Tomatoes are our favorite vegetable! In our opinion, there’s nothing better than a home-grown tomato. We are so spoiled we don’t even bother buying fresh tomatoes out of season. New studies like this one from PLOS ONE, are showing that nutrients are often higher in organic tomatoes — in this study, organic tomatoes had 55% more vitamin C and 139% more phenolic content.
We particularly enjoy growing heirloom varieties you don’t find in stores. Heirloom varieties provide true old-fashion taste and they keep their traits through open pollination, so seed saved for next year will produce plants "true" to their parents. A few favorite heirloom tomatoes:
- Brandywine - Known for it's outstanding taste, it's become the most popular heirloom tomato.
- Yellow Pear - This sweet pear shaped tomato makes a pretty addition to salads.
- Arkansas Traveler - Produces vigorous tomato plants that yield abundant crops of 8-ounce, round, rose-pink tomatoes.
- Cherokee Purple - An old Cherokee Indian heirloom pre-1890 variety produces large beautiful deep dusky purple-pink fruit with superb flavor.
Each year we start with our “tried and true” favorites and add a few new experiments. Usually the experiments have distinctive characteristics that appeal to us. An unusual color (we are still searching for yellow and orange slicers with good yield and fantastic taste – they look so nice as part of a sliced tomato and fresh mozzarella salad topped with basil) and/or a reputation for great taste. We prefer the heirlooms so we can save the seed, but also consider hybrid varieties. Visit the forum Favorite Varieties of Tomatoes for more suggestions.
Tomatoes are part of the nightshade family along with eggplant, peppers and potatoes.
- Warm Season crop.
- Start seed indoors or buy plants.
- There are two types of tomato plants: determinate and indeterminate. Seed and plant sources will indicate which in the plant description. Determinate varieties have a bushy habit, usually no more than 3’ high and require little or no staking, but their fruit ripens all at the same time. Great for canning, but not if you want a steady supply of tomatoes throughout the season. Indeterminate tomatoes have a vine habit and do not stop growing taller until the leader (top) is cut off or the growing season ends. They require staking and provide fruit for months instead of a week or so.
- Tomatoes are amongst the easiest plants to grow from seed.
- Start 6-8 weeks before your average last spring frost date. For a detailed spring planting schedule, check out this Vegetable Planting Schedule.
- Seed planting depth: ¼”.
- Seed spacing: 1”.
- Cover seeds completely – they germinate better in the dark.
- Ideal germinating temperature: 75-80 F. Heat mats are invaluable for maintaining this temperature range.
- Average number of days until germination: 7.
- When the seedlings have at least 2 sets of leaves , transplant them into pots at least 4 inches deep. When they've grown into this smaller pot, move them to larger pots at least 6 inches deep. Or, you can use the larger pot when you transplant the seedlings, if you expect the plants will be needing the room (depends in large part whether you started seeds early in the season).
- About a week after transplanting, fertilize seedlings weekly with a good all-purpose organic liquid fertilizer at half strength.
- “Harden off” your plants before planting them into the garden. That is, get them used to the real outdoors gradually, over the course of 7 to 10 days. Start with an hour a day outside during mild days and gradually increase the time, leaving them out overnight during warm calm nights.
Planting and Tending
- Plant in garden AFTER the last frost (dogwoods will be in full bloom) or use special protection to get ahead of Mother Nature. Soil temperature should be at least 55 - 60 ° F with nights consistently over 50 ° F. Plant 18 – 24” apart.
- Plant deeper than where they were in the pot. Carefully strip off the lower leaves and plant within 3-4 branches of the top. If plants are long & leggy, lay the plant on the side and bury part of the stem along with the roots.
- Stake for better productivity and to prevent diseases. We prefer bamboo “Teepees” ( 2-3 stakes tied together at the top) as shown in the photo. Tie plants to the stake by looping soft cord or cloth (such as cut up t-shirts) around the plant (under a branch – this will help support it); then cross for a figure eight over to the stake and loop around the stake twice (to keep it from sliding down the stake) and tie.
- To fertilize tomatoes, we like organic products such as Tomatoes Alive or GSC Organic Tomato Fertilizer when first setting out the plants. Follow the directions on the bag and don’t over fertilize. Over fertilizing produces too much foliage and not enough fruit.
- Tomatoes are big feeders, but don't over do it with the nitrogen. Spray the foliage with a fish emulsion solution at blossom time.
- Keep consistently moist. Wide swings in moisture cause cracking of the fruit. A 1-2 inch mulch of straw will help keep prevent moisture swings and moisture loss.
- Pinch out axle shoots when about ¾” long. For an informative video on pinching axle shoots, pruning and staking tomatoes view this video interview filmed at Johnny’s Select Seeds: Growing-Wisdom-How-To-Prune-Tomatoes.
- When indeterminate varieties have about 4 "branches" and/or have reached the top of their supports, pinch off the tops of the plants. This will cause the plant to redirect its energies from growing to ripening the fruit. Also, remove foliage below the lowest branch to aid air circulation and help prevent disease.
- For the longest shelf life after harvesting, store tomatoes at room temperature stem-side down and leave any clinging stem intact.
- Likes to be near:
- Does not like:
- Bean, pole
- Cabbage family
Visit the Vegetables Forum at GreatLakesGardeners.com to get answers to your growing vegetables questions. To ask a new question, Register if you haven't already done so(it's free and helps protect the forum from spam), click on Start New Topic, enter your question and click on Post New Topic.
You may also appreciate these books on growing vegetable gardens.