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Probably the most common vegetable you will find in any food garden is the tomato—which is technically a fruit. Both new and experienced gardeners alike love to grow tomatoes for their color and fragrance in the garden as well as their flavor and versatility in the kitchen.
Because of the diversity of varieties tomatoes come in, you can grow a different size, color and even shape of tomato every year and never get bored. Red, yellow, green, black, purple, and white are just a few colors you’ll find when you start researching these tasty treats.
Whether you’ve got a large plot to grow in this year, or just one pot of dirt, you’re sure to find a variety that will work for you and give you an abundant bounty during your growing season.
Picking A Good Tomato Variety
Varieties are grouped into determinate, indeterminate and semideterminant varieties. Determinate varieties are known as the bush tomatoes, indeterminate varieties are known as the vine tomatoes, and semideterminant are somewhere in between.
When looking at various varieties, a letter may be present at the end of the name in a seed that has bred-in resistance to a particular disease. F means a variety is fusarium wilt resistant. V means it’s verticillium wilt resistant, and N denotes a nematode resistant variety.
The most common varieties are:
- Beefmaster VFN: a large, red, cracking resistant variety
- Better Boy VFN: a 72 day variety that is large, round, and red
- Better Girl VFN: a 62 day variety that is early, round, and red
- Early Girl V: a 54 day variety
- Golden Boy: an 80 day variety that is round and bright yellow
Find an array of heirloom varieties at Seeds For Generation.
Preparing The Soil For Tomatoes
Tomato plants like to grow in warm, well-drained soil. When planning where you will place them, pick an area with full sun.
The soil should be moderately fertile, and may need amended before adding your tomatoes. Make sure you have loosened your soil 12 inches deep if possible, and work 2 shovels of organic material (compost or well-rotted manure) into each area where a plant will grow.
Overly anxious gardeners may also be tempted to start dumping various elements into their soil, but be very careful. Although a large amount of nitrogen (a very popular garden amenity) will stimulate a lot of vine growth, the fruit will suffer in quantity and size.
How To Grow Tomatoes From Seed
In areas with a long growing season seeds may be started directly in the soil on the date of the average last spring frost. Otherwise, seeds may be sowed inside 6-8 weeks before the last spring frost date.
If you wish to have successive planting, and have a longer growing season, sow seeds three times over a two week period, making sure you first set of seeds are an early maturing variety.
Tomato seedlings need plenty of light, and may require supplemental light in many areas. Make sure seedlings get no more than 18 hours each day, or the foliage will become mottled and begin to wither.
Transplanting Tomato Plants
Two weeks after the last spring frost, and when the soil is at least 60° seedlings are ready for transplant.
Be sure to harden off your seedlings before moving them to their permanent home. Move them outside in a shady area during the day and back in at night for a few days to help them prepare.
If possible, transplant them into the soil on a cloudy or even lightly raining day.
If flowers are present, leave them intact. If fruit are present, go ahead and pluck those off. Otherwise, energy will go toward developing fruits rather than developing a healthy root system. This will result in stunted, less productive plants.
If you are transplanting a lot of tomato plants, then maybe you’ll want to leave fruit on one plant. Although there will be much less fruit, it will be ripe 1-2 weeks before the other plants.
Don’t remove healthy leaves during transplant. The shock of losing leaves will likely slow the growth of your plant and delay fruit set.
Unlike other transplants, you’ll want to try not to disturb their roots when moving them over.
If the stem is crooked or just looks too skinny, you can set it deep down in a hole, up to the first set of true leaves. Tomatoes will develop roots on any part of the stem that is buried. If stems are planted at an angle, the top stem will turn upright, so no need to worry.
Place a cutworm collar or stiff piece of paper around each base as they are planted, and give seedlings plenty of water while they are getting established, but don’t flood them.
Growing Tomatoes In A Container
Tomatoes grow well in containers. Although they do better the bigger the container, smaller bush varieties may be grown in a container as small as 6 inches in diameter.
Vine tomatoes, however, need at least a 5 gallon container to grow in, and require stakes or a cage. Pruning these plants becomes vitally important for air circulation, especially if the container will be up against a wall.
To aid in moisture retention, add compost to the potting soil. Plants will need watered daily to every other day depending on sun, wind, and temperatures in your area.
Taking Care Of Your Tomato Plants
As soon as your tomatoes are in the ground, you’ll want to focus on their support. All tomatoes should have some kind of support to increase circulation and decrease their risk of disease. In addition, supports will assist you to save space and make your harvest easier.
Bush varieties can use a simple tomato cage, while vines need a taller support (up to 8 feet or taller). To see a support I built for my bush varieties (that would work well for indeterminates if made much taller), read this.
Since tomatoes love full sun, they are often exposed to the wind and require protection from such. Try to plant down-wind of taller crops when possible (like corn).
Intermediate And Advanced Tomato Planting
If you are brand new to growing tomatoes, skip this section.
Intermediate gardeners may want to try their hand at pruning tomatoes. While pruning is not needed in tomato plants, if done correctly, pruning can increase fruits and decrease disease.
Experts agree that indeterminate (vine) tomatoes should have their suckers pruned, while they appear to be split on whether determinate (bush) varieties should be. If pruning is done on determinates, it should be minimal as too much pruning will lead to poorly flavored tomatoes and possibly sun scald.
Advanced gardeners may want to try their hand at trying to grow a second crop from their removed suckers. Make sure suckers are five inches long, and use a sharp knife to cut them from the main vine. From here, pinch off the lowest leaf on each stem and place your suckers in a container of water or moist vermiculite.
Place them in a sheltered spot to root, and once white roots form, move them to a garden or a container. Transplanted suckers should be placed in the shade if possible for their first week.
When And How To Harvest Your Tomatoes
Tomatoes are ready for the picking 50-180 days from time of transplant, depending on the variety.
They ripen from the inside out, so when they are no longer hard, but rather firm, they are ready to be picked. They should pull off easily, and not be squishy when gripped.
Tomatoes ripen best between 65-75°. If the nighttime temperature remains above 85°, the red pigment will not form, and tomato skins instead will become a yellow-orange.
If at the end of the season you still have green tomatoes, you can either eat them green, or bring them indoors until they turn red.
Once your harvest is complete, be sure to cultivate the soil to expose the pupae of hornworms and other pests. If you don’t see birds picking through this soil soon afterwards, cultivate again later in the fall as an extra safety precaution.
Avoiding Problems With Tomatoes
Many problems experienced with tomatoes can be avoided with meticulous hygiene. Be sure to clear away any weeds that could host disease or other pests, and make sure you are supporting your plants adequately for proper ventilation.
Spacing tomatoes out to at least 3 feet apart gives room for good airflow. Learning to train and prune indeterminates is a must unless you want to grow a bush variety.
When you see large pests, or diseased leaves, remove them immediately.
In addition to good grooming, tomatoes need extra attention at planting time. Be sure to place a cutworm collar or stiff piece of paper at the base of each, and cover them with a row cover. Row covers should be removed as soon as plants outgrow them or as the temperature rises.
While tomatoes can present as intimidating to the new gardener, they are really quite easy to grow and give a plentiful reward. If you are having problems with tomatoes, call your local Extension Office and ask which varieties do best in your area.