Garden-fresh tomatoes are extremely versatile and adaptable to any cuisine, from salads to salsa to piping-hot tomato sauce. With a wide variety of tomatoes available, there is no reason not to grow this popular nightshade in the home garden. But, while tomatoes are a low-maintenance summer vegetable, there are some things every gardener needs to know in order to grow them successfully. Follow this guide to select the right variety for your needs, practice proper planting and maintenance, and eliminate pests quickly to grow healthy tomato plants all summer long.
Selecting the Right Variety
With hundreds of tomato varieties available 1, choosing the right one can be a little overwhelming. Before you decide on a variety, learn the growing habits and climate requirement for each, and plan on how you'll use each type.
- Growing habit: From the tiny 'Micro-Tom' tomato to the many types that produce vines up to 12 feet in length2, there is a tomato variety for every garden space. When shopping for tomatoes, pay close attention to the descriptions; all tomatoes are labeled as either determinate or indeterminate.
- Determinate varieties, which grow to different but limited heights, are perfect for small spaces and produce all their fruit in a short period of time3, usually a few weeks, regardless of growing region. They require minimal support and are good for gardeners who preserve tomatoes, because they produce a lot of ripe fruit at once.
- Indeterminate varieties produce fruit for as long as conditions are favorable. While they don't offer a lot of fruit at once, indeterminate varieties offer a steady supply of fruit throughout the growing season. These tomato plants require significantly more space than determinate varieties, and the use of heavy-duty cages. Because most heirloom varieties are indeterminate4,those who want to grow these older — and widely considered more flavorful — types should reserve plenty of room in their gardens.
- Climate requirements: Consider your geographical location before selecting a tomato variety. For gardeners in northern regions, there are a number of cold-tolerant, short-season options, such as the Stupice Tomato, which matures quickly at 60-65 days. Gardeners in southern regions should look for varieties that specify tolerance to heat and humidity, such as the Sun Gold tomato.5
- Intended use: Whether you want cherry tomatoes for salad toppings, slicing tomatoes for sandwiches or paste tomatoes for making sauce, this part is simple: Select a tomato type based on what you like to eat. For example, Amish Paste is regarded as an excellent sauce variety, while the Big Beef tomato is a popular slicing type.6
Select a location in full sun for tomato plants. After the last chance of frost has passed, prepare a space in the garden with a tiller or by loosening the soil with a shovel. Remove all grass and weeds, and then add amendments, such as Pennington Fast Acting Gypsum. This product starts working immediately to promote fast, healthy root growth by loosening compacted soil, giving tomatoes the drainage they require.7 Once the soil is prepared, work Alaska by Pennington Tomato & Vegetable Fertilizer 4-6-6 into the top 6 inches7 of soil. Apply up to one week before planting, to provide the nutrients tomato plants need to grow strong. This low-odor product is made with fish, kelp and other natural ingredients.
Plant spacing varies, depending on the variety of tomato, but, as a general rule, space 24 to 36 inches apart in rows 4 to 5 feet apart.7 Dig a hole twice the width of the root ball and deep enough so that the top of the root ball is even with the soil line. Back fill the hole with soil and gently pack the dirt around the stem with your hands.
Water thoroughly after planting, and then put support structures — stakes or cages, depending on the tomato variety — in place.
Tomatoes require 1 to 2 inches of water per week. To encourage a healthy root system, water infrequently but deeply, rather than daily and lightly.7 Fertilize plants every 4 to 6 weeks throughout the growing season with Lilly Miller UltraGreen Tomato & Vegetable Food 5-10-10 to keep them consistently fed and able to produce juicy tomatoes all summer. This product includes bone meal for added calcium, which helps to prevent blossom end rot.1
Pruning tomatoes encourages healthy production and provides better air flow between plants, which helps prevent disease and limit pest problems.2 Keep determinate varieties pruned by pinching off suckers — the small shoots that grow in the area between the trunks and stems of a tomato plants — from the lowest flower clusters to the ground. Prune indeterminate varieties by pinching off all suckers from the second flower cluster down. Always pinch suckers as they emerge; waiting until they are 1/4 inch in diameter or larger leaves an open wound, making the plant more susceptible to fungal issues and pests.
While tomatoes don't attract a lot of pests, there are a few insects that can cause major damage if not immediately controlled. Sevin-5 Ready-To-Use 5% Dust applied to leaf surfaces eliminates over 65 types of insects, including common tomato pests such as hornworms, fruitworms and flea beetles.
Tomatoes come off the vine easily. Simply hold the tomato and gently twist it to remove it from the vine, or use sharp, clean pruning shears to cut the stem. Harvest tomatoes when they feel firm, but not solid. When you give the fruit a squeeze, it should have a little give. It is better to harvest fruit a little too early than too late. Leave almost-ripe fruit on a windowsill for a day or two to allow it completely ripen.
Whether you're dreaming of grilled stuffed beefsteak tomatoes or sun-dried cherry tomatoes, you can grow tasty tomatoes all summer long by selecting the right variety, location and products to keep your plants healthy.
Pennington is a registered trademark of Pennington Seed, Inc. Alaska, Lilly Miller and UltraGreen are registered trademarks of Central Garden & Pet Company. Sevin is a registered trademark of Tessenderlo Kerley, Inc.
- Watch Your Garden Grow: Tomato, University of Illinois Extension, 2015
- "How to Properly Prune Your Tomatoes," LSU AgCenter, July 2012
- Karen Cooper Greenwald, "Heirloom Tomatoes: Fruit with a History of Great Taste," San Diego County Master Gardener Association, April 2010
- "Heirloom Vegetables," University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, April 2013
- Thomas J. Koske, Alan L. Morgan, Charles Overstreet, Donald M. Ferrin, "Tomatoes," LSU AgCenter, May 2009
- "Tomato Report 2011: The Best of the Penn State Tomato Trials," Penn State Extension, 2011
- "Growing Home Garden Tomatoes," University of Missouri Extension
- Dr. Joe Kemble, "Blossom-End Rot in Tomatoes: Causes and Prevention," Alabama A&M & Auburn Universities Extension