Growing tomatoes productively
How to grow tomatoes from seed to harvest, including variety choices, transplanting, care, protection and harvest
Growing tomatoes is one of the most rewarding activities you can do in the garden. Tomato plants have a special status among vegetables: they're not too difficult to grow, they are very productive, available in countless varieties and above all, they offer irreplaceable taste, without which our diet would be much poorer.
In this article, we'll take a look at all the information you need if you want to learn how to grow tomatoes, including choosing the right types and varieties, how to plant tomato seeds, transplanting tomato seedlings into the garden, caring for tomato plants to ensure that they produce vigorously, and, of course, harvesting those perfect fruits.
Tomatoes are climbing plants that hate frost and love the sun and well-drained soil. In colder climates they must be replanted each year as annuals, which bear fruit until the first frosts destroy them. (In warmer frost-free climates, they grow as perennials, reaching heights of up to 20-30 ft/6-10 m.)
Tomatoes take 4-5 months to produce their first crop when grown from seed, and the growing season in most climates is too short to start them directly in the garden after the last frost. Therefore it's necessary to start tomatoes as seedlings indoors or in a greenhouse, or buy pre-grown seedlings. Tomatoes can only be transplanted into the garden when there is no danger of frost. The minimum night temperature should not drop below 43°F (6°C), and the average soil temperature should remain above 60°F (15°C), which in most climates means April to May, depending on the location and season.
If you want to start your own tomato plants from seed, you'll need to plant them 6 to 8 weeks before the last expected spring frost so that the seedlings are the ideal size for transplanting (4 to 8 inches/10 to 20 cm). Then it will take 60 to 80 days for tomato plants to produce their first crop, and most tomato varieties continue to fruit until the cold weather stops them at the end of the season. The growing season of tomatoes can be extended by growing them in greenhouses.
There are thousands of varieties of tomatoes from all over the world, with different shapes, sizes, flavors, textures and colors of fruit. There are classic, sauce, cherry and beefsteak tomatoes, which are classified based on the size and texture of their fruit. However, the most important division for cultivation purposes is based on growth:
Indeterminate (vining) tomatoes grow in the natural tomato form (liana), and will need support. They grow continuously until they are stopped by cold weather at the end of the season. Indeterminate tomatoes fruit multiple times.
Determinate (bush) tomatoes grow only to a certain height (20-40 inches/0.5-1 m) and are suitable for growing without support. They're a good choice if you're interested in growing tomatoes in pots. Their disadvantage is that they usually produce only one wave of fruit (however, this can also be an advantage, for example, when growing sauce tomatoes, which are all processed after harvest).
Along with their fruit type and growth pattern, tomatoes can also be categorized based on their genetic nature:
Hybrids are crossings of different varieties. Their advantage is high productivity, earlier ripening, higher disease resistance and uniformity of fruit. Most of the tomatoes we find in supermarkets are hybrids, and so are most of the seedlings offered by retailers.
Heirloom tomatoes often have a better, more complex taste and higher genetic stability, which means that it's possible to use the seeds from harvested tomatoes for planting the same variety for the next season—something that isn't possible with hybrids.
Out tips for tomato varieties
Classic (medium-sized) varieties: Chef’s choice orange/red (H), Rose de Berne, Anna Russian, Costoluto Genovese, Stupice, Kumato, Lemon boy (H), Tornado (H), Eva Purple ball, Uragan (H), Green Moldovan, Ananas Noir, Azoychka, Start (H), Indigo rose, German lunchbox
Cherry tomatoes: Super sweet 100 (H), Datlo, SunGold (H), Gardenberry (H), Egg yolk, Sweet treats(H), Black cherry, Cherry bomb (H), Yellow pear, Sun sugar (H)
Beefsteak tomatoes: Pineapple, Soldacki, Cherokee purple, Ox hearth, Brandywine, Black Krim. Hillbilly, Big rainbow, Emerald apple
Paste varieties: San Marzano, Roma (D), Opalka, Ten Fingers of Naples (D), Big Mama, Amish paste, Piennolo di Vesuvio (D), Aosta Valley
Note: the”H” sign means “Hybrid” (when buying seeds, you will usually encounter “F1” sign, which means the first generation of hybrid crossing). The “D” sign means “Determinate”
Growing your own tomato plants from seed allows you to choose from many more varieties, as seedlings are only commercially available in a limited number of varieties. You can reach for vining or bush tomatoes, and you can also choose from heirloom varieties and hybrids.
If you want to grow your own tomato plants from seed, you need to sow them 6 to 8 weeks before it's time to plant them in the garden. You can grow them indoors in a sunny spot (winter garden or window sill) or in a greenhouse. It's important to have a stable temperature of 68 -77°F (20-25°C) so the tomato seeds will germinate, along with at least 4 hours of direct sun.
Tomato seeds can be sown in deeper planting containers (e.g. plastic cups) with drainage holes, that are at least 4 inches (10 cm) deep. You can use a nutritious potting medium or a mix of garden soil and compost. Cover the seeds with about a quarter-inch (0.5 cm) of soil and water thoroughly. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy. Two seeds can be planted in one pot, leaving just the more viable one to grow after germination. Tomato seedlings are ready for transplanting as soon as they reach 4-8 inches (10-20 cm) in height.
There are several ways to plant tomatoes, but in any case, tomato seedlings should only be transplanted into the garden once night temperatures won't drop below 43°F (6°C) and the soil has warmed up to maintain an average of 60°F (15°C). Look for a sunny location with at least 6 hours of direct sun a day to plant your tomatoes.
Soil: Tomatoes can grow in any type of soil, but they thrive best in neutral soils with a pH of 6.2 to 6.8. In any case, the soil for growing tomatoes should be as well-drained as possible, as the roots of the tomato can reach up to 8 feet (2.5 m) deep in optimal conditions. Tomatoes therefore perform best when grown in well-drained soils (sandy soils with plenty of organic matter), while heavy clay and rocky soils produce lower yields. The soil for planting tomatoes should be enriched with compost, as tomatoes are heavy feeders.
Hardening off tomato seedlings: Before transplanting, it is beneficial to gradually adapt tomato seedlings to the outdoor environment of the garden. Acclimatization requires a minimum of 7 days, during which the seedlings are moved into the garden for a few hours a day. On the first day, place them in a shady spot, sheltered from the wind, for only 2-3 hours. Add a bit more time each day thereafter, gradually moving them to a semi-shaded spot with a little more sun. On the sixth day, leave them outside overnight. Tomato seedlings adapted in this way can then be transplanted into the garden. This hardening off proccess is not strictly necessary, but it will increase the productivity and health of tomatoes, especially if their indoor environment was quite different than the garden conditions.
Transplanting tomato seedlings: After hardening off, tomato seedlings can be planted in the prepared soil in the garden at a minimum spacing of 2 feet/60 cm (3 feet/1 m for bush tomatoes). Choose a cloudy day without direct sunlight for planting, since too much direct sun can burn the freshly transplanted tomatoes.
Dig a fairly deep planting hole, to which compost can be added. Remove any leaves below the top leaves from the tomato seedlings and plant them deeply, burying the entire stem up to 1 inch (2.5 cm) from the top leaves. Tomatoes have the ability to grow new roots from the stem, and this will help the plant establish itself quickly and become stronger. You can also add mycorrhizal fungi to the soil in order to help the plants to more easily obtain moisture.
Make sure there's no air pocket left near the roots of the tomato when filling the hole with soil. Tamp the soil down evenly and water generously. After planting the tomatoes, drive a stake (or other form of support) into the soil at a distance of 4–6 inches (10-15 cm) from the plant. The support should be 6-10 feet (2-3 m) tall and driven deep enough into the soil to be stable.
When growing tomatoes, it is optimal to cover the soil around the tomato plant with mulch (straw, wood chips, bark, etc.), which protects the soil from drying out, prevents the crop from touching the soil and reduces weeds.
Tomatoes can also be grown in containers with drainage holes at the bottom. The larger the volume, the better (ideally up to 16 gal/60 l), although dwarf varieties can also be grown in smaller (5-8 gal/20-30 l) containers.
Use well-drained soil with plenty of nutrients and organic matter as a potting medium. When growing tomatoes in pots, more frequent watering is necessary, as the soil in the containers dries out more quickly. Otherwise, caring for tomatoes in pots is no different from growing them in the garden.
Pruning tomato plants: Tomatoes require almost no care after planting. However, some pruning can improve the yield of tomatoes. Pruning tomato plants is done by keeping only one main stem without branching, breaking off any lateral shoots from the main stem by hand (usually appearing between the main stem and the lateral leaves). This kind of tomato pruning will force the plant to channel its energy into producing fruit instead of new branches and leaves.
The main stem should be tied to the support about every foot (30 cm) with wide twine/ribbons as it grows. Tomatoes also benefit from removal of the lower side stems that have leaves touching or near the ground. This will improve air circulation around the plant and reduce the risk of diseases and pests.
Watering tomato plants: Tomatoes have deep roots, which can draw water from a depth of up to 8 feet (2.5 m). This means they only require frequent watering for 1-2 weeks after transplanting. After they're established, they'll only need to be watered during prolonged dry periods. Slight drying of the tomato leaves does not bother the plant and will not affect the yield. If you water too often, the roots will not have the need to grow deeply and the plant will be weaker, leaving it susceptible to root rot or various fungal diseases.
Fertilizing: Tomatoes are heavy feeders and thrive best in soils that are rich in nutrients and organic matter. They benefit from soils with rich microbial life and earthworms that aerate the soil, so the use of synthetic fertilizers, which disrupt this soil life, is not ideal. A generous dose of compost when preparing the soil in spring will feed the tomato for the whole season, so there is no need to fertilize tomato plants further. Alternatives to compost can be well-aged manure incorporated into the soil in autumn, or natural fertilizers in liquid form during the season.
Weeding: If you use a sufficiently thick (2 inches/5 cm) layer of mulch, weeding is not necessary. Otherwise, the area around the tomato plants must be weeded regularly.
Pests and diseases: The fight against aphids, moths and various types of fungal and bacterial diseases of tomatoes is an essential part of gardener’s life. No one can avoid these when growing tomatoes, but with the right methods you can reduce them considerably. Tomato pests and diseases will be the subject of a separate article, where we will provide more information on the most common types of pests and diseases as well as the measures to be taken against them.
Tomatoes usually ripen gradually, so harvesting is also gradual. Leave the tomato fruit on the plant to ripen until it is fully colored. If some fruits ripen too slowly, this may be due to frequent rain/watering. Prolonged dryness to the point that the plant's leaves are a bit dry will speed up the ripening of the fruit, so do not water tomatoes near the end of the season to allow the fruit to ripen more quickly.
Tomatoes are easily harvested by cutting the stem above the fruit with scissors. Tomatoes are at their best when eaten immediately, but if you want to keep them fresh for a few days, choose a cool, dark place to store them. For longer storage, tomatoes can be canned, made into various sauces, or dried. The seeds from non-hybrid tomatoes can be saved for planting in future seasons.
Our tips for growing tomatoes:
- Do not transplant tomato seedlings into the garden too early, because if night temperatures regularly drop below 50°F (10°C), the plants will grow very slowly and will be more susceptible to diseases and pests. Wait until warmer weather arrives before transplanting.
- Tomatoes do better in the company of some plant species that provide insect protection or otherwise benefit from their presence. Examples include basil, borage, sage, rosemary, mustard and many others.
- Tomatoes can thrive for several years in the same place in the garden, but should pests, diseases or soil depletion occur, it is advisable to move them to another location.
- If you buy already grown tomato seedlings, choose only healthy plants with a deep green color and no signs of yellowing, disease or pest infestation that could infect other plants in the garden. Also avoid buying tomato plants that are already flowering or fruiting.
Author: Laura Kent