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Growing Tomatoes & Tomato Growing Tips

A complete guide on how to grow tomatoes that are perfect and flavorful!

The most frequent questions I get from spring through early fall concern growing tomatoes properly and how to fix, or avoid, their associated problems.

We all love to grow tomatoes, but they do have their quirks. I have, therefore, put together the most comprehensive article I can in order to answer all the different questions, and make it easier for everyone to grow any type of tomatoes successfully, with confidence, and most importantly, easily.

Since, when growing anything, problems can occur anywhere along the process, we will cover all aspects of how to grow tomatoes including:

  • Climate and Soil
  • Heirlooms and Hybrids
  • Seeds and Seedlings
  • Planting and Fertilizing
  • Watering and Mulching
  • Determinate, Indeterminate, Semi-determinate
  • To Pinch out Suckers or Not
  • Commom Problems & Solutions
  • Prevent Diseases From Starting
  • Harvesting
  • How to Ripen Green Tomato Tricks
  • Popular Tomato Varieties
  • Where to Buy Tomato Seed

I know you're probably ready to get started, so let's dig in.


Climate and Soil

Tomatoes like a nice warm area in full sun, and need at least 8 hours of sunlight a day, or they get spindly and produce little mature fruit.

They like soil that has a pH of 5.5 - 6.8, is fertile, deep, well-drained, and that is rich in organic matter. If the soil stays soggy where you want to plant, build a raised bed.

You want soil that will hold water as evenly as possible because uneven uptake of water can cause all kinds of problems with tomatoes including: flower drop, fruit splitting and blossom-end rot.

To help give your tomatoes the best-suited environment you can, till in a good amount of compost or organic matter. A general guide would be 3 inches (7.6 cm) of organic matter into the top 6 inches (15.2 cm) of soil.

You can also grow a cover crop to help build the soil. Plant a grain or legume crop, sometimes called green manure, for the purpose of chopping it down and adding it to the soil.

One way is to plant hairy vetch (Vicia villosa), a nitrogen-fixing legume, in your garden bed in the fall. In the spring, cut it down and till the residue into the soil. This provides both nitrogen and an instant mulch that preserves moisture.

Lastly, many tomato diseases reside in the soil and affect peppers, eggplants, potatoes, and other crops in the nightshade (Solanaceae) family. To break the disease cycle, and to help get rid of the disease-causing organisms, rotate tomatoes with unrelated crops, such as corn, beans or lettuce.




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Well-drained soil in full sun


Till in organic matter


Use Hairy Vetch as cover crop

Heirlooms and Hybrids

What is the difference between Heirlooms and Hybrids?

Heirlooms, loosely defined, are open-pollinated cultivars that were introduced many generations ago, and were of such merit, that they have been saved, maintained and handed down. It is generally agreed that no genetically modified plants can be considered heirloom cultivars.

Heirlooms are often not as productive as hybrids, but they typically taste better, and you can save their seeds from one season to the next, eventually breeding a variety that is perfectly suited to your conditions. Most heirlooms are "indeterminate" types, meaning they grow long, sprawling vines and produce tomatoes continuously through the season.

Hybrids, on the other hand, are tomatoes whose breeding has been controlled, and organized for specific reasons. For example, they often have disease-resistance bred into them that heirlooms lack.

In fact hybrid tomato varieties have many advantages compared to open-pollinated varieties. Hybrids usually produce higher yields, they generally mature earlier and more uniformly, and many hybrids have better fruit quality.

It's really up to you which you want to plant. If you want to avoid hybrids and plant heirlooms only, look at that tag, there will usually be a "F1" demarcation for hybrids. If you need or want the disease resistant tomatoes, you will have to buy hybrids.

To tell what diseases a hybrid can withstand, look at the letters after its name on the plant tag. For example, VFFNTA means the plant is resistant to Verticillium wilt, Fusarium races 1 and 2, root knot Nematodes, Tobacco mosaic virus, and Alternaria stem canker. A plant marked VFFNTA would be a good choice for you to try if diseases have killed your tomatoes in the past.




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Heirloom Tomatoes



Hybrid - 'Celebrity'

Seeds and Seedlings

Seeds

In long-season areas, tomatoes can be direct-seeded into the garden, but most people start their seeds indoors 5-6 weeks before the last spring frost, and then plant their seedlings out into the garden.

The main advantage of starting tomatoes from seed, is the huge variety of tomatoes you can grow, because you aren't relying on whatever the garden center or nursery has in stock.

It's up to you. If you need further information about how to start seeds indoors, please read: Starting Vegetable Seeds Indoors That Thrive

Seedlings

If you're going to buy your seedlings from the garden center or elsewhere, then look for clean, dark green foliage and a sturdy habit. If the bottom leaves are yellow or brown, or if there are any flowers already showing, the plant is stressed.

Look at the leaves and the underside of the leaves closely for any pests. If you see any chew marks, or aphids, don't buy it. Try to buy the healthiest, pest-free, plants available because they will be the most productive plants overall.

Always plant seedlings in the garden after all danger of frost has past. In other words, don't be in a rush to plant! Getting a tomato plant into the ground when the soil is cold causes it to turn purple (purple foliage means the plant can't take up phosphorus).

Wait a week or two after the average last-frost date. and set them out about 24-36 inches (60-90 cm) apart if you are going to allow the plants to sprawl. If you plan on staking or caging your tomatoes, they can be planted about 15 inches (38 cm) apart.




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Direct sow or start seeds indoors


Buy healthy seedlings

Planting and Fertilizing

I always put down a small amount of balanced organic fertilizer like a 5-5-5 and work it into the soil right before I plant.

Generally you don't want to fertilize tomatoes too much until the plant is well established, and in full flower, because too much nitrogen will give you lots of foliage and not a lot of fruit. I have found, however, putting down a small amount of balanced fertilizer gets the plants off to a good, healthy start.

Then next time you'll want to fertilize again is when the plants start to flower. Also, spraying your plants with a kelp solution two or three times a season boosts vigor, which helps the vines fend off diseases.

Always plant tomatoes deep, and on their sides.

Dig out a shallow trench. Remove the lower stems and branches off the tomatoes, leaving only the upper most top leaves.

Lay the entire plant down a trench on its side and cover with soil. Leave only the top leaves showing. Don't worry if the foliage is pointing to the side, it will right itself and grow upright in a few days.

I plant tomatoes on their sides because the entire stem that is now buried will form roots, giving the plant the best foundation possible and allowing the plant a greater ability to absorb nutrients and water. Plus a larger root system near the soil surface will mean that more heat will be available to the plant, producing earlier tomatoes.

A word about cutworms. If you have a big problem with cutworms in your area, you will want to place a "cutworm collar" around the stem where it goes into the soil. You can use a strip of newspaper or an old cardboard toilet paper roll holder.

Cutworms chew along the surface and a thin strip of newspaper or cardboard around the plant stem will stop cutworms from chewing through the stem.

When you're finished planting, firm the soil down evenly to ensure the plant is well settled.




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Put down fertilizer


Lay tomatoes on side


Strip lower leaves and plant


Fill in


Use cutworm collars as needed



Watering and Mulching

When watering, always keep the water towards the base of the plant, and try and keep the leaves dry. Tomatoes can become infected when airborne spores land on wet plants, so never use an overhead sprinkler. Obviously if it rains you can't do anything about it, but try not to unnecessarily get the plants wet.

Water regularly but allow the soil to dry a bit between waterings. You want tomatoes to have a regular available water source without keeping them soggy.

In areas with high heat, you may need to mulch around the base of the plants to keep the roots from drying out, and help with moisture retention.

A study done by the USDA in Beltsville, Maryland, showed that tomatoes mulched with mown vetch produced especially robust root systems and outperformed those mulched with plastic. If you need to mulch, it is recommended to use a 3-4 inch (7.6-10.2 cm) layer of compost or straw.

Another tip that I know about, but have never tried, is to seed crimson clover under tomato plants when they are about 2 feet (30.5 cm) tall. The clover acts like a weed-smothering "living mulch" while fixing nitrogen into its root nodules.

If you live in a cool climate, and have a very short growing season, you'll also want to mulch, because it helps warm the soil.

When tomatoes get too wet or too dry that's when problems start. So try to keep the soil moisture even, without being soggy.

I know this is a fine line, so you will have to water to the plant's needs. If they need to be watered every morning because your summer days get to over 100° F (38° C), that's OK. If you live in an area that stays fairly cool all day, then you may need to water only every 2 or 3 days.

Just pay attention, and in time you will see a pattern of when your plants need to be watered, and you'll get the hang of it.




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Never water from overhead



Put down a thick layer of mulch to help
keep even soil temperature and moisture

Determinate, Indeterminate, Semi-determinate

Determinate tomatoes means they will stop growing, are bushy, and get about 3 feet (.91 m) tall. Examples of this type include 'Pik-Red', 'Peacevine', and 'Super Bush'

Indeterminate tomatoes don't stop growing, and produce a lot of suckers from the main stem of the plant. If conditions are good, those suckers can flower and set fruit. Examples of this type of growth habit include 'Big Beef' (most of the beefsteak types), 'Supersonic', 'Early Girl', and 'Big Boy'.

Semideterminate plants have habits of both. Examples would be 'Celebrity' and 'Mountain Pride'.

OK - so which do you choose to grow?

It all depends upon the variety of tomato you want to grow. One isn't better than another, they simply have a different growth habit. The tag on the seedlings or seed packet will tell you what you have.

Determinate tomatoes don't need to be caged or put on a trellis, but then again, neither do indeterminate varieties.

Whether you use cages or not is really your choice and how much space you have in your garden.

I have grown both types of tomatoes, and no matter what kind they are, I let them sprawl on the ground. There are very few insect or disease problems in my area, and the plants thrive.

If, however, you live in a moist area where mildew or insects like slugs and snails may be a problem, or you have a small space to work within, then by all means stake your tomatoes and get them up off the ground.

If you do chose to stake, cage, or trellis your plants, do so when they are small, so you don't damage branches or roots.

For the ties to attach the plants to the cages, use some soft cloth or green growing tape, try not to use anything that will girdle the stem like wire or string.




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Determinate tomato 'Bush Beefsteak'


Indeterminate tomato 'Brandywine Red'


Semi-determinate tomato 'Mountain Pride'

To Pinch out Suckers or Not

Some gardeners prune tomatoes by pinching out suckers or the leafy shoots that grow from leaf axils. The leaf axil is the "V" between the central trunk (stem) and lateral branches.

Here is how you determine whether to remove suckers or not.

If left on the plant, suckers will keep growing and usually produce fruit. It can be helpful sometimes to prune suckers out so the overall plant doesn't get top-heavy, or produce more fruit than the plant can mature in time for fall. Just keep in mind, if you prune them, you will get fewer, but larger fruit.

You can let some of the suckers stay on if you want, suckers don't hurt anything. It's up to you how you want your tomatoes to grow. For instance, if your plants are allowed to sprawl along the ground as I do with my tomato plants, I never remove any suckers at all!

If you just don't know, try pruning one plant and not another, and see how each one turns out. That way you'll know for sure which technique works best for you.




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Commom Problems & Solutions

  • Cat-facing
    This is when irregular shapes and lines, especially at the top of the tomato, are caused by temperature shifts and incomplete pollination in cold weather at flowering time. There is nothing you can do about it. The tomato will still taste great. Next time, don't plant too early, or select varieties that resist catfacing.

  • Blossom-end rot
    This is caused by poor calcium uptake due to inconsistent moisture. If you currently have this problem, remove any rotted or diseased tomatoes, provide consistent moisture, and keep a layer of mulch on the soil. If you live in a super hot area, you need to mulch around your tomatoes to keep them from drying out. They like nice even moisture.

  • Sunscald
    This can happen any time there is a real spike in the heat. If the fruit is far from ripe, chances are that the entire fruit will rot. Remove damaged tomatoes.

  • Split skin or cracking
    This can happen any time the plants experience accelerated growth, which can be brought on by a sudden increase in moisture after being too dry, like summer rains after dry periods. To fix, provide consistent moisture, or look for varieties that are resistant to cracking. Another reason you may see splitting or cracking is that the fruit is overripe. There is nothing wrong with these tomatoes, they are great to eat, just keep them picked.

    In addition to this, many cherry tomatoes crack with the slightest shift in weather, and after heavy rains, and there's not much you can do about it. If you can, try and pick all the ripe ones before it rains.

  • Flowers form, but few or no fruit develops
    Tomato flowers fall off prematurely when there is a sudden change in the weather because it is too cool, or too hot, or the soil is too dry.

    Improve the growing conditions. Mulch to keep the soil moisture even.

    Use Blossom Set, which is a product that is all-natural, and environmentally friendly. It's a natural plant hormone that helps blossoms set fruit in spite of poor weather conditions, and produces larger, meatier tomatoes with fewer seeds.

    Use early in the season and get tomatoes up to three weeks earlier. When tomato flowers are fully open, spray regularly for bigger yields all season. It can also be used to increase fruit set on cucumbers, melons, eggplants, strawberries, and peppers.

  • Green shoulders
    Some tomatoes are unimproved old-time varieties and end up with "green shoulders." That's just the way they grow, and there's not much you can do about it.

  • A thick, tough skin develops on the fruit
    This can happen for a couple of reasons.

    • Varietal differences
      Many of the more common hybrids have tougher skins bred into them for shipping purposes. So varieties like Roma or Plum tomatoes genetically have thick skin.

    • The Weather
      Dry or very hot summers tend to produce thick skinned tomatoes, because of extreme heat fluctuations. Even if you're watering the garden regularly, when the sun is hotter, and the air is hotter through the days, it can result in thicker skins as the plants try to conserve moisture.

      Inconsistent moisture levels in the soil or excessively high air temperatures contribute to the problem as the plants try to conserve moisture.

      So weather and varietal issues are the main causes, and there really isn't much that can be done, except grow more tomatoes next year and hope for cooler temperatures.

  • Tomato hornworm
    See our article on this insect and ways to get rid of it: Tomato Hornworm.

  • Early blight
    This is caused by a fungus that survives during the winter on old vines. To fix, remove and destroy all diseased foliage. In the future, avoid overcrowding by planting farther apart, and prune for good air circulation. You'll also need to rotate tomatoes with unrelated crops, such as corn, beans or lettuce.

  • Late blight
    This is caused by a fungus that is favored by wet weather. Their spores travel great distances and can infect large areas. Again, avoid overcrowding, and if the infection is severe and widespread, remove and destroy all affected plants.

  • Wilts
    • Fusarium and Verticillium fungi cause parts of the plant to wilt, and can kill it over time. Fusarium wilt causes leaves on one branch of infected plant to turn yellow. Verticillium wilt first appears as yellowing between the major veins on mature leaves. To help this problem, look for resistant varieties to plant, and rotate unrelated crops, such as corn, beans or lettuce.

    • Southern Bacterial Wilt results in sudden plant death; leaves droop (wilt) while plant is still green and otherwise healthy. There is nothing you can do except remove and destroy all debris, and do not plant tomatoes where the disease has occurred in the past.

  • Root-knot nematodes
    This is caused by microscopic eelworms that live in the soil. In the future, plant resistant varieties, and try rotating tomatoes with marigolds. Select a French variety such as 'Nema-gone', 'Golden Guardian', or 'Tangerine'. Plant the entire affected area heavily with the marigolds, and grow them for at least three months. After three months, till them into the soil.




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Early Blight


Late Blight


Fusarium Wilt


Verticillium Wilt


Southern Bacterial Wilt


Root-Knot Nematodes



Prevent Diseases From Starting

Growing healthy tomatoes is really fairly easy, but you will want to keep a few things in mind.

Solarize your soil

Solarize your soil to control nematodes and weeds. It's also an effective treatment for other pests and disease pathogens. Moisten the area and cover it with a sturdy plastic tarp. To be effective, it must remain in place for at least three to four weeks during the hottest part of the summer.

Spray a Kelp Solution

Spraying your plants with a kelp solution two or three times a season boosts vigor.

Plant marigolds

Spider mites love marigolds, and so do rabbits, so planting marigolds might attract pests into your garden which isn't so great.

On the other hand, however, marigolds can be used to help soil with nematode problems, as long as it's done properly. You'll want to select a French variety such as 'Nema-Gone', 'Golden Guardian', or 'Tangerine'. Plant the entire affected area heavily with the marigolds, grow them for at least three months, and then till them into the soil.

Before you try this, determine if this is a method you want to try considering there are some pros and cons.

Rotate Your Crops

To avoid soil-borne diseases, place your tomatoes on a three year rotation schedule, and rotate with unrelated crops such as corn, beans or lettuce, or grow a cover crop. This will give you a chance to solarize your soil and break the disease cycle. Make sure you don't plant your tomatoes in the same place that other members of the tomato family (peppers, eggplants, and potatoes) have grown in the past two years in order to keep them healthy. If that is not possible, grow disease-resistant cultivars if you think your soil has diseases like Fusarium or Verticillium wilt.

Get Rid of Diseased Plants

Never compost plants with diseases because you risk spreading the disease to the rest of your garden. Instead, throw them away or burn diseased plants and any garden debris, like mulch or weeds, that came in contact with them.

Plant Disease Resistant Cultivars

'Celebrity' - Has tolerance to alternaria stem canker, fusarium 1 and 2, nematodes, gray leafspot, tomato mosaic virus, and verticillium wilt

'Italian Gold' - Has more tolerance against blossom-end rot

'La Rossa' - Has verticillium and fusarium 1 and 2 tolerance

'Neptune' - Great heat tolerance and resistance to bacteria wilt. This cultivar is also resistant to fusarium wilt race 1 and 2, verticillium wilt race 1, and gray leafspot

'Rutgers VFA' - Known for its resistance to verticillium and fusarium

'Shady Lady VFTA Hybrid' - Is tolerant of verticillium, fusarium, tobacco mosaic virus, and alternaria stem canker

'Stupice' - A very early producing and cold-tolerant tomato

'Sunmaster' - Very heat-tolerant. It will set pollen when the weather is as hot as 87-96° F (31-36° C). It Also has resistance to verticillium, fusarium 1 and 2, and alternaria




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Solarize your soil



Plant 'Nema-Gone' Marigolds



Rotate tomatoes with unrelated
crops like corn



Plant resistant varities like 'Sunmaster'

Harvesting

Pick fruit when it is a solid color (red, yellow, etc.) from top to bottom, but still firm. Also, pick often. In fact, you may need to harvest daily or every other day. Keep an eye on how the fruit is developing.

Also, cold can degrade tomato flavor, so store tomatoes on your kitchen counter, where the temperatures are above 50° F (10° C), instead of in your refrigerator's crisper.

The best-tasting tomatoes have a balanced ratio of sugar to acid, and the sugars increase as the fruit colors. In fact, tomatoes that ripen during the longer days of summer have more sugar than those that mature during the shorter days of late summer, and therefore can taste better.

How to Ripen Green Tomato Tricks

If when the fall months come there are still several green or partially ripe tomatoes on your vines, but not enough warmth and sun to mature them properly, don't give up on them! There are two ways to ripen green tomatoes properly.

1. Always ripen tomatoes indoors! Tomatoes ripen from the bottom to the top and from the inside out. So never put them on a windowsill. That will only turn them red, not ripe. What you want to do is put them in a warm, dark spot and cover them with a single sheet of newspaper. These conditions are the ones tomatoes need most to continue their ripening process, which is internal. Light at this point is not necessary any longer.

2. Try root pruning. Take a large carving knife and cut a semicircle around the plant, 2 inches (5.1 cm) from the stem of the plant, and about 8 inches (20.3 cm) deep. This cuts some, but not all of the root system, enough to shock it into forcing all the plant's final strength into ripening its fruit. Only do this near the end of the season, or if it makes you nervous, just try this on one of your plants to see how it works.



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Harvest when solid in color and firm


These green tomatoes can all
be ripened indoors

Popular Tomato Varieties

Several tomatoes have been rated for flavor. Here are a few varieties that are consistently voted winners:

Heirlooms

  • 'Brandywine' - Red

  • 'Brandywine OTV' - Big, red, and juicy

  • 'Caspian Pink' - Beefsteak-type tomato with pinkish red fruit

  • 'Constoluto Genovese' - Red ribbed fruit

  • 'Hillbilly' - Yellow and red streaked fruit

  • 'Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter' - Pinkish red fruit

Red Tomatoes

  • 'Arkansas Traveler' - Good for hot-weather

  • 'Carmello' - FVNT hybrid

  • 'Celebrity' - VFFTNA hybrid

  • 'Early Girl' - VFF, early and dependable

  • 'Stupice' - Good for the Northwest, where fruit set is a problem

Colored Tomatoes

  • 'Cherokee Purple' - Large pink-purple fruit

  • 'Garden Peach' - Small yellow fruit, slightly fuzzy skin

  • 'Jaune Flamee' - Small deep orange fruit

  • 'Lemon Boy' - VFN hybrid with mild yellow fruit

  • 'Paul Robeson' - Midsize dusky dark red fruit

Plum Tomatoes

  • 'Amish Paste' - Medium-large red

  • 'Margherita' - VF hybrid

  • 'Speckled Roman' - Meaty, striped yellow and orange fruit

Cherry and Grape Tomatoes

  • 'Sungold' - FT hybrid with yellow fruit

  • 'Isis Candy' - Marbled red-orange fruit

  • 'Matt's Wild Cherry' - Early red cherry / grape

  • 'Super Sweet 100' - VF hybrid

  • 'Cupid' - Fast hybrid red grape

Upcoming Variety

Recent studies have shown that tomatoes are high in vitamins A and C, but more importantly they are high in lycopene. Lycopene is what is responsible for producing the red color, and some studies have shown that lycopene in tomatoes is linked with a decreased risk of cancer.

Since then, plant breeders have been working to produce a tomato that has high amounts lycopene with its cancer-fighting antioxidant, but also keeps a good, flavorful tomato taste. Not always so easy to do.

Apparently Jay Scott, Ph.D., of the University of Florida has developed a tomato variety called 'Flora-Lee,' which contains 25 percent more lycopene than regular cultivars, and is resistant to tomato diseases, and most importantly, it still has a good tomato flavor.

Dr. Scott says the seed for 'Flora-Lee' should be available by the end of 2007. This will be interesting to try out and see if what is said about the new variety is true.




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'Brandywine'



'Arkansas Traveler'



'Cherokee Purple'



'Sungold'



Conclusion

Because we put together our Vegetable Gardening Section after this article was written, we were able to add a few more specific details of newer information.

Use this article in combination with some updated Tomato Growing Information, and there is no way you can not grow perfect, juicy and flawless tomatoes anywhere!

Just go to: Growing Tomatoes


Hilary Rinaldi is a certified organic grower, and a member of the national Garden Writers Association. She regularly speaks and writes about all gardening related topics including container gardening, organic gardening, and vegetable gardening. Weekend Gardener Monthly Web Magazine gives gardening advice to all levels of gardeners.

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