Tomatoes are the #1 food for home gardeners to grow, and anyone who has had the good fortune to taste a freshly picked tomato knows why. The flavor is simply incomparable to that of store-bought tomatoes, and because they are also very easy to grow, that makes them a win-win for everybody. However, timing is everything with this fruit, more so than with any other fruit or veggie in the garden. So, to grow, nurture, and pick your tomatoes properly follow these top tips.
- Look for healthy transplants. Short, stocky tomato plants in 4” pots are preferable to tall, spindly ones. Avoid plants with purple stems or veins, which can indicate cold stress. Short plants in 4” pots that already have lots of blooms or fruit are also probably root-bound, so opt for those with a better root structure and wait a bit for those telltale tomato flowers.
- Plant at the right time. Nighttime temperatures should be above 45 degrees before setting out transplants, but don’t wait too long. When nighttime temps reach 75 degrees, tomatoes will stop setting blooms. Know the average day and night temperatures for your area and plant accordingly.
- Shake that cage! Did you know that tomatoes are wind-pollinated? Be sure to plant them in a more open area without a nearby structure to block the breeze, and give the cages a morning shake to free and disperse the pollen.
What and What Not to Plant With Your Tomatoes
What to Plant
What not to Plant
To read about more that you should or should not plant with tomatoes and why, click here.
- Don’t be afraid to prune. Remove leaves from the bottom of the plant — foliage that touches the ground can transmit soil-born diseases. Remove any diseased or damaged branches, and consider pruning back the tops of the plants in the summer to reinvigorate them.
- Water evenly. Uneven or inconsistent watering can lead to cracking, splitting, and blossom-end rot, so aim for deep watering and don’t let the soil totally dry out. Heavy rainfall followed by no irrigation for a week or more is a classic example. Aim for 1-2 inches a week, spread out evenly. Never overly soak your tomato plants and then let them completely dry out. Drip irrigation in tomato beds is a great way to prevent over-soaking.
- Consider shade cloth in the hot months. Very hot weather will impede fruit setting. Adding a shade cloth cuts up to 30% of available sunlight, giving your tomato plants more opportunity to produce.
Next Level Growing Tips
Are you ready to kick your tomato-growing skills up a notch?
Commit these tips to memory:
- Start with great soil. Enrich your soil with compost or other organic matter and your tomato plants will have a higher yield, better taste, and increased nutrition.
- Grow disease-resistant varieties. Most hybrid tomatoes have increased disease resistance to the four main tomato diseases, and these will be noted on the seed packets by the following letters:
- V — Verticillium wilt, caused by a soil-born fungus that leads to plant wilting and death while they are still green.
- F — Fusarium wilt fungi gain access through the plant’s roots, causing yellowing and death before the fruit ripens.
- N — Nematodes are microscopic pests that attack roots in warm, sandy soils.
- T — Tobacco mosaic virus is a less widespread disease that causes uneven ripening in fruit.
Luscious Tomato Varieties To Add To Your Garden
Now that you have the tools you need to grow your best tomatoes yet, let’s look at different ways to incorporate them into your meals!
Slicing. Sliced tomatoes on your sandwich or hamburger make life worth living. Okay, that might be a bit of an overstatement, but not by much. Look for Super fantastic, Early Girl, Better Boy, Tycoon, Cherokee Purple, and Improved Porter to liven up anything you put between two slices of bread. Tip: Try layer mashed avocado and sliced tomato on toast with a bit of salt and pepper for an open-faced sandwich or quick snack.
Sauces. Tomatoes for sauces, soups, and drying require a meatier texture. Look for La Roma, Viva Italia, and San Marzano. These are Italian pear-shaped tomatoes that stand up well to cooking, making them indispensable for your favorite recipes. Orange Banana tomatoes have thick flesh and few seeds, making them contenders to the Italian tomatoes.
Salads. These are some of my favorite tomatoes to grow because they are prolific producers. Aunt Gerdie’s Gold, Sun Gold, Green Zebra, Juliet, Sweet Million, Sweet 100, and Large Red Cherry are perfect for popping in your mouth or having to include in spring and summer salads. It’s rumored that cherry tomatoes are more heat-tolerant, too — great news for those of you who live and garden in USDA Hardiness Zones 7-11.
Heat-Tolerant. Look for the cherry-type tomatoes listed above as well as Heat Wave and Heat Set. In Zone 8b, these types of heat-tolerant tomatoes are invaluable to my gardener friends.
All-Around Great Tomato. Can you guess what this one is? You’ve probably heard about it or even grown it yourself. Celebrity produces well with incredible taste and has tons of built-in disease resistance, making it even easier to grow. It’s a versatile tomato, too, and well-deserving of its rock star name.