How To Grow Your Own Tomatoes

Tomato, tomotoe, fruit, or vegetable--which is correct?  Could the questions and mystery surrounding this article of food be the reasons for its popularity? The pronunciation varies in different English-speaking countries; however the anticipation of the taste of that first vine-ripe tomato in the spring does not differ. Botanically the tomato is a fruit, or more precisely a berry. The term vegetable does not have a botanical meaning; it is used as a culinary term. The use of the tomato in salads and the main course of meals leads to it being viewed as a vegetable. The tomato plant is believed to be native to the Americas and can be traced back to the Aztecs around 700A.D. Introduced to the Europeans in the 16th century, the rich believed it to be poisonous, while the poor readily accepted the tomato. It is thought that the high lead content of the pewter plates used by the wealthy reacted with the acid of the tomato, causing lead poisoning and death. The poor class of people used wooden plates and therefore didn't experience any problems. The tomato was not widely used as a kitchen vegetable until just prior to the American Civil War. The Supreme Court legally changed the classification of the tomato from fruit to vegetable in the late 1800s. Prior to this event, it had been classified as a fruit to avoid taxation. No matter how you pronounce it or what you call it the tomato, is the most popular vegetable in America, with over 12 million tons consumed annually.

Step 1

Growing tomatoes is fairly easy and a lot of fun. There are several factors to consider in achieving maximum success. The amount of space that is available, whether you will grow the plants indoors or outdoors, etc. Also important is whether the type of tomato you want to produce is for table use or for sauces and pastes. There are over 4000 varieties of tomatoes worldwide to choose from.

There are 4 steps in selecting the correct type of tomato plant for your needs:

  • The determinate type of plants grow to a certain point and stop; they are more compact and bushy.  The produce of these plants are sometimes also called bush tomatoes. They bear fruit earlier. They are the better choice for small gardens and containers
  • The indeterminate types of plants are more viney and require support to grow properly. They produce fruit later and longer into the summer. They are the plant of choice for commercial growers and larger gardens.
  • Select plants that are healthy with no yellowing or specking on the leaves.
  • Check the tag on the plant for help in determining a good tomato. There should be a string of letters that denotes their resistance to disease. The list includes A - Alternaria leaf spot,  F - Fusarium wilt,  FF - Race 1 and Race 2 Fusarium,  L - Septoria leaf spot,  N - Nematodes,  T -Tobacco mosaic virus,  V - Verticilium wilt

Step 2

Selecting the correct variety of tomato for your needs.

  • The Beefsteak variety can produce tomatoes weighing up to two pounds; one slice can cover a whole sandwich. Celebrity, Big Boy and Better Boy are a few of more popular Beefsteak varieties that grow well everywhere. The Phoenix and Heatwave are popular in the hot areas of the country. The Ace and Pearson grow well in California. The Rutgers is popular in New Jersery. These produce later, and are more productive in areas with hot summers, while the Early Girl, Sunstart, and Burpee's Early Pick set fruit in lower temperatures and are better suited for areas with cool summers. Oregon Spring, Northern Exposure, and Manitoba are good for the far northern gardens.
  • The paste tomatoes are smaller with a thick meat and small seed cavity, making them excellent for tomato pastes and sauces. The Roma is by far the most popular variety of paste tomato. The Sauce and Slice are good for small gardens and containers, while the Plum Dandy and Super Marzano are also excellent choices for paste tomatoes.
  • The small-fruit tomatoes are great in salads or just munching right off the vine. They also work well in small gardens, containers and window boxes. Popular varieties of the cherry or grape tomato consist of Red Cherry and Red Pear which also have a yellow variation. Supersweet 100 and Sweet Million are popular as well as Tiny Tim, Patio, and Small Fry. There should be a warning label on the small fruit tomatoes; they have an attitude, and don't know when to stop producing.
  • The Heirloom tomatoes are favorites of many gardeners. These strains have been kept alive over the years, by gardeners harvesting and saving their own seeds. The most familiar variety is the Brandywine which is 112 years old. Heirlooms come in many colors, from the salmon pink of the Brandywine to yellow, purple, red and orange. Some of the more poplar varieties are Nebraska Wedding and Kentucky Beefsteak which are orange; the purple strain includes Black Prince, and Prudens Purple. Persimmon Yellow tops the list of yellow heirlooms along with Pixie Peach and Tangerine. The Green Grape, Evergreen and Green Zebra with yellow stripes complete the rainbow of heirloom colors. These tomatoes add color and variety to your garden as well as your fresh summer salad.

Step 3

Care and growth of the selected variety of tomatoes.

  • Location: You will need to select a spot that is easy to get to, but out of the heavy traffic area. The basement, heated garage, the corner of the utility room or similar areas will do just fine. Placing the plants on a table makes it easier to care for them, however, the floor will work as long as it isn't cold.
  • Lighting: Tomatoes demand light, hence a grow light will be necessary. The light from a sunny window is not sufficient on short winter days. You need to raise the height of the light as the plants grow, it should be about one inch from the top of the plant. For best results, the grow light should be on for about 12-14 hours a day.
  • Keep the tomatoes warm: This is important; they thrive in temperatures, ranging in the 70s during the day and 60s at night.
  • Seeds or plants? Decide whether you want to grow seeds or plants.  Seed packets as well as plants may be purchased from your local nursery. Beginners should look for plants that will be compact and say container or patio in the description.
  • Germination: Germinating your seeds should begin in small peat pots, planted about a quarter of an inch deep in seed starter mix. Put two to three seeds in each pot, and keep them moist, but not soggy. They should sprout in 5 to 12 days at 80 degrees and plenty of light.
  • Transplanting: Transplating the seedlings begins when they are about three inches tall; the peat pots will allow you to place them in larger container without disturbing the roots. If the plants are to remain indoors, or in containers, the minimum size of the container should be five gallons, however bigger is better to allow the roots more room to grow. Fill the container with new potting soil. Dig a hole in the center of the container and place the peat pot in the hole, fill the hole to the top of the peat pot. If you have purchased plants from the nursery in the plastic pots, turn the plant and the pot upside down in your hand, with your free hand gently tap the bottom of the pot. The plant and soil should easy dislodge. 
    Place the plant and ball of soil in the new container as instructed above. If there is more than one seedling in the pot, you will need to gently separate them and discard the unhealthy ones. If you have chosen one of the taller varieties, now is the time to place a stake about two inches from the stem, being careful not to disturb the roots. Tie a soft string or piece of old panty hose around the plant and stake to hold it straight. This support will need to be rearranged as the plant grows. Tomatoes like the wind, so placing a fan on them for 5-10 minutes twice a day will make them happy and develop strong stems.
  • Planting: Plant the seedlings outdoors in your garden. Select the sunny part of the garden. Plant when the soil temperature is consistently 50 degrees. Tomatoes should be planted in rows three feet apart, with the plants two to three feet apart. Tomato plants that are planted outside should be buried deeper than those planted inside. Remove all but the top few leaves.  Dig a shallow trench, lay the stem in the trench and cover the entire stem with dirt, It will straighten up as it grows toward the sun. This is the time to stake the plants as instructed above with the indoor plants, or place wire cages around the plants. Water the plants till they're moist but not soggy, and mulch using straw or plastic. This will keep the soil warm and moist; it will also prevent the fruit from lying on the dirt.
  • Pruning and pinching: Both indoor and outdoor plants need to be pruned. When the plants reach about 3 inches height, remove the leaves from the bottom one inch of the stem. These leaves will be the first of develop fungus problems and they won't produce fruit. Suckers will grow in the crotch joint of two branches, these also need to be removed as they take energy away from the plant and won't produce fruit either. Pruning is necessary to allow the sun to reach the ripening fruit, but be careful not to remove too many leaves. The leaves are photosynthesizing and creating sugars that flavor the tomatoes.
  • Fertilizing: Fertilizing should begin when the plants are transplanted. I prefer organic fertilizer like liquid seaweed, however any all-purpose fertilizer will work, used at half the recommended strength. Water thoroughly, but not so much as to make the soil soggy.
  • Blooming: When the yellow blooms begin to develop, (which will be tomatoes) it is time scratch a little bone meal and phosphorus into the top soil. Plants growing indoors will need a little help to pollinate. About once or twice a week while the plant is blooming, gently and carefully shake the main stem of the plant. You may want to place an electric toothbrush near the bloom to simulate the buzzing of the bees. Either method will work, but one or the other must be done if you want the blooms to become tomatoes.
  • Watering: Last but certainly not least, is water. You can skimp on all the other amendments, but if you want good tomatoes, you have to water regularly. Irregular watering will lead to cracking and blossom end rot. When the fruit begins to ripen, lessen the water, this will coax the plant into concentrating its sugars into the fruit. Water the plants enough to prevent wilting and stressing, which will cause them to drop their blossoms and fruit.

The hardest part of growing tomatoes is the waiting for the first juicy red ripe tomato of the summer. It is well worth the wait, to enjoy the fruits of your labors and earn bragging rights with your neighbors and fellow tomato growers. Growing tomatoes can be a fun and educational family project. It can help stretch the family food budget, and provide healthy vegetables for the table.


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