Like many others, tomatoes are my very favorite thing to come out of the garden. There are so many different things you can do with them. Not to mention the yummy taste. My husband used to kid me that I could probably live on just tomatoes and crusty bread with butter. Yep, that sounds like a perfect meal to me! During harvest season I eat fresh tomatoes with just about every meal. Many people think they are difficult to grow, but that is not the case.
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Tomatoes are members of the nightshade family along with potatoes, eggplant, bell peppers and even tobacco. They were once considered to be poisonous. But, thankfully, that was soon dispelled.
Most varieties of tomatoes require nighttime temperatures of between 55 F and 75 F to set fruit. There are a few exceptions that set fruit at cooler temperatures for colder climates. At temperatures above 95 the fruits will stop setting. Most varieties will take between 50 – 90 days to harvest. That is why tomatoes are typically started indoors or purchased as plants at a local nursery. I much prefer to start my own seeds as I can choose the varieties I like. The nurseries will have a limited selection with just a few popular varieties.
There are determinate and indeterminate varieties. Most of us have indeterminate tomatoes in our garden. They can grow from 6′ to 12′ high. They will have blossoms, immature fruit and mature fruit all on the plant at the same time. They will continue to produce until the first frost. Determinate varieties are usually 3′ to 4′ high and are great for container gardening. They will produce their entire crop usually within a 2 week period.
Heirloom tomatoes are seeds that are kept from year to year. Most of them are saved because of their desired characteristics. These may be passed down from family members, or saved commercially. Commercial heirloom seeds are seeds that have bred true for over 50 years. They are considered open pollinated, which basically means that they will breed true. I find that my heirloom varieties do not seem to be as acidic as non-heirloom varieties.
Tomatoes should be planted in the Spring when all danger of frost has passed. Some of us in the South are fortunate enough to have a second tomato planting in the fall. In my zone 8 we plant the second crop from the beginning of July through August 15th.
Plant in the full sun. Tomatoes need a full 6 hours of sunlight to produce. This is especially crucial in Northern climates. If you are in a Southern area with harsh summer sun your plants will grow and produce even if they have a light afternoon shade. Don’t ever plant your tomatoes where the morning sun will be blocked. Space your plants according to the directions on the seed packet or the stake in your purchased plant. I typically space my tomatoes at 3′ apart. This gives me room to pick even the ones on the back of the plants.
I know this next part will sound weird, but I have been planting my tomatoes this way for 20 plus years. Remove all of the bottom leaves off the plant. Bury the plant with the stem running sideways. I just dig a hole with my hands that has a gentle curve to it. I have seen people just lay the tomato in a shallow trench laying sideways with just the very top of the plant above the ground. This will give you a great root system as the roots will grow out all along the buried stem. Don’t worry about the top, it will straighten up in the sun in a day or two. With that huge root system you have a much healthier plant that is stronger and able to get more nutrients. This all equals a better harvest.
Tomatoes will grow tall, so be sure to plant them on the North side of a bed where they will not cast shade on the rest of the garden. Also, you will possibly have cages that will cast a shadow. Do not plant tomatoes near corn, dill or potatoes. They do not grow well together. You can plant them near peppers, basil or leaf lettuce.
Tomatoes can be grown in a greenhouse, in a hydroponic system, in pots, indoors, even upside down. And yes, I have used the upside down containers. And yes, they do work well. We used them for a couple of years and they produced just as many tomatoes as our plants in the garden.
Tomatoes need to be staked, be put in cages, or even grown up a trellis. They need support. Plus, you want to keep your fruits off the ground where they are more susceptible to pests, disease and damage.
You can or cannot remove the suckers. I personally don’t bother with this. But, reportedly the suckers do not bear fruit, so they are just a drain on the resources of the plants. You will find these where the branch comes off the stem. They will be a small shoot growing out just above the branch. These are removed simply by pinching them between your fingers.
Tomatoes need consistent watering. That is why I prefer to set them up on a drip irrigation system. They need 1 – 2 inches of rain per week. Water deeply to about 6″ to 8″ below the soil level. Do not water if the plants are still wet. Only water when needed. You can test this by sticking your finger in the soil next to the plant. Always water in the early morning.
Tomatoes may present with blossom end rot. This is a blackish, rotten looking spot on the bottom of the tomato. This may be caused by inconsistent watering. It will sometimes just go ahead and correct itself. You can still eat the tomatoes, just cut this undesirable part out.
Cat facing is another tomato abnormality. It will show up as an abnormally shaped fruit sometimes with scar like tissue showing. It is usually caused by temperature stress while pollination is occurring. Again, just cut out the ugly part and eat the rest.
Tomato hornworms are a problem sometimes encountered by us all. These are gross, but they are easy to get rid of. That is if you can find them. They are the same color as the leaves and have a tendency to blend in really well. If you have them you will know it. You will see piles of bug pooh below your plants. You will also see big holes in your leaves. If you see these 2 signs go on a hornworm hunting expedition. Alert for the squeamish. You may want to skip this next sentence. The best way eradicate these pests is to simply squash them. Sorry, that is the best way.
This is the fun part. Tomatoes can be picked when they are green for fried green tomatoes, chow chow and other recipes calling for green tomatoes. I still like to wait until they have just a little pink blush on their shoulders. They will just be starting to show the slightest hint of color. Otherwise you should wait until your tomatoes are ripe to pick them. Just grab hold and don’t squeeze too tight. Always store your tomatoes on a counter top out of direct sunlight. Don’t put them on a windowsill. Never, ever, ever put a tomato in the refrigerator. This will just ruin the flavor. If you have to pick tomatoes before they are ripe for some reason, you can put them right side up (like they come off the plant) in a brown paper bag on a counter top. They will ripen in the bag.
Tomatoes can be sliced fresh and sprinkled with a little salt or sugar. Or hey, you can eat them plain if you want to! They are great to make sauces. They dehydrate well. They even freeze well. And, let’s not forget canning. You can make plain tomatoes or tomato and pepper mixtures. I do all of these preserving methods for my tomatoes.
Tomatoes are no more difficult than any other garden plant to grow. Give them the proper conditions they require and they will do great! I find that I always have plenty of tomatoes to eat, preserve and share. What are you waiting for? Plant a tomato or two today.