoking around your tomatoes…). Most of the modern strains are more disease resistant than old, heirloom varieties. There are a lot of different tomatoes out there. Let’s look at the different types…

Standard Tomato Breeds

This is going to change a lot depending on which part of the country you’re from. Celebrity, Big Boy and its prodigy Better Boy are well known everywhere, but in Phoenix (or any other hot locale) you should know about Heatwave.  Ace and Pearson are favorites in California and Rutgers is still a hit in New Jersey. Check around with the cognoscenti in your area and see if there is a local favorite.

Early Tomatoes

These determinate types set fruit at much lower temperatures, making them great for early fruit and invaluable for areas with cool summers. Early Girl, Sunstart, and Burpee’s Early Pick are good examples, as are New Yorker, and Wayahead. Red Robin is a good cherry type.

Cool Summer Tomatoes

Oregon Spring, Northern Exposure, Manitoba, and Stokesalaska are all good tomatoes for the far northern or montane gardens. (I remember a friend who moved from New England to Jackson Hole being frustrated at not being able to grow her usual tomatoes; if only she had known…). Glacier is a newer tomato that supposedly has the hardiness of the sub-arctic tomatoes without their watered-down taste. Check those local nurseries for more suggestions…

Hybrid (F1) Tomatoes

These are the result of breeding programs, F1 being a designation of first generation crosses between two good tomatoes to get a better one. Most of the modern tomatoes fall into this category, and if the truth was known, probably a lot of the heirlooms, too. A good example would be the giants like Beefsteak from which Big Beef (Big Boy x Beefsteak) and Beef Master were bred.

Plum (Paste) Tomatoes

These are the Italian style tomatoes with thick meat and a small seed cavity, making them perfect for tomato paste or sauce. Roma is still the hands down favorite in Little Italy, but I am very impressed with Sauce and Slice, a newer variety that does double duty (perfect for the tiny garden or containers). Look for Plum Dandy or Super Marzano as well.

Small Fruit Tomatoes

These include the grape and cherry tomatoes. Red Cherry tomato, Red Pear tomato (and their yellow counterparts), Sweet 100 and it’s offshoots, Supersweet 100 and Sweet Million are all favorites of mine for right out of the garden noshing. If you’re looking for a great plant for a small container or windowbox, try Tiny Tim, Patio, or Small Fry tomato.

Heirloom Tomatoes

These are the old strains that have been kept alive by gardeners harvesting their own seed. Brandywine is a 112 year old Amish variety that is still the big favorite along the Delaware/Pennsylvania border (as well as gathering a more national following, hitting most lists of best tasting tomatoes). It dropped out of sight for a while as the big seed guys were concentrating on farmers and not gardeners, and Brandywine doesn’t travel well; it’s so juicy I have actually considered bibbing for a particularly luscious one!).

Handed down from generation to generation, tomatoes like ‘Cherokee Purple’ and ‘Mortgage Lifter tomato ‘ are more than just great names; these are tomatoes that will add some new excitement to the summer table. Imagine the look on the kid’s faces when you top their burger with a slice of ‘White Wonder tomato’, a nearly white fruit!

The heirlooms can also be a connection to the old country. From the 1 lb. ‘Polish Giant’ to the 1-2 oz. Stupice from the Czech Republic (they may be small but the flavor isn’t…) there are tomatoes from all over the world to pique your taste buds. Colors range far away from the familiar red.

Heirloom tomatoes grow in many colors

Brandywine is a salmon pink in its common form, but there are yellow, purple and red sports. Oranges include Nebraska Wedding and Kentucky Beefsteak; purples are represented by Black Prince and Prudens Purple. Yellow is another bonanza with Persimmon Yellow, Pixie Peach and Tangerine. Even green checks in with Green Grape, Evergreen and Green Zebra which has yellow stripes!

Red/yellow stripers include Mr. Stripey and Old German (a Mennonite variety; it appears we owe the Amish and Mennonite folk a huge debt of gratitude for keeping many of these old strains alive). Think about starting your own family tradition of handing down a neat variety and growing a little more fruit on the family tree! As always, check the local extension service or Master Gardeners for heirloom varieties specific to your region.

Tomato Requirements for Soil, Sun and Water

Tomatoes require plenty of sun. As for soil, they will grow in just about anything you throw at them. An old survivalist manual says you can grow them in newspaper if you add the right fertilizers and I don’t think that’s far from the mark (although I haven’t been brave enough to try). That isn’t to say that soil amendment is a bad idea.

I am always in favor of adding compost and manure to anything but the wettest soil. They do very well when planted in containers, as soil can easily be changed or improved from year to year (raised beds are good for much the same reason). Uniform watering is the key to nice fruit. Even watering can prevent leaf-end roll, blossom end-rot and “cat-facing”, those misshapen crags and cracks on the stem end of the fruit. (I find the new moisture crystals help keep things on an even keel if I miss a day or two). Can’t say this enough; tomatoes are about the watering! Skimp on amendments, fertilizers and the rest, but if you want good tomatoes it’s about the water.

(Did I mention about watering?)

Guide to Planting Tomatoes

It is OK to plant tomatoes in the garden when the temperature is a consistent 50° F, but plants won’t begin to set fruit until the overnight low is regularly above 55°. Plant tomatoes approximately 2 to 3 feet apart from each other or in rows three feet apart with the plants spaced at a foot. This is a good method for indeterminate types in smaller gardens; you must simply keep the plant to a single main stalk. Run a pole over the length of your row and string ’em up! As your plants get larger, they will need to be staked in order to support the weight of the fruits as they begin to grow. Cages are a quick and easy fix that works great, but I find that twig or bamboo tripods and trellising make a more aesthetic offering; just because it’s a vegetable garden doesn’t mean it can’t look good!

Tomatoes should be harvested when they are fully ripened and just starting to soften. Once picked, store tomatoes in dark, warm conditions. DO NOT REFRIGERATE TOMATOES! Ever! Fresh tomatoes start to fall off the flavor wagon as soon as they go below 55°; you might as well buy those soulless, tasteless clones at the supermarket.

You have three days to use a vine-ripened tomato; it is wise to observe the garden and make that crucial decision: Are there too many to eat and is today the day I make sauce? (Cooked sauce WILL freeze nicely and there are few greater winter joys than hauling out a container of sauce from the freezer and enjoying your tomatoes months later!) Don’t let a single one go to waste. If your friends and family are waving you off, try a local shelter or soup kitchen. They’ll appreciate it and you’ll feel great.

More and more I find people who aren’t growing tomatoes (?!) and I never lack for donees. I usually grow three tomatoes in my ten by ten space (usually an ‘Early Girl’, a Roma tomato, and a Brandywine, although Roma was replaced with ‘Sauce and Slice’ this year with excellent results).

Find those tomatoes that work for you; maybe one to hand down to the grandkids. They are fun to grow and even more fun to eat. Enjoy the fruits of your labor. Enjoy…