Tomatoes are the most popular garden vegetable grown in America. Verdant herbaceous plants, they are grown for their juicy and savory fruits, usually rounded red and brimming with flavor.
For many, Growing Tomatoes is the quintessential garden plant, and the primary reward for vegetable gardening. The fruit is incomparable in its flavor and uniquely versatile in cuisine.
Plants can range in size from the truly tiny, only ten inches high, to rambling monsters that can easily take over a backyard. Similarly, fruits can range from small currant-type tomatoes only 1/8 of an inch wide to the gigantic slicing tomatoes that grow up to seven pounds each.
The most widely grown commercial tomatoes tend to be in the range around 2 to 3 inches in diameter.
Currently, there about 7500 recognized cultivars of tomatoes grown worldwide, with new varieties being developed each year. Given the amazing degree of diversity in tomato types and sizes, there is a bewildering and often-contradictory lexicon of words to describe them. We hope to demystify the terminology of tomatoes by dividing them into three broad groups of practical concern to home gardeners, based on their fruiting
Tomatoescharacteristics. These groupings are: Slicing-Type Tomatoes, Sauce-Type Tomatoes, and Small-Fruit Tomatoes. Beyond these groups, there are other divisions in tomato types that cut across the entire range of tomato varieties. These divisions are:
- Vine Types: Determinate or Indeterminate
- Cultivars: Heirloom or Hybrid
- Maturity: First/Early or Main Crop
- Color: Red, Pink, Orange, Yellow, Green, Purple, or Multi-colored
Slicing Type Tomatoes:
These are tomatoes grown primarily for use as a fresh raw vegetables, generally sliced or cut and served without heating.
This means tomatoes for salads, sandwiches, or as a separate side dish. Usually grown for flavor above other considerations, slicing types include a dizzying array of cultivars.
Sauce Type Tomatoes:
These are tomatoes grown primarily for processing, either as a sauce, paste, or juice and used for cooking and canning. This type is at the heart of tomato-based cuisine all over the world. Most cultivars bear small red plum-shaped, pear-shaped, or cylindrical fruit.
Small Fruit Tomatoes:
As the name implies, this grouping incorporates all varieties of tomatoes with small fruit, regardless of plant size. Fruit size is usually described in inches of diameter. The largest small fruit types are up to 1-1/2 inch in diameter and range downward to the truly small berry-sized fruits at 1/8 inch in diameter. While usually red in color and rounded, there are also varieties that are pink, yellow, orange, and white. Small fruit tomatoes may also be pear-shaped and strawberry-shaped.
Tomato plants fall into one of two vine types based upon their pattern of growth.
Indeterminate varieties develop into vines that are defined by three specific characteristics.
- They continue to grow indefinitely, becoming taller and taller until killed by frost.
- Plants never set terminal flower clusters, but only lateral ones.
- They produce fruit continually over the season and do not stop until they are killed by frost.
These are preferred by home growers and market farmers who want ripe fruit throughout the season. Older varieties are almost all indeterminate and the majority of heirloom tomatoes are indeterminate, although some determinate heirlooms exist. Many cultivars of this type are extremely late in maturing.
Determinate varieties develop into vines that are defined by three specific characteristics.
- They eventually form a flower cluster at the terminal growing point.
- The plant stops growing in height. This is caused by flower buds at the terminal growing point.
- They tend to ripen their fruit over a short period of time, or all at once.
The first determinate varieties had problems with inadequate foliage cover and fruit quality, but they ripened very early. Current determinates produce adequate foliage, grow taller, and ripen high-quality fruit. Determinate vines are easier to control and support during the growing season than indeterminates.
Some of the extreme dwarf types are determinate as well as dwarfed, producing some truly tiny mature plants. Any plant defined as a ‘bush’ or ‘container’ tomato is a determinate type.
And just to confuse the issue, there are plants sometimes known as ‘vigorous determinate‘ or ‘semi-determinate’ that appear to be an intermediate type.
These stop growing, and produce terminal flower buds, but produce a second crop after the initial crop. Despite the name, these are also determinates. In addition, a few rare varieties exist that are known as Tree Tomatoes.
These, too, are determinate types because they stop growing at a certain point. What is unique about Tree Tomatoes, is the woody central stem that (if trained) is often rigid enough to support the vine like a tree trunk.
Cultivars: heirlooms or hybrids
These terms are confusing for two reasons.
- There is no agreed-upon definition of an Heirloom variety.
- The terms are not necessarily mutually exclusive, since many Heirlooms are the result of cross-breeding and hybridization, the records of which have been lost with time.
Heirloom varieties, as their name indicates, are usually older cultivars that tend to be grown for their flavor, colors, and novel shapes. They have grown in popularity precisely because of these qualities. They are the antithesis of the uniformly-shaped, consistently-colored, mechanically-harvested, bland-tasting tomatoes sold in most groceries stores.
Heirlooms are generally characterized as being rambling indeterminate plants, developing exotic colorful and flavor-packed fruits, and having a tendency to be a bit unreliable and inconsistent in their growing and fruiting habits. While there are exceptions to this rule-of-thumb, it is true that most heirlooms rely on the personal care of a gardener or market farmer.
Bred before the era of factory farming, most heirlooms are very old cultivars, dozens and even hundreds of years old. Many were developed by individual farmers from tomatoes that grew well in their particular region, and were popular with their customers. Some were bred to provide a supply for a specific culture or cuisine. Others were created as accidental hybrids or chance discoveries. This is why many cultivars are commonly named after a person or place. Each heirloom variety contains a story and a history.
The main distinction between heirlooms and modern hybrids is that most heirlooms will grow ‘true’ from their seeds; hybrids will not. Growing ‘true’ means that if you plant seeds, the new plants will resemble the parent plant from which the seed came.
Modern hybrid cultivars were created from cross-breeding two plants with different characteristics to make a plant with specific desirable characteristics. If you plant seeds from the offspring plant with the desirable features, (since it is a hybrid) the new plants will NOT resemble their parents, but will revert to the characteristics of their grandparents, the plants originally chosen for hybridization. Thus hybrid seeds will not grow ‘true’ to their parent stock.
For example, you choose a yellow beefsteak tomato with strong flavor and a red cherry tomato with superior crack-resistance. You are able to develop a hybrid with your desired qualities: A medium-sized orange tomato with strong flavor and crack-resistance.
If you plant the seed from that orange tomato, this is what you are likely to get: Most of the new plants will be yellow beefsteaks or red cherry tomatoes, several will be variations of the combined traits of both parents, and a very few will more or less breed ‘true’ to the parent plants.
This is a gross oversimplification of genetics, but it illustrates the point. The percentage of hybrid seeds that grow ‘true’ is way too small to be commercially viable.
In current times, it is easier and more economical for seed producers to remake the hybrid again year after year to meet the demand for hybrid seed. Hybrids have the advantage of being reliable and consistent in meeting the expectations of farmers and gardeners. What you see in the catalog is what you get in the plant. The fruiting is as expected, and for commercial growers, you can bank on it. This system works well in a society with large corporate seed producers serving a massive market.
In the past, when many heirlooms were developed, neither of these conditions existed. It would have been impossible for the farmer to recreate desirable hybrids year after year. For them it would have made more sense to focus on the few cross-bred plants that grew ‘true’ or close to ‘true’. By continuing selective breeding for a few more generations, a new cultivar with specific desirable qualities would arise.
Tomatoes will produce fruit as early as 45 days after planting, and some varieties will take as long as 100 days before the first fruit can be picked.
As with all aspects of tomatoes, this diversity has to do with climate, need, type, and breeding. Terminology surrounding tomato maturity is fairly straightforward but can use some illumination.
This refers to plants that take 60 or fewer days to from planting to harvest. First early varieties are best suited for northern areas, where the growing seasons are short and the summers cool. They have small to medium-sized fruit and produce less fruit per plant than later-maturing varieties.
They have more compact plant growth than the main-season varieties and sun-scalding of the fruit is a problem in hot weather. For many northern and high-altitude gardeners these are the only varieties that will ripen. Their main disadvantage is that of being so early; the fruit doesn’t have the time to develop the full tomato flavor that gardeners seek.
Early or Cool Season:
This refers to plants that take 60 to 69 days from planting to harvest. These varieties are intermediate between the extreme earliness of the first early plants and the sounder plant type and production characteristics of the main crop types.
Fruit size is improved, as is quality and flavor. The real tomato harvest season begins with the early varieties.
This refers to plants that take 70 to 89 days from planting to harvest. Most of the main crop varieties bear medium-sized to large fruit, have adequate foliage cover, and are relatively free from fruit cracking and other deformities. As the name implies, they should make up the bulk of the main crop harvest because they have superior yield, better staying power in the garden and fruit of high quality.
Late Crop or Late Maturing:
This refers to plants that take 90 days or more from planting to harvest. The fruits may be extremely large but also can be misshapen, with rough scar tissue (‘cat-facing’) on the blossom end. When this scar tissue must be cut away, some of the advantage of extra-large size is lost. Large size, though, is almost never about total yield, but more often about the novelty of huge size.
The majority of all tomatoes are red with a unique taste that reflects the balance of sweetness and acidity characteristics of a particular cultivar. The reddish color with a deep orange undertone is commonly called Tomato Red, and is very different from a blood red or a rose red.
However, tomatoes are not always red. All red tomatoes begin as green tomatoes but begin to change when they ripen. First they are green, sometimes called Apple Green. Then they start to take on an opalescent sheen, green with undertones of red, green, and grey.
This process is called ‘pearling’ because they resemble the color and undertone of a pearl. After that the fruit loses its greenish appearance and develops color in earnest as it finishes ripening.
Ripe tomatoes can also be many other colors from a ghostly white to a near black, including pink, yellow, orange, green, purple, burgundy-black, and any combination of these. There is no blue tomato.
Contrary to popular belief orange and yellow tomato are not necessarily lower in acid content than red tomatoes. Acid content is more a matter of breeding than of color. Many orange and yellow fruits do taste milder than red tomatoes because they have a higher sugar content. In terms of cooking, canning, and freezing color is not a significant consideration.
We have collected a list of popular cultivars for each of the main tomato groups. Since there are thousands of varieties this list is not complete, but it will be helpful for you to determine what you might wish to grow.
Slicing Type Tomatoes Sauce Type Tomatoes Small Fruit Tomatoes
Planning is essential in growing tomatoes, since the plants are large and require more care and attention than most vegetables. Because they are so cold sensitive it is important to plant them out when the weather is warm enough, and to place them where they will receive adequate sunshine.
Tomatoes are prone to a number of airborne diseases, so you should plan to leave enough room around each plant for adequate air circulation. This is especially true for areas with humid summers.
How many tomato plants does a family need?
Six tomato plants will provide enough fruit for an average family of four per year. This includes both freshly eaten tomatoes and tomatoes for canning or freezing. It is a good idea to grow different types of plants for different uses.
Also, planting early, mid and late season varieties will ensure tomatoes throughout the season. Usually two or three plants will suffice for fresh eating, with another two or three plants for preserving.
Sowing seeds in the open garden is not recommended, even in very warm and semi-tropical areas, for two good reasons. First, the main growing season in the warm southern band of the country begins early and ends with the heat of summer.
This means that seeds should be started in the winter, a time when the weather can be unpredictable. One day will be warm and fine; the next may bring chilling winds.
Second, tomato seedlings are very tender and will not respond well to setbacks. If a seedling is shocked by a cold snap or light frost, it may survive and grow, but it will ver be always remain stunted in comparison to what it would have been had it not suffered from the cold.
The recommended course of action with tomatoes is to optimize growing conditions at all stages of growth. Provide tomato plants with what they need and they will reward you, amply.
In warm southern biomes, there is also a second, shorter growing season running from late summer into the winter. This season is a bit of a gamble, since you will be trying to squeeze in a crop between the very hot summer and the maybe-too-cold winter. Your aim is to plant out healthy tomato seedlings as soon as you decide that the weather has cooled down sufficiently – that the brutal heat will not add heat stress to your tender seedlings. In this case you will want to sow your seeds indoors in cooler, more temperate conditions. As with cold-nipped seedlings, heat stressed young plants will be set back and will not fully recover.
Sowing under Cover:
In the band of the country with semi-tropical summer temperatures (south of Latitude 37°N), it is best to start tomato seeds in a coldframe or greenhouse. This will provide the warmth needed to germinate seed.
Once started, there will be adequate light to promote healthy top growth. They will be protected from biting wind or the occasional frost. Once the danger of frost has passed, your tomatoes can be hardened off and set out directly into the garden.
In the northern portion of the country (north of Latitude 37°N), your best bet is to sow seeds indoors in flats or pots. Once started plants will need adequate light or they will become leggy as they stretch towards the light. Place them on a sunny windowsill, preferably facing south.
If you only have an east- or west-facing windowsill, that will suffice (except in the far north). However, you will have better results placing the plants under “grow-lights”. Don’t even bother to set them in a north-facing window.
In the far north (north of Latitude 42°N), there will simply not be enough light available in the early spring for your growing plants. If you want to start seeds for your garden, you have three basic choices:
- You may set them in a south-facing windowsill, and they grow well enough, but may be pale and leggy. If this happens they will never completely overcome the deficit in the open garden. They will definitely grow and produce, but will not be up to their full potential. This option is a bit of a gamble: some years will be sunny and everything will be fine; in other years the weather will be bleak and your plants will suffer.
- You can wait and start your seeds later and plant out smaller plants in the garden after the last frost date, OR you can move your plants into the garden later, rather than as early as you can. This will get your plants off to a better start. This disadvantage is that your growing season will be shorter by a few weeks, which may be problematic at the end of the season.
- Your best results will be attained by growing the young seedlings under “grow-lights”. Expose them to the “grow-lights” for 12 to 16 hours per day. This is a more expensive and requires a space for set-up, but the results are really amazing.
For many gardeners, the simplest and most reliable option is to purchase plants, either from the store or by ordering them online or through a catalog.
In the far north, this may be the most practical way to grow tomatoes, especially for city gardeners who have little space to start seeds, or for community gardeners who cannot be certain when and if they will be assigned a garden plot. It also is an option for those who are very busy in the spring or tend to procrastinate.
You can purchase tomato plants from your local nursery or the big box stores, but your choices of varieties will be limited to the most popular varieties. And you will need to know how to distinguish a healthy plant from a damaged or sick plant.
If a plant you bring home is already sickly, damaged or infested with pests or disease, it is only going to get worse. Most likely, it will die no matter what you do. It could also infect other plants in your garden. So picking plants in a nursery is primarily a process of eliminating the unhealthy ones.
- Avoid tall, spindly plants. They did not get enough sun when young and even if you give them lots of sun and care in your garden they will never be strong
- Look carefully for bugs and diseases. Turn over the leaves and look at the bottom of them to spot pests. Mottled, discolored, or chewed leaves are also an indicator of problems.
- Pass up plants with yellow leaves. Yellowing leaves are an indication of poor plant nutrition, among other things.
- Steer clear of plants with roots growing out of the pot. The plant is already rootbound and its growth may never be good. Even root pruning may not help.
- Purchase plants with developing buds and no fruits. Look carefully at plants with full blooms or developing fruit. While you might think that this will give you a jumpstart on the season, it may indicate severe plant stress. A fruiting plant in a pot is already stressed and may never recover in the garden.
- Watch out for plants with wilted leaves. They could just need a drink of water or it could be a symptom of something worse. Why take a chance?
- Avoid plants with broken or scarred branches. This indicates that the plant may have received poor you may end up paying for it later. Don’t risk your money!
- Buy varieties that do well in your area. Many large nurseries, and most big box stores, sell plants that have been purchased en masse, and are not necessarily suitable to your climate.
Order plants from a reliable seed-house either online or via a catalog. This is probably the best option for home gardeners who may want to grow heirlooms or unique varieties. Select a source that caters to your particular climatic region and you will have the widest choice of varieties. Be certain to order early; many catalogs sell out their stock quickly. Most suppliers will allow you to order online and to arrange for the shipment at the appropriate times for your area.
Preparing your soil:
The ideal soil for tomatoes is warm, well-draining, slightly acidic, and rich in organic matter. Tomatoes prefer a pH range from 5.5 to 7.0 and will do best with adequate supplies of phosphorus and potassium. While they also require nitrogen, soils carrying a large proportion of nitrogen are likely to result in a rank growth of vines ripening a small crop of fruit of poor quality. The worst soil is cold and soggy, so digging the soil and adding amendments prior to planting is essential.
Because tomatoes are heavy feeders, advanced preparation will be needed to get the best and highest quality crop. If you have enough time to plan ahead, plant a cover crop of winter rye to overwinter in the area where you will plant tomatoes. The rye will draw up much-needed nutrients from deep in the soil, but will not set nitrogen like many cover crops.
Several weeks before planting, turn over the rye and chop up the overturned clods into chunks. Let the clods weather for a week to separate the rye roots from the soil. Add a layer of compost and well-rotted manure to the bed. Provide a phosphorus-rich additive like bonemeal, and a potassium-carrying amendment like greensand. If the soil is clayey or drains poorly, also add coarse sharp-grained sand. The amounts of each amendment needed will vary with your particular garden soil, so review the recommendations of your soil test for guidance. Turn all the amendments into the bed to a depth or ten to twelve inches.
Tomatoes abhor cold soil, so a couple of weeks prior to planting your tomato plants preheat the soil by adding a cover of black plastic or dark-colored weed cloth. This will dry the soil out somewhat and warm it to a temperature that is more comfortable for the plants. When the danger of the last frost has passed and the weather is mild enough to plant, remove the plastic or cloth sheeting.
NOTE: Many recommend the use of red or black plastic sheet mulch for tomatoes. We don’t endorse this approach due to the compromises it entails in watering and keeping soil pathogens under control, not to mention the ecological impacts of a plastic material degrading in the sunshine and leaching its byproducts into the garden.
The criteria for starting seeds are the same for all tomatoes, regardless of variety or type (See Chart below). Plant the seeds 6 to 8 weeks prior to the last expected frost date in your area.
Plant two or three seeds in each cell of a divided flat or in individual pots. In undivided flats, place the two or three seeds in set 4 inches apart in each direction. After they have sprouted and have formed their first set of leaves, pinch out the weaker seedlings, leaving the single strongest plant.
|Seed Spacing||Row Spacing||Plant Spacing*||Planting Depth||Soil Temperature||Sprout Time||Light Needs||Days to Harvest**|
|4 in.||24-36 in.||18-30 in.||1/2 in.||65°-80° F||6-8 Days||Full-Sun||Varies|
*Plant Spacing: Spacing after Thinning OR Distance between plants (Intensive Planting)
**Days to Harvest will vary with your climate and with cultivars planted.
When the plants have 2 or 3 sets of leaves, transplant them into larger pots (2″ by 2″ to 4″ by 4″). If your plants grow more than 8 to 10 inches tall well before it is time to plant them out, transplant them into a larger pot to accommodate the burgeoning root system.
Fertilize them with a water-soluble organic fertilizer every 2 weeks, starting at half strength and increasing to full strength over course of the next 6 weeks. Look for a fertilizer that is relatively low in nitrogen, stronger in phosphorus and potassium, and has ample trace minerals. Diluted worm juice and compost teas are excellent starting fertilizers.
In the two weeks prior to planting time, begin to “harden off” your tomato plants. This is the process of acclimating them to the open conditions in the garden. Start by setting the plants in a partially open window or in a coldframe. On the first day this should be just a couple of hours in the daytime. Gradually increase the amount of time and the exposure to cool air. In the first week or so, protect your seedlings from direct exposure to the sky since falling rain, dew, and frost will set them back. As the days warm, the plants will “toughen-up”, meaning their stalks will become more fibrous and strong, and the pores in their leaves will adjust to the open air.
Transplant outdoors only after all danger of the last frost is passed and when the soil is sufficiently warmed (55° to 60°). The day time high temperatures should be in the mid sixties (63° to 67°). An hour or two before you transplant your plants into the garden, water them with compost or diluted fish emulsion. This will help minimize transplant shock.
Plant the seedlings nice and deep. In each planting hole dig in 1 cup of kelp meal, 1 cup of bonemeal, and 1 cup of dry compost. Dig the large hole enough to bury the entire plant except the leaves at the tip of the plant and about a half-inch of stem below them. Additional roots will develop along the buried stem giving your plants a larger, healthier root system. Water each plant with just enough warm (not hot) water to soak the roots.
Tip: A gallon jug painted black and set beside each of your tomatoes will heat up in the daytime to provide “warm” water for your plants, and will release a little heat at night to elevate the air temperature around your plants a few crucial degrees. Take care to check the jug-water before you water your plants. If it is too hot, dilute it with cooler water.
If your growing season is long enough and to extend your harvest time, consider later plantings at two week intervals after the first planting. To calculate the date of your last planting, work backwards from the first expected frost date in your area. Determine the number of days to maturity of your tomato cultivar, and add some buffer time (an additional 50 percent), since plant growth slows as the fall days get cooler. For example, your first frost date is December first, and the tomatoes you are growing have an 80 day maturity. Take 80 days, multiply it by 1.5 to get 120 days. Figure that 120 days prior to your first frost is the latest you can set out tomatoes. This works out to August third as the last day you can reasonably plant out your tomatoes.
The space required depends upon the growth patterns of the variety and your garden planning. Space dwarf plants 12 inches apart; staked or “caged” plants 15 to 24 inches apart; and ground bed plants 24 to 36 inches apart. Some particularly vigorous indeterminate varieties may need as much as 4 feet between plants. Most varieties will do well with a spacing of 18 inches between plants, (24 inches in areas with hot and humid summers).
Staking and Caging:
Tomatoes are vining plants that generally cannot support themselves, and certainly not the weight of their fruit. Traditionally, plants were left to sprawl along the ground. While that option may be the simplest, it has several disadvantages.
Harvesting your tomatoes is difficult, requiring a lot of squatting or bending. Many fruits will be lost to pests and rot, far more than with staked plants. And the entire plant is far more prone to disease and pests, especially soil-borne pathogens and fungi.
For best results, train your tomatoes to a stake or “cage” them. Drive a 6 ft. stake or a series of stakes into the ground prior to planting and tie the plants to the stake as they grow. Or “cage” them in a wire cylinder made just for this purpose, and sold widely at nurseries.
Simply direct the growing plant and its many branches to loop through the cage, which will provide support for the plant. You can make your own tomato cage from a 7 foot long by four foot high concrete reinforcing mesh with 6 inch by 6 inch openings(aka: 6×6 welded wire mesh).
Wire the ends together to form a cylinder and firmly stake it into the ground. Tomato plants can also be trained to a trellis or fence.
Tomatoes are heavy feeders; they need an ample supply of soil nutrients, water, heat, and sunshine. If you have prepared your soil as recommended (See Preparing Your Soil above), and added the amendments described when transplanting, your tomato plants will be off to a good start.
The soil in your bed is fertile, and well-balanced, and your transplants have a good dose of food to start off their vigorous growth.
For most gardeners, advanced preparation may well be all that you will need to produce lots of juicy, ripe tomatoes, provide you water them sufficiently and the weather cooperates. Many other gardeners will find that their tomato plants will need additional care, especially where the soil is poor and the weather is liable to stress your plants.
Because soil conditions vary so widely across the country, and because there are thousands of tomato cultivars available, it is impossible to give an across-the-board recommendation for fertilizer that will optimize conditions in every garden.
This is why it is important to Know Your Weather and to Know Your Soil for your specific garden. You will need to decide how to address the strengths and deficiencies of your own garden, based on your experience and the results of your Soil Test. However, there are general recommendations that will be helpful to you in fertilizing your tomato plants.
If you decide that your conditions warrant it, your first addition of fertilizer should begin two to three weeks after transplanting, and should continue every third week until fruiting tapers off in the fall. Pay special attention to your plants at two crucial points in their development: when flowering begins and when the green tomatoes are about 1-1/2 inch in diameter.
When flowering begins, pollination and fruiting will commence. It is at this point that your plants need ample supplies of phosphorus, calcium, and nitrogen, in that order. Phosphorus helps develop blooms and set fruit; calcium helps to prevent blossom end rot, and nitrogen will promote plant growth.
When the fruits begin to fill out, your plants can use an infusion of nitrogen-rich fertilizer. This promotes tissue growth in developing fruit. However, this is one of those cases where more is NOT better.
You will want to provide nitrogen, but not too much or the plants will respond by growing more leaves and stems at the expense of developing fruit. Be judicious and apply slow-release fertilizers and amendments. The very best organic nitrogen fertilizer at this stage is a topdressing of well-rotted manure.
Tomatoes benefit from the application of topdressing at the base of your plants. These are amendments added to the top of the soil around vegetable plants. They will act as a localized mulch, and will release a burst of nutrition to the roots. As you water the beneficial elements will leach out and perk down directly to your plant’s roots. The very best topdressings are compost, bonemeal, kelp meal, and well-rotted manure. Be sparing in applying manure since it is rich in nitrogen as well as trace elements. Too much nitrogen will result in lush leave growth at the expense of root and flower development.
Adding mulch to the ground around your tomatoes will help your plants in three ways. First, it will moderate soil temperature, creating a stable environment for soil life in the entire root zone.
Typical unmulched soils will develop a “dead zone” at the surface because the summer sun heats the top layer up too much for soil organism to live.
Second, mulch will keep the soil in the root zone moist. Tomatoes need amply amounts of water. Mulching will prevent much of the water applied to the ground from evaporating and will create an insulating layer that will keep most of the remaining soil moisture from escaping into the air.
Third, and most importantly, mulch is another source of fertilizer for your tomato plants. The best mulching materials are compost, grass clippings, leaf mold, and well-rotted manure. When combined with a program of topdressing, your tomatoes will thrive.
The bulk of the supply of the soil macronutrients: nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K) should be met by advanced soil preparation. The addition of organic fertilizers should NOT, under normal circumstances, be the major source of these vital nutrients. However, there are times when additional fertilizer is appropriate.
For instance, if your soil is especially poor; if it is a new garden; or you have no access to your garden plot prior to planting season (as may happen when allocating plots in a community garden).
Tomatoes will benefit greatly from a fertilizer low in nitrogen, high in phosphorous and medium to high in potassium. Among the best N-P-K analyses for tomatoes are 5-7-6 and 5-10-10. There are many products on the market labeled as organic tomato fertilizer, each with a different list of ingredients and with a wide range of N-P-K analyses. Try to find a local supplier that sells a fertilizer with an analysis that meets the needs or your particular garden soil.
The trace elements, so named because they appear in small (trace) amounts in healthy soil, are often considered by gardeners to be of negligible importance. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Trace elements are vital to plant metabolism, as they play essential functions in such processes as respiration and photosynthesis, so a deficiency in even one element will adversely affect the healthy growth of the plant.
In well-prepared garden soil they are usually present in sufficient quantities. In some soils, however, especially in the chalky alkaline soils of arid regions there is often an overabundance of a particular element which can actually make the soil poisonous for plants, or can chemically react with other essential elements and tie them up in a form that cannot be absorbed by plants.
But for most soils, the only issues surrounding trace elements are specific deficiencies of a specific element, and often only at a specific time.
For homegrown tomatoes, the only problems with trace elements are in soils that lack enough calcium, iron, or nitrogen (See Potential Diseases below).
Basic organic soil amendments like bonemeal, oyster shell meal, fish meal or emulsion, lime, dolomite, and gypsum will provide more than enough of the required trace elements and will not add too much of any element to the soil.
Additional branded tomato fertilizers also provide a wide variety of trace elements. Select a product that meets the needs of your particular garden soil, as recommended in your soil test. However, you must take care not to apply too much of a concentrated product. Once you apply too much of a trace element it will be very difficult to restore the soil.
To produce lush and juicy fruits, you must water your tomato plants regularly and thoroughly. Infrequent and inconsistent watering will stress your plants and create problems with the fruit. If you stop watering for a time and the soil dries, wilting the plants, do NOT try to make up for it by watering heavily. The plants can absorb only so much water at one time.
The fruits will fill up with water, and when the sun warms them, they will burst open. A heavy watering will fill up the air pockets in the soil, preventing the roots from feeding.
Too much water will cool the soil down and slow growth of these heat-loving plants. Also, inconsistent watering is one factor in creating the condition known as blossom-end rot, a nasty affliction that turns your lovely tomatoes into a sloppy mass of fetid gelatin.
Your aim is to give your tomatoes an ample consistent supply of water. Water every second or third day in normal summer weather and soak the soil beneath your plants thoroughly to a depth of about twelve inches. In hotter weather, you may need to increase the frequency of watering to every other day or even every day.
Poke your finger into the soil on the southern side of your plants. If you cannot feel any moisture in the top three inches, then it is time to water. Don’t wait until the plant wilts; that indicates it is already under duress and it will be set-back from lack of water.
The easiest method is to pour water from a hose directly onto the soil around the plant, above the roots zone. If you create a dish-shaped depression around the plant (about an inch deep), it is simple to fill that up and let it soak in. Repeat as many times as needed to soak the soil adequately.
Always water the ground above the root zone, and don’t water the plant itself. Wet leaves and fruit are prone to disease. Fruits, especially cherry tomatoes, often crack open when they receive too much water directly on their skins.
The ground under and around tomato plants is especially attractive for opportunistic weeds. The soil is usually soft and full of nutrients. The locale is usually nice and sunny or nice and shady. It’s no wonder that weeds will grow like -well- weeds under your tomato plants.
Fortunately the conditions that make them grow so easily, make their control easy as well. For homegrown tomatoes, hand weeding is usually the best weed control. The best practice is to yank the weeds out before they can establish deep root systems and compete with your tomato plants. Check before you water if any weeds are growing under your tomatoes. Keep an eye out for those pesky weeds that want to hug the stems of your plants.
If you let weeds go too long and they are hard to pull, it is possible to use hand tools to get the weed, but only at a certain risk to the root system of your tomato plants. Grub it out carefully, as best you can. If it keeps coming back, continue to cut it back to the ground. Eventually it will exhaust itself, and without leaves to replenish its reserves, it will eventually die.
Mulching, which is recommended for other reasons, will also do a stellar job in suppressing and smothering weeds.
Being one of the most widely grown vegetables as well as one of the most demanding garden plants, tomatoes are subject to a broad array of garden environments , climates, and stressors. As a result, they are also subject to attack from a variety of garden pests. Find out what is eating your tomatoes. Go to Diagnostic Questionnaire.
|Colorado Potato Beetles||X|
|Tomato Fruitworm [aka: Corn Earworm]||X|
|Tomato Hornworm [aka: Tobacco Hornworm]||X||X||X|
|Southern Potato Wireworms||X|
The range of diseases that attack tomato plants is huge, including those caused by bacteria, fungus, and viruses, or by lack of an essential soil nutrient.
Many plant diseases are introduced by insects and nematodes, or by infected materials brought into the garden, such as tobacco, dirty tools, soil, or nursery stock. While the number of tomato diseases is large, they are generally not fatal to your crops if they are caught and addressed in time. Thus it is important to monitor the development of this important vegetable throughout the growing season.
Many plant diseases are introduced by insects and nematodes, or by infected materials brought into the garden, such as tobacco, dirty tools, soil, or nursery stock
Bacterial diseases can be usually controlled if caught early, but once they are well established, it is best to remove the entire plant to preserve the remainder of your garden plants.
The same is also true for fungal diseases. Catch them early, treat them, and your garden will be OK; delay and you are inviting trouble. Even nutritional deficiencies can be addressed and corrected within the growing season (however not without some setbacks for your garden).
On the other hand, viral diseases constitute a “red alert”. Immediate damage control must be undertaken or your garden will suffer in the long-term, especially for soil-borne diseases. For instance, if your tomatoes have verticillium wilt you cannot get rid of it.
You must pull the plants quickly to minimize the spread of the virus. Now that your garden has a verticillium virus present it will NOT go away.
Your best measure is to remove the area of infected soil and sterilize it. Even this is unlikely to expunge the disease. In the future, you will need to plant resistant varieties in order to assure a decent crop.
Likewise, parasitic nematodes require quick action, but the long-term situation is not nearly as dire. If you treat the soil and kill the nematodes, there will be no long lasting effect from their earlier presence.
|Bacterial Canker: Clavibacter michiganensis||X||X||X||X|
|Bacterial Speck: Pseudomonas syringae||X||X||X|
|Bacterial Spot: Xanthomonas campestris||X||X||X|
|Bacterial Rot: Erwinia carotovora||X||X|
|Bacterial Wilt: Ralstonia solanacearum||X||X||X|
|Pith Necrosis: Pseudomonas corrugata||X||X||X|
|Syringae Leaf Spot: Pseudomonas syringae||X|
|Alternaria Stem Canker: Alternaria lycopersici||X|
|Anthracnose: Colletotrichum various species||X|
|Black Mold Rot: Multiple species|
|Black Root Rot: Thielaviopsis basicola||X|
|Black Shoulder: Alternaria alternata||X|
|Buckeye Rot: Phytophthora various species||X||X||X|
|Cercospora Leaf Mold: Cercospora fuligena||X|
|Charcoal Rot: Macrophomina phaseolina|
|Corky Root Rot: Pyrenochaeta lycopersici||X|
|Damping-Off: Pythium ssp.or Rhizoctonia solani||X|
|Didymella Stem Rot: Didymella lycopersici||X|
|Early Blight: Alternaria solani||X||X||X|
|Fusarium Rot: Fusarium oxysporum radicis||X||X|
|Fusarium Wilt: Fusarium oxysporum lycopersici||X||X|
|Gray Leaf Spot: Stemphylium various species||X|
|Gray Mold: Botrytis cinerea||X||X|
|Late Blight: Phytophthora infestans||X||X||X|
|Leaf Mold: Fulvia fulva||X|
|Phoma Rot: Phoma destructiva|
|Powdery Mildew: Oidiopsis sicula||X||X||X|
|Pythium Fruit Rot: Pythium various species||X||X|
|Rhizoctonia Fruit Rot: Rhizoctonia solani||X||X|
|Rhizopus Rot: Rhizopus stolonifer|
|Septoria leaf spot: Septoria lycopersici||X|
|Sour Rot: Geotrichum candidum|
|Southern Blight: Sclerotium rolfsii||X|
|Target Spot: Corynespora cassiicola||X||X|
|Verticillium Wilt: Verticillium albo-atrum||X||X||X|
|White Mold: Sclerotinia sclerotiorum||X||X|
|Viral Diseases & Mycoplasma-like Organisms:|
|Beet Curly Top Virus||X||X|
|Cucumber Mosaic Virus||X||X||X|
|Potato Virus Y||X|
|Tobacco Mosaic Virus||X||X||X|
|Tomato Bunchy Top||X||X|
|Tomato Bushy Stunt Virus||X|
|Tomato Necrosis [Alfalfa Mosaic Virus]||X|
|Tomato Planto Macho||X||X|
|Tomato Spotted Wilt||X||X||X|
|Tomato Yellow Leaf Curl||X||X|
|Root-Knot: Meloidogyne various species||X|
|Sting: Belonolaimus longicaudatus||X|
|Stubby-Root: Paratrichodorus various species||X|
|Blossom End Rot||X|
Your challenge is to decide when is the best time to pick your tomatoes. The clues that you need are fruit color and firmness. Since a tomato ripens from the inside to the outside, you should pick it when it is not yet fully ripe at the surface (the interior will already be over-ripe). Flavor will also develop as the fruit ripens, or you pick it. Select tomatoes that are soft to the touch, but are still firm when given a slight squeeze. They should be an orange-red in color, if yours is a red fruited variety. Once harvested, eat your tomatoes promptly. Flavor development stops at harvest and will begin to decline in a few days.
If yours is a variety other than red, harvest when the fruit has not yet reached full-color. It may take some trial-and-error to know what is exactly the right color for your variety.
All tomatoes, as they ripen, go through three characteristic color phases. They begin as green fruit, with a pale, almost creamy green color. Fruits are very firm, even hard, to the touch and contain very little juice. They will begin to ripen in earnest when the fruit has reached an optimal balance of sugars and acids, and the weather is suitably warm, but not too hot.
Tomatoes then begin a phase called “pearling”, during which they soften and take on a grayish, opalescent color that looks very much like a pearl. This unique and short-lived phase occurs because the orange-red color of ripe tomatoes is present at the same time that the fruit is still predominately green.
The red plus the green appears as a grey. Pearling, of course, may be different or absent altogether if the ripe fruit color is something other than red. This phase is your alert to monitor your tomatoes, and be ready to pick them as they become ready.
A typical red tomato variety will begin its final ripening phase as a creamy pale orange-red and will slowly deepen into a deep blood-red. The fruit will continually soften and fill with juice as it ripens.
The peak of flavor, when you want to eat them, occurs just as they turn a deep red. At this stage they become over-ripe very quickly (in two or three days), and the flavor will degrade rapidly.
TIP: Pick tomatoes a few days before they reach their peak ripeness. The fruit should be soft to the touch, but still firm inside. The color should still have some orange in it. A fully red tomato is too ripe to keep for more than a day or two.
If left on the vine, a tomato will continue to ripen until it is over-ripe and become inedible. Then it will rot from within and drop to the ground and rot some more, providing the seeds within a rich medium in which to develop in the coming year.
End-of-Season Harvesting: Unlike some fruits, tomatoes will continue to ripen after they are harvested, but they will not develop any more flavor. If the growing season has ended in your area and you anticipate killing frosts in the near future, harvest your tomatoes green and store them so they ripen. Their flavor and texture will not be as good as freshly picked tomatoes, but they will still be far superior to anything you can buy in the grocery stores.
If you have room pull up the entire plant, wash the soil off the roots, and hang it up- upside down- in a cool dry location. This will “drain” the “energy” from the plant into the still ripening fruit. Simply snip off each tomato as it ripens, including a bit of stem. Cut the stem away when you prepare the tomatoes for a meal.
Ripe Tomatoes: When picked ripe, tomatoes should be eaten quickly; they will not keep for more than two to three days. Store fresh ripe tomatoes at room temperature, ideally out of direct sunlight. Sunlight quickens the ripening of tomatoes. Tempera-tures above 80°F cause tomatoes to spoil quickly; Class D storage is ideal (See
Storing Your Vegetables).
Refrigerate tomatoes only when they are in danger of becoming over-ripe, and then only for a couple of days. Cooling will slow the ripening process dramatically. However, refrigeration changes the flavor and texture of ripe tomatoes, so this should not be a routine practice. Below 54°F, tomatoes begin to lose their characteristic tomato flavor. The flesh will quickly become bland and mealy in texture. Bring chilled tomatoes to room temperature before serving them raw.
Ripening Tomatoes: To ripen tomatoes that have some orange or reddish color, place them in a paper bag with the stems facing upwards. Punch several holes in the bag and fold the top over. Ripening fruits exude ethylene gas which aids in the ripening process. The bag will keep some of the naturally-occurring gases in place, Depending on how under ripe they were when picked, tomatoes will take up to five days to ripen. Be sure to check on them daily. Surface blemishes can quickly turn to rot.
Green Tomatoes: Tomatoes picked green will need special care to store them properly and allow them to ripen. When you remove green tomatoes from the plant, it’s best to cut them off and leave about a half inch of stem attached to the fruit. If you pull them off of the plant you may create a bit a tearing where the stem once connected to the fruit. This minor damage is a potential entry route for fungus and bacteria to rot your fruits.
Gently wash the tomatoes, inspecting them for blemishes and damaged skins. Your aim in washing the green tomatoes is to remove any dirt or debris which could contain materials that encourage rotting. Do not scrub the fruit or wash away the waxy coating that protects the young fruit. Water should still “bead” off the fruit when you are done.
Separate the blemished and damaged tomatoes. Either throw them out or prepare them in green tomato dishes, such as Fried Green Tomatoes or Green Tomato Relish.
Store the remaining green tomatoes for storage in a cool dry place for up to three months, and let them slowly ripen. Class C storage is good for this purpose (see Storing Your Vegetables).
Lay out the green tomatoes on paper towels in a low flat container, leaving an inch or two of air space around each. An excellent container is the bottom three inches cut from a box.
If you have too many fruits to fit a single container, use more containers. The tomatoes should never be touching each other or stack on top of one another. The boxes may be stacked on top of each other, so long as they are placed in a criss-cross pattern that allows for air flow.
Check the tomatoes regularly and not more than a week apart. Promptly remove any tomatoes that show signs of rot or degeneration. Cut away the infected paper towel and clean the affected section of the flat with disinfectant. If you are careful and diligent, the vast majority of green tomatoes will be available for your use.
Related vegetables: companion plants:
- Sweet Peppers
- Hot Peppers (Chili Peppers])
In a four-year crop rotation plan, Tomatoes are in Group A which includes the other Nightshade Family members (Potatoes, Peppers, and Eggplant) along with the Cucurbit Family (Squash, Cucumbers, and Melons). Group A precedes Group B (Alliums and Legumes) and follows Group D (Root crops and Greens).