According to the National Gardening Association, tomatoes are the most popularly grown backyard vegetable, and for good reason.
Not only is a fresh-picked, homegrown tomato extraordinarily tasty, especially when compared to the supermarket variety, Solanum lycopersicum is easy to grow, and thrives almost anywhere.
Just a few plants will provide enough fruit for your entire family. Because they flourish in the summer heat, they are a summertime favorite in gardens across the country.
Easy to grow and great in salads, the tomato is a perfect starter plant for the novice.
Unbeknownst to many, S. lycopersicum is actually a fruit, not a vegetable. Culinarily, of course, we consider them to be vegetables. But botanically, they are fruit, because they are seed-bearing structures that develop from the ovary of a flowering plant.
Now that we have that bit of science out of the way, let’s learn more about choosing and growing the perfect tomato for your family. Here’s what’s to come:
Guide to the Best Homegrown Tomatoes
So Many to Choose From (and Where to Buy Them)
Often, the first consideration when selecting an S. lycopersicum plant is whether to choose a determinate or indeterminate variety.
Indeterminate examples grow all season, continuing to bloom and produce fruit as long as weather conditions are favorable. Indeterminates tend to be viney space-hogs that require extensive staking or caging.
Determinate types are often be more compact and produce their fruits all at once, and then stop growing and die. This means you’ll have a huge harvest that’s perfect for canning, but you might not be able to enjoy caprese salads all summer long.
Consider your intended use of the fruit. Are you looking to preserve your crop for later use in sauces via canning? Or if you’re looking for table tomatoes, do you want diminutive cherries or larger slicing types?
Thousands of varieties are available, and other considerations include heirloom types versus hybrid, color (not all tomatoes are red!), and of course, flavor.
Let’s look at a few options:
‘Celebrity’ is an All-American Selections-winning hybrid with a delicious, sweet flavor. It’s available from Mountain Valley Seed Co. via True Leaf Market.
Medium to large, deep red fruits are produced on determinate plants grown from packages of 10, 100, or 1000 seeds.
For a colorful indeterminate variety, consider ‘Persimmon’ — a Russian slicing tomato that’s yellow instead of red.
Available via True Leaf Market, Mountain Valley Seeds sells seed quantities of 10, 100, and 1000 for this big beauty that’s ready for harvest 80-90 days from transplant.
If you’d like to try your hand at cherries, consider getting these live ‘Sweet Million Cherry’ plants from Hirt’s Gardens via Amazon.
You’ll get four live, heavy-producing, indeterminate plants that produce fruit in 60 days.
Or, surprise the family with purple tomatoes! Via True Leaf Market, Mountain Valley Seed Co. offers seeds for ‘Indigo Rose,’ a compact indeterminate that’s high in antioxidants.
You can select a 100- or 500-seed supply.
‘Roma’ is known as a particularly good paste and canning tomato. Find seeds for this heirloom variety at Country Creek Acres via Amazon.
You’ll get 100 organic seeds that produce heavy-bearing, determinate plants.
For a pear-shaped dollop of sunshine, consider ‘Yellow Pear’ seeds from Mountain Valley Seed Co., available via True Leaf Market.
You may order in 1- or 4-ounce quantities. The seeds will grow indeterminate plants that bear fruit in about 78 days.
Get Them in the Ground
You can start seedlings indoors six weeks before your expected last frost date.
Native to northern South America, this plant is sensitive to cold weather and frost, so don’t set your seedlings or nursery starts out too early.
Wait until all danger of frost has passed, when air temperatures remain above 55°F and soil temperatures are consistently 65°F or higher.
In Austin, I always put my tomatoes out the second week of March, and have never had a problem. This year, however, we’ve had some bizarre April nights where the temperature has dropped into the low 40s. It appears the little green fruits are okay, but some of the leaves are definitely showing cold-weather damage.
Place seedlings in an area where they can receive six hours or more of sunlight – unless you live in zones 8-10, where about 5 hours are sufficient.
If you are transplanting from indoor-grown seedlings, don’t put your plants outdoors without getting them used to the different climate. To harden them off, begin by setting them outside for a few hours each day in the shade.
This way, they will become acclimated to the difference in temperature. Increase the time they are outside every day. If you put them directly in the sun at the start, you will end up with sunburned leaves.
Try to plant in an area that receives early morning sun, late afternoon sun, and is shaded during the hottest parts of the day.
If your growing area only receives about 3 to 4 hours of sunlight, cherry tomatoes may be planted there. The plant will not grow to be as big as it would in full sun, but it will still produce a decent harvest of fruit.
Don’t use compost or fertilizer after the plant is in the ground.This will cause it to produce lots of leaves but little or no fruit.
If your soil is particularly poor and you feel nutritive amendments make sense, add them at the beginning of the season, before the plant is in the ground. Choose a balanced fertilizer or one with a slightly lower ratio of nitrogen, so you don’t end up with lots of green leaves and no fruit.
When planting transplants, dig a hole deep enough to bury the stem just past the first set of leaves.
Deep planting of seedlings allows them to generate a better root system, resulting in a stronger and more productive plant.
These plants need to be spaced about 3 to 4 feet apart if they are not going to be caged. And if they are, then you can get away with 2 feet between each. If you’re growing all determinate varieties, they can be squeezed in a little more tightly, with about a foot in between.
My rows are usually a jumble of both types, so I give them a little more room, though I might sneak a low-growing pepper plant in between, just so no inch of garden goes unused.
Got Your Meteorology Degree?
While S. lycopersicum thrives in hot weather, it is possible for the weather to be too hot for the plants to set fruit properly. If nighttime temperatures stay consistently above 75°F, the flowers’ pollen can be rendered sterile.
Humidity, too, can have an impact on fruiting. Very high humidity can prevent the pollen from dropping, and in low humidity areas, the flowers may become so dry that pollen won’t stick. Frequent watering may raise the humidity.
But, ultimately, your best bet is to look for cultivars that are developed for your growing conditions. In Austin, for example, local nurseries have shelves and shelves of tomatoes with “heat loving” or something similar in the plant description. While it might be fun to try the heirlooms that some garden stores sell, they might not do well in every region.
Planting in Pots
Container gardening is a good solution for those who live in apartments and condos, without the luxury of a garden. All you need are containers, potting soil, seedlings, and a few good practices.
First, make sure your containers are large enough. You don’t have to purchase expensive pots – 5-gallon plastic buckets with drainage holes punched in the bottom will do just fine.
In general, plants grown in containers – including tomatoes – require considerably more frequent watering than plants grown in the ground.
Additionally, plants grown in containers will be more compact at maturity than those planted directly in the soil. Roots are the primary limiting factor in total production, which is why potted plants never grow as big or produce as many fruits as plants grown in the ground.
Hydration and Support
Try to be consistent with watering to keep the soil evenly moist, but not wet. Going from dry soil to soaked can cause the fruit to crack.
Deep watering is preferable to more frequent, light watering. You want the moisture to go deep enough to reach all the roots.
Another significant aspect to caring for S. lycopersicum is the need to cage or stake them, particularly the vining, indeterminate types.
Growing tomatoes in wire cages is one popular method among gardeners because of its simplicity. Cage training allows the plant to grow in its natural manner, but keeps the fruit and leaves off the ground.
Other gardeners stake their tomatoes. This requires tying the vines to a stake to support the plant and keep it off the ground. The Florida Weave method is a great option for this.
Whether you choose to cage or stake your tomatoes, add the apparatus right after transplanting your seedlings. Inserting a stake or cage later risks damaging the plants’ roots.
Some gardeners in particularly windy areas — where cages or stakes are apt to topple over — may choose to let their plants vine along the ground instead.
Evidence is mixed as to whether pruning does anything to increase tomato production.
What about suckers? Many gardeners swear by removing these, the shoots that grow between the main stem and a leaf.
They suggest that suckers should be broken off while they are still small, less than 4 inches in length. This enables the plant to put its energy into growing fruit rather than more foliage.
On Aphids and Landlords
As tasty as tomatoes are to humans, they are equally delectable to a number of pests, from insects to mammals, including landlords (more on that later). Several fungal and bacterial diseases can be a problem for these plants as well.
Before we get into specifics, here are some general tips to keep your plants healthy and pest free:
- Plant marigolds nearby — pests don’t like their smell.
- Basil is another plant that tends to repel bugs that like to snack on tomatoes. There’s also anecdotal evidence that planting basil near S. lycopersicum improves the flavor of the red orbs.
- Rotate crops. Plant vegetables from differing botanical families in different spots each season, so that pests are thrown off the scent. Rotating all nightshade crops at least every 3 years will help to prevent bacterial and fungal diseases as well.
- Sprinkle diatomaceous earth around your garden area.
Now let’s look at some specific problems that plague S. lycopersicum:
If the aphid infestation is limited to small area of a plant, you can prune away the creepy-crawly part. Place the pruned bits in a plastic bag, seal it up, and toss it.
Aphids can also be blasted off with an energetic stream of water, or treated with neem oil such as this one from Garden Safe, available via Amazon.
This concentrated product will make about 15 gallons of spray.
You can also treat aphids with insecticidal soap. Via Amazon, try this one from Safer Brand.
This 32-ounce spray bottle is ready to use.
These are ugly little hairless caterpillar-like creatures that eat the leaves and fruit of S. lycopersicum.
Get rid of them with bacillus thuringiensis — aka Bt — such as this one from Monterey, available via Amazon.
This 32-ounce spray bottle is ready to use.
These greedy green critters can eat so much plant material that they get to be 3 inches or longer, and as big around as a Sharpie! They’ll strip a plant faster than you can make a BLT.
When you spy one of these big puppies, pick it off and squish its green guts out with a trowel. I mean it. They’re evil.
Or you could just spray with Bt.
These caterpillar-type insects have an inchworm-like movement and they’ll inch their way all over your plant foliage, leaving large round holes in their wake.
Pick ‘em off by hand or shoot ‘em with Bt.
Several varieties of stink bugs bother both the foliage and fruit of tomatoes.
Add slugs to the parade of critters that like to snack on S. lycopersicum.
If you have a slug problem, try burying a large-mouthed jar in your garden and fill it with beer. The slugs are attracted to the yeast in the beer and will not be able to climb out of the jar after they fall in.
Blights are caused by fungus, and a number of them can plague tomatoes. This disease often presents with yellow or brown spots on the leaves of plants, or a dark spot on the fruit.
One type, known as southern blight, often presents as white, moldy patches on tomatoes. Learn more about preventing southern blight here.
At the first sign of disease, apply a fungicide such as this one from Garden Safe, available via Amazon.
This 24-ounce bottle is ready to use.
If the fruits become rotten on the bottom or on the inside, this is blossom-end rot. It is caused by a low concentration of calcium in the fruit.
Why is your plant not taking up enough calcium? This can be caused by soil that’s too wet or too dry, soil that contains too much nitrogen, soil pH that’s too high or too low, root damage, cold soil, or soil that’s high in salts.
You might want to test your soil’s pH first, and make adjustments if necessary.
You can also purchase a calcium supplement from Bonide, available via Amazon.
This concentrated product will make eight gallons.
Squirrels love tomatoes. Well, they love a few bites of a tomato, anyway. There is nothing more rage-inducing than finding a ripe and juicy but partially eaten tomato lying haphazardly on the ground near your garden.
It would be better if the squirrels just ate the whole thing rather than just eating some of it and leaving the rest — swarming with ants — to taunt us with the damage it has wrought.
There are squirrel poisons available, but that’s not my cup of tea. While I’ll never stop grousing about it, I’ve just come to accept that some quantity of fruit must be sacrificed to these greedy but entertaining critters.
Mice and rats also enjoy these fruits — deal with them as you see fit.
Tomatoes are ready to be picked when they morph from green to a saturated version of their destination color — whether it’s red, orange, yellow, or purple.
If their final color is green, it can be a little more tricky to determine harvestability. Ripe tomatoes are firm but give a little bit when gently squeezed. You might also see some small cracks forming in the skin — another indicator of ripeness.
Now, if you’re from the South, you might be thinking of picking normally red tomatoes while they’re still green.
When I lived in Lexington, Kentucky, I couldn’t figure out why my tomatoes kept disappearing from the plants out in my garden. I kept a close eye on the fruits as they developed, checking every day, excited for their color to deepen to red.
But every time I went out to check on a fruit I knew was on the cusp of ripeness, it had vanished. I was flummoxed. And frustrated!
Finally, my landlord confessed. He was stealing my green tomatoes to fry them up, southern style. Boy, was I mad!
Keep reading to see a fusion recipe based on this southern classic.
When it comes to storing your harvested orbs of deliciousness, you may have heard conflicting info. If your picked tomatoes need a day or two of additional ripening, don’t put them in the refrigerator. The cold temperatures halt flavor-producing enzyme activity. They’re fine sitting on the counter for a few days.
However, if your tomatoes are starting to go a little soft and mushy, you can put them in the refrigerator. Optimally, you’ll pull them out a day or two before you need to use them, to restore their flavor.
But if you’re like me, that’s an absolutely absurd proposition. Think two days head and pull the tomatoes out so they’ll be ready? Ha! Hilarious!
You can read more about storing fresh tomatoes on our sister site, Foodal.
Enjoy A Wonderful Feast with Your Bounty
Let’s look at some luscious avenues for cooking your crop.
We’ll start with a quick, Greek-inspired weeknight meal that makes use of cherry tomatoes, in this Roasted Cherry Tomatoes with Shrimp and Feta Cheese recipe from Foodal.
Blending a happy collection of warm-season flavors is Zucchini Caprese Salad, a recipe from our friends at The Fitchen that manages to be both light and filling.
And in tribute to my landlord of many years ago, I share this recipe for Fried Green Tomatoes with Whipped Herb Chevre from Vintage Kitty. This recipe incorporates another favorite from the summer garden, basil.
The Essence of Summertime
Tomatoes are undoubtedly a favorite crop of backyard gardeners. They’re easy to grow, generally highly productive – and that flavor is sublimely summer!
Give them sun and plenty of water, and you’ll be rewarded with tasty fruit for months.
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Photos by Gretchen Heber and Allison Sidhu, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Product photos via Mountain Valley Seed Co., Hirt’s Gardens, Country Creek Acres, Safer Brand, Monterey, Bonide, and Garden Safe. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock. Originally published January 3rd, 2015 by Lynne Jaques. Updated on April 22nd, 2018 by Gretchen Heber.
About Gretchen Heber
A former garden editor for a daily newspaper in Austin, Texas, Gretchen Heber goes through entirely too many pruners and garden gloves in a year’s time. She’s never met a succulent she didn’t like and gets really irritated every 3-4 years when Austin actually has a freeze cold enough to kill them. To Gretchen, nothing is more rewarding than a quick dash to the garden to pluck herbs to season the evening meal. And it’s definitely time for a happy dance when she’s able to beat the squirrels to the peaches, figs, or loquats.