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 "Rose" variety, which tastes like a Brandywine but is smaller and ripens a bit sooner.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, and also if you remove any "suckers", which are stems/leaves that sprout from the axils (like "armpits") between the main stem and a side shoot. 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 and enough complete organic fertilizer, but watering tomato plants properly and consistently is one of the keys to success. Growing tomatoes with overhead watering can be problematic and can lead to a number of fungal 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. Staking can work well 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 hacking it back, .... but it's trying to take over the worl.....d..... gulp..... HEEELLPP!! (Just teasing).

There are now some excellent, sturdy, good-looking tomato cages being sold  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 and fold flat for storage in the winter!

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.)

DIY Round Tomato Cages
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 (to 12 1/2) squares. (That is, one "square" being 6" X 6".) Bend the sections into cylinders that are 8 squares high by 10 (to 12) 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.)

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.

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

DIY Folding Tomato Cages
You can also make folding tomato cages from concrete reinforcing wire. Cut four sides that are about 2' wide by 5'-6' high 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.

Extra Tips for Boosting Yield

How to Get Crazy Yields from Tomatoes!
Fresh, real tomatoes are the number one reason why most gardeners garden. Even in a pot on a balcony, a homegrown tomato growing in healthy soil can taste out of this world, quite unlike anything you can buy in a supermarket anywhere

To achieve maximum yield (and flavor, which tracks with nutrition), there are a number of things you can optimize.

With an estimated 10-15,000 varieties of tomato grown around the world - however do we choose?

For heirlooms, the best source I've ever found for both information and seeds is Gary Ibsen's Tomato Fest catalog.

He offers an amazing selection of heirloom tomato seeds (650 varieties!) with great photos and descriptions, as well as curated collections that allow you to try out some of the most popular varieties for yourself.

If you are interested in disease-resistant varieties of hybrids, check out Johnny's Selected Seeds, where you can use a filter to sort for varieties by disease resistance, heat tolerance and other factors.

Soil Health
This is one of the top factors in developing flavor and nutrition as well as yield. Be sure your soil is properly mineralized, has plenty of organic matter, and has well-developed soil ecology. Do not overfeed nitrogen, or you'll get lots of green growth and not many tomatoes. For more on how you can optimize the nutrition of your soil, you can visit the organic fertilizer page.

Air Temperature
When the weather gets consistently above about 85-90 degrees F, most tomato varieties will stop producing tomatoes. Pollen dries and becomes less sticky, and the plants are just trying to stay hydrated, not make seeds.

If you live where summer temps are consistently in the 90s, see if you can find a spot to plant your tomatoes that gets sun until early afternoon and then some filtered shade, such as near the edge of a tree.

Another option is to cover them with row cover like Reemay or Agribon, which will cut out about 10% of the light, which is less than shade cloth but because of its much lighter weight can be draped right over the plants.

If you're a serious tomato fan and live in the desert or jungle, you can build a portable shade structure out of 2x4s, PVC pipe, or even a hoop tunnel made of bent electrical metal conduit covered with shade cloth. Be sure the ends are open to let wind and bees in. (Johnny's sells a tool for bending EMC.)

Tomato pollination is done by wind and bees, especially bumblebees. If you have neither in your garden, you can pollinate tomato flowers manually by touching the stem at the base of the flower with a buzzing electric toothbrush, which vibrates like a bumblebee and shakes the pollen loose. (Or you can wait for the techno-bumblebee drone that the Japanese are developing to pollinate greenhouse tomatoes!)

Disease resistance
I once lost my entire tomato garden (all heirlooms) to late blight after a long stretch of hot, thunderstormy afternoons. Had I grown a mix of blight-resistant hybrids along with my beloved heirlooms, my crop would not have been a total loss.

Cultivation technique
If you are growing indeterminate tomatoes (the kind that just keeps growing bigger and bigger until killed by frost), you can encourage them to make more tomatoes and less green growth by pinching off the stems that sprout in-between the main stem and a side branch. These are sometimes known as "suckers", and form in the axils of the plant. If you think of axils as "armpits" between the body and an arm, you'll be able to easily distinguish which stems to pinch off.

Optimal staking, caging or trellising
For determinate tomatoes (the kind that grow to a certain size, bloom and set all their tomatoes quickly), staking works well. I like to use 1 ½" strips torn from old cotton sheets to tie tomato branches up to a tall sturdy stake. Smaller tomato cages also work well for determinates. For indeterminates, I like to use either huge, homemade tomato cages or tie the plants to a tall, wide trellis.

Tomatoes will have higher yields if more of the plant is exposed to light, so if you have space for a 6'-8' high A-frame trellis I highly recommend this technique. It allows you to spread out the branches over a larger area than a cage, optimizing exposure to light.

I have built many things, including both my tomato cages and my A-frame tomato trellis, out of concrete-reinforcing mesh panels available from Home Depot or contractor's supply store (as of 2021, about $15 per 42"x7' sheet).

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 heirlooms 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. (But I think "Rose" from Johnny's Selected Seeds is my all-time-favorite.)

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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