Growing Tomatoes

Growing tomatoes is every vegetable gardener's passion (well, almost every gardener's). Tomato plants are one of the most popular crops in the vegetable garden because:

  • The taste and texture of homegrown tomatoes, ripe and warm from the vine, is a transcendent experience!
  • Growing tomatoes yourself is a big money-saver since they're cheap to grow and expensive to buy
  • Commercial tomatoes are bred for shipping qualities and consistent size, not for flavor or nutrition (and they're usually picked green and ripened with gas during shipping)
  • Tomato plants can be grown in small spaces in pots, hangers, or even in upside down tomato planters hanging from the eaves of your house or balcony
these three baskets of tomatoes are from two plants.They are August Harvest of "Rose" Variety Tomatoes

Tomatoes come in a huge variety of shapes, colors and flavors which are unknown to most grocery shoppers, because they never show up in the stores. The only way to enjoy the full tomato experience is to grow them yourself!

Tomatoes come in two basic growth forms: determinate and indeterminate.

Determinate varieties grow to a certain size, stop getting bigger, and start producing tomatoes, which all ripen within a short span of time. These are the best type for growing tomatoes in containers or in upside down tomato planters, as they require minimal (if any) staking or caging.

Indeterminate varieties just keep on growing and sprawling until you pinch them back or they get killed by frost at the end of the season. In temperate climates, they will just keep sprawling and growing forever. Indeterminates generally begin yielding tomatoes earlier, and over a longer period of time. Indeterminate tomatoes definitely need to be staked or caged (see the vertical vegetable gardening article), and they will yield more if pinched back at the top once or twice during the growing season. Seed catalogs and nursery plant tags will always tell you which type a variety is.

How to Care for Tomato Plants

Most varieties of tomato plants, both determinate and indeterminate, need at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight a day, consistent watering, and warm to hot temperatures for their fruit to ripen. (Yes, tomatoes are technically a “fruit”.)

Tomato plants are not too fussy about soil (as long as they get plenty of compost), but watering tomato plants properly and consistently is one of the keys to success. Growing tomatoes with overhead watering can be problematic, leading to a number of diseases.

Staking or Caging Tomatoes

If you are growing tomatoes that are indeterminate, you're better off using a large tomato cage rather than trying to stake them. But staking can work for determinate varieties, especially if you use three stakes lashed together at the top to form a teepee shape.

To stake tomatoes, buy a bag of 5' bamboo or vinyl covered steel stakes at your local garden center or Home Depot, push them in the ground around the perimeter of your baby plants. Give them plenty of space, putting in at least 3 stakes around the perimeter of a 24" diameter circle around the baby plants.

As the plant starts to topple over or sprawl, gently tie up the branches with 1" or 2" strips of cloth torn from an old T-shirt or sheet. These are gentle on the stems and will not cut or break them when they get heavy with fruit (plus they're free, a big plus in my book). You can also put more stakes around the perimeter of the plant if it gets to big to tie onto only three stakes.

I much prefer to cage my tomatoes, because if the cage is big and sturdy enough, it is almost no work as the tomatoes are supported no matter which way they grow. But be forewarned: growing tomatoes of the indeterminate type can require huge tomato cages, much bigger than the little spindly things they sell at Home Depot. I have one hybrid this year that is five feet wide and seven feet high! I keep pinching it back, really even chopping it back, .... but it's trying to take over the worl...d.. gulp..... HEEELLPP!! (Just teasing).

The Best Homemade Tomato Cages

I made my own cages years ago from concrete-reinforcing wire, and they work better and more cheaply that anything else I have ever seen.

If you're a do-it-yourselfer, have some bolt cutters and want to make your own tomato cages that will last forever, try this. (But be very careful, because the wire ends are sharp when cut and springy during the process of bending.)

Buy some 6" x 6" mesh concrete reinforcing wire from Home Depot, a lumberyard or a concrete-supply company (cheapest) and with a pair of bolt cutters, cut out sections that are 8 squares by 10 1/2 squares. (That is, one "square" being 6" X 6".) Bend the sections into cylinders that are 8 squares high by 10 squares around, using the wire ends that are left sticking out to bend over to hold the cage closed. (I do this by standing on the sections on the ground and pulling the edges to bend them.) See addendum 2020 below before cutting.

Now cut off the uppermost circle of wire and throw it away, leaving 6" long vertical wires sticking up all around. When you turn the cage over, these wire ends will get pushed all the way down into the garden soil, anchoring the cage. These are incredibly sturdy, cheap, durable and stable. After growing tomatoes for a year or two you'll probably end up making bigger ones and smaller ones to fit different varieties.

But there are now some excellent, sturdy, good-looking tomato cages being sold that are available at better garden centers and catalogs like Gardener's Supply. They come in stainless steel or bright enameled colors, and are large enough to work well. Some are square, some are triangular towers. They're pricey, but they do work well.

The downside of the wonderful, big, cheap, homemade cages that I made is that they take a lot of space to store during the off-season (we pile 'em up behind the garden).

But one commercial design has solved this problem. "Texas Tomato Cages" are the BEST commercial tomato cages I have ever seen. Besides being large, sturdy and durable enough to work and to last, they are built to actually collapse flat at the end of the season. Buy 'em if you can afford 'em. They're worth it! (I don't get a commission).

Addendum 2020: You can make your own fold-up tomato cages from concrete reinforcing wire! Cut four sides that are about 2' wide by 5' high (the height of the wire) and use zip ties to hold the 4 tall sides together. Be careful not to pull the zip ties so tight that there's no wiggle room. The 4-sided cages can then be squeezed flat for storage at the end of season.

Which Varieties to Grow?

Heirloom tomatoes offer the most variety in terms of color, shape, flavor and growing requirements. With names like Brandywine and Black Krim (two of my faves), you’ll be drawn to experiment and taste-test them for yourself.

But there is nothing wrong with hybrid tomatoes, either. I always grow some Early Girls and Sweet 100s, just to have some early yields and an overabundance of teeny mouth poppers later in the season. AND, don't underestimate the power of fusarium or verticillium wilt to wipe out your entire heirloom crop, as most heirloom have no disease resistance. Plant a few hybrids for protection against crop loss due to disease. Some hybrids have been bred for disease resistance. Look for a V, F or M on the label, which means they are resistant to verticillium, fusarium, or tobacco mosaic virus. (Note: hybrid seed is NOT the same as GMO seed. If you don't know the difference, check out both the Heirloom Seeds and GMO Seeds articles.

You can find tomato varieties for every purpose (paste, sauce, fresh, or on burgers) and climate in the many wonderful seed catalogs published by growers, many of whom have collected original heirloom varieties from around the world.

I don't like to make too many varietal recommendations here because different tomatoes are adapted to different climates, and I always encourage people to check with their local state university extension service, or a good local nursery, for varieties that do well in your region.

Growing tomatoes is addictive, but what a great addiction to have. Best wishes for a bountiful harvest!

Also see this related article: Growing Tomatoes in a Greenhouse

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