The Ultimate Guide to Growing Your Own Tomatoes
People garden for many reasons, but one of the best is tomatoes right off the vine. Tomatoes are summer in edible form. When you keep tomato plants at home or in a shared garden, you get not only the satisfaction of having raised your own food, but the freshest tomatoes possible. You also get, in the early weeks of planting, the anticipation of one day eating them.
In a way, the work you put in acts as a seasoning. A tomato picked within a few dozen feet of your kitchen will be supremely fresh, yes, but the care you put into nurturing those summer fruits will add flavor, too. (Seriously, what's better than biting into a perfectly ripe tomato and having juices and seeds run down your chin?)
But as rewarding as they can be, figuring out how to grow tomatoes can still be tricky business. For tips on growing garden tomatoes, we called on two experts: Jeff O'Hara of Union Hill Farms in Denville, NJ (his 50-acre vegetable farm grows a dozen of delicious kinds of tomatoes) and Kelly Smith Trimble, gardening expert and author of Vegetable Gardening Wisdom.
Besides throwing yourself at the mercy of Mother Nature, here are some helpful tips and hints from O'Hara and Trimble.
Getting Started: Hybrids or Heirlooms?
"I think it's a good idea if people grow both hybrids and heirlooms, especially if you're just starting out and you want to get a few years of tomato growth under your belt," says Trimble. "Just know that some hybrids aren't bred for taste." They do offer some pest and disease resistance, which cuts down on challenges for newbie gardeners. Some fun varieties to try when you're figuring out how to grow tomatoes: Better Boys, Pink Girl, Early Girl (if you have a short growing season), Cherokee Purple, Sun Golds, and Roma tomatoes (these are technically an heirloom).
When it comes to the best-tasting tomatoes, O'Hara agrees that heirloom is the way to go. He also says that the level of difficulty doesn't change very much from one variety to the next, which makes the more delicious option twice as appealing. "That's why I think old heirloom varieties are probably the best option for growing at home," O'Hara says. Union Hill Farm grows heirloom tomatoes like Brandywine, Mortgage Lifters, and Cherokee Purple.
Also, starting the seeds indoors might be better for a more experienced gardener, but can be done if you have the space and equipment to do it. If you're a beginner, Trimble recommends buying seedlings you can transplant.
Indeterminate vs. Determinate Tomatoes
Easy but important, some varieties of tomatoes are indeterminate, which means they grow like vines and will fruit until the frost. They're large and can get a little overwhelming if they don't get the space and structure they need. Determinate varieties are bushy and more self-contained and produce fruit all at once.
Soil Prep and the Process of Planting
Planting tomatoes in fertile soil is key, so be sure to add one to two inches of organic compost to your soil at the beginning of the season. When planting your tomatoes, one thing Trimble emphasized was planting the tomato seedling deeply, so the very bottom and even the first few shoots of leaves are below ground level. The buried portion helps the plant develop a stronger root system. Don't forget to include supports when the plants are small, before they get out of control.
Tomato plants should be planted in as much sun as possible, too. They should be planted sparsely, at some two or three feet apart. "You'd probably get more from four spaced plants than you would from a dozen overcrowded," O'Hara says. "Give them space. The biggest thing homeowners do wrong is they crowd them." And if you're beyond your first season growing tomatoes, O'Hara recommends planting them in slightly different places.
When you plant will vary based on location. That said, you'll want to wait until winter's frosts have ended wherever you are. O'Hara typically moves his plants from greenhouses to open fields in mid-May. "Even at that, you have to be careful," he says. "You really should look at the 10-day forecast and make sure there's not going to be any rain or cold weather, certainly not any nights going near 32 degrees."
Sure, the first wild tomatoes didn't grow on stakes. But gently fastening tomato plants to metal or wooden stakes is a good idea nonetheless. "It makes for a nicer fruit, and it also saves a lot of room in your garden," O'Hara says.
Staking tomato plants allows them to grow up rather than out. Unlike vines, tomato plants won't naturally cling as they grow. Rather, you must carefully tie plants to a stake here and there. For this, O'Hara recommends using "an old T-shirt or strips of cloth." These are soft materials that, unlike a metal wire, won't cause damage.
One of the most common tomato mistakes is over-watering. If you water well, you don't need to water often. "What you want to do is give it a good, soaking drink," O'Hara says. "If you have average soil, once a week with a really good soaking drink at the roots is probably plenty."
Watering at the roots (rather than over the whole plant) keeps water where the plant can use it. O'Hara recommends watering at night, that way there is less sun and heat to evaporate water. In addition to being less effective, hosing water over the entire plant, O'Hara says, "may promote disease." When watering, you should "keep that foliage as dry as possible."
Finally, for gardeners growing in sandy soil, more frequent watering may be needed.
Maintaining Healthy Tomato Plants
One of the most important things to successful tomato growing is making sure that your plants and strong and healthy, which means plenty of nutrients in the soil via compost. Feed your plants with a little compost around the base throughout the season. "I also really believe in companion planting. Two great tomatoes companions are basil and marigolds, so don't just plant tomatoes," says Trimble. "A diverse garden will give you more to harvest too!" A common issue when you're figuring out how to grow tomatoes is blossom end rot. Unfortunately, it's sort of out of your control, it's a calcium imbalance in the plant and can be caused by a variety of factors.
Also, if you live in a region with deer, you might need a high fence. O'Hara's stands eight feet tall and surrounds his farm, protecting tomatoes. Insects shouldn't be a problem with tomato plants, and the ones that do appear, you can manually pick off. Tomato plants, however, are prone to a few diseases. If needed, gardeners can head to a gardening store for a fungicide.
Pruning and Harvesting
If your tomatoes get unwieldy, you can prune them. "Some people swear by pinching off the suckers," says Trimble. "On a tomato plant you have a central stem and then branches on either side, that space is called the crotch. In the crotch, you'll have a third branch and that's called the sucker. Trimming it helps keep the plant more contained and the energy focused on the fruit producing branches."
"Make sure to let them get good and ripe on the plant, and that's how you get your best flavor," O'Hara says. When your tomatoes are ripe, remove the fruit not by pulling down, but hold the tomato and tip it upward to break the stem from the plant. Like many other tomato experts, he strongly advises keeping tomatoes out of the fridge.
If you plant right, water right, and keep animals at bay, it shouldn't be too hard to grow a nice, steady crop of bursting-ripe tomatoes, O'Hara says. "Once you get them growing, if you can keep them relatively healthy, they really will produce well for you."