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Beginner’s Guide to How to Grow Tomatoes

Tomatoes are often a gardener’s favorite vegetable to grow. Growing tomatoes doesn’t have to be tricky! Just follow these simple tips and tricks to your best harvest yet!

Tomatoes are the best, easiest, and most delicious entry-level vegetable for the beginner homesteader to grow.

A lot of people get started with tomatoes — they’re easy to grow in containers, low maintenance and incredibly rewarding with you see those lush green globes of goodness turn red.

a pile of cherry tomatoes

Nutritional Value of Tomatoes

Why should you grow tomatoes? I honestly didn’t like tomatoes, until I had a home-grown one.

Tomatoes, to me, were watery, slimey, flavorless slices of yuck. Then, when visiting a friend, I had a vine-ripen, picked-that-morning slice of tomato with nothing on it but salt. Oh my goodness…it was like I’d never had a tomato before — and I pretty much hadn’t.

In addition to being delicious, they’re also pretty good for you! One cup of raw cherry tomatoes, for example, contains 32% of your daily recommended value of Vit. C, 25% of your daily Vit. A, and 15% of your daily Vit. K.

Next to their nutritional value, the humble tomato comes in a dizzying array of shapes, sizes and flavors, and can be used for everything from pasta sauce, ketchup, BBQ sauce, marmalade, fried green tomatoes, and more!

To celebrate the tomato, I’ve collected my favorite 13 fresh-from-the-garden tomato recipes.

red tomatoes on a plant

How to Grow Tomatoes

Tomatoes can be fairly easy to grow with a few tips and tricks and things to remember.

Start at the beginning – with seeds

To begin, there are two types of tomatoes: determinant and indeterminate.

Determinant tomato varietals are those that grow to a fixed height and then all the fruit ripens roughly the same time. These are perfect for containers or those growers looking to harvest a lot at one time for canning, for example.

Indeterminate tomato plants are more like a vine, and continue growing in height throughout the entire growing season. Because the plant is putting energy into growing, as well as producing fruit, the fruit ripens throughout the growing season until frost kills the plant.

These are best for homesteaders with a CSA, or are looking for longer production throughout the season.

Next, you’ll want to determine if you want to save the seeds for next year or not. If so, buy heirloom organic seeds. If not? Any type of seed will do.

Check out my post on how to grow seeds indoors for more tips and tricks on starting seeds.

tomatoes

What Varietals of Tomatoes to Grow

In addition to deciding whether you want determinants or indeterminants (or a combination of both), to save the seeds or not, you’ll then have to decide on what you want to do with the tomatoes?

Do you want to eat them fresh? Make paste? Make spaghetti sauce? Make salsa?

Your purpose will determine what types of tomatoes you’ll buy. Fresh? I recommend cherry tomatoes for salads and purple Cherokee for large slices for caprese or sandwiches.

If you’d like an easy way to preserve your tomatoes year-round without having to can them, I love this method by the Elliot Homestead:

Paste? Romas, Polish paste, Amish paste are all great varietals. I usually buy varietals that I know do well in Virginia, or do well in Europe at our latitude – ie. Germany, generally.

I like making salsa out of romas (so that it doesn’t release too much liquid) but spaghetti sauce, marinara, ketchup, BBQ sauce, etc. can all really be made with whatever you have available.

Feeding and Caring For Your Tomatoes

Like most fruit-bearing plants, tomatoes need a lot of nutrients. When you transplant your tomato plants into the garden or into a container, place a handful of good quality compost in the bottom before you place the plant in.

Then mulch all around the tomato plant with quality compost as well. The rain will work the compost into the soil and make it available to your plants’ roots as they grow.

I also recommend mulching around your tomatoes with wood chips. If tomatoes have uneven waterings, the fruit will split at the top. The wood chips will absorb and release the water as needed, preventing any flooding or drought.

Pests and Diseases

The biggest pest problems we have with tomatoes is the tomato hornworm (ugh) and aphids.

tomato hornworm

The tomato hornworms are easily recognizable, but can do an incredible amount of damage in very little time. If you check on your tomatoes one day and the branches of the plant are stripped of all leaves, you’ve got a hornworm.

Check your plants daily. There’s a saying that the best fertilizer is a farmer’s footsteps. By checking your garden daily you can get ahead of any major issues.

Also check your plants for aphids. Aphids are tiny, leggy little insects that, in large numbers, can kill a plant. I have a whole post on how to identify aphids and kill them naturally.

The most common diseases for tomatoes are blossom end rot (just how it sounds), blight (early or late) and downy mildew – at least in Virginia.

Blossom end rot, in any vegetable, is caused by a calcium deficiency in the soil. To prevent this, a lot of people put a Tums tab in the hole before planting. You can also add bone meal or oyster shell to the soil.

Both early and late blight and downy mildew are caused by a fungus. To prevent these, make sure to water the plants from below and space them out at least 24 inches from other plants. It’s the wet, warm environment in which fungus grows that we’re trying to avoid.

For this reason, you should also pinch off any suckers. Suckers are the branches that begin in the crux or where a side branch meets the main stalk. These suckers will never produce good fruit and will block good airflow.

To treat both blights and downy mildew organically, mix together a 1:1 mix of milk and water. No one is really sure why this works, but it’s as effective as chemical fungicides.

For a complete list of diseases and pests (and their treatment) check out this pub by the Piedmont Master Gardeners.

green tomatoes

Supporting Tomatoes

Even determinant tomatoes will grow several feet tall and need to be supported upright to allow for air flow.

There are several methods to supporting tomatoes: tomato cages are the most common, as well as staking tomato plants (one stick next to the main stalk where the plants are tied to the stake).

You can also run them up a string (like in a green house) or weave two strings around several plants like the video below:

Below I’ve gathered a quick and dirty guide to tomato-growing success. Paired down to the simple necessities, this quick guide should give you an easy reference sheet for all things “tomato”.

For a beautiful monograph of tomatoes and other vegetables you can print as you organize your garden, check out my online store.

Soil pH

6.2-6.8

Sunlight

6-8 hours

Water

1 in per week

Planting Time

Start seeds 6-8 weeks before last day of frost. Transplant after chance of last frost.

Compatible With

Chives, Marigolds, Basil, Carrots, Peppers, Sage, Onions, Garlic, Leaf lettuce

Avoid Planting With

Black walnuts, potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, corn, dill

Spacing

3 ft

Maintenance

Need tomato cage or support for stalk.

Harvesting Fruit

Harvest tomatoes when they first begin to turn yellow or orange and allow to ripen on your counter to prevent any type of rot or the birds getting to them first.

Saving The Seeds

To save the seeds from your tomatoes to plant in your garden next year, scoop out seeds from a healthy, vine-ripened tomato. Place in a glass jar and allow to ferment for at least three days. Rinse the seeds and allow to dry fully. For more detailed instruction, see my Saving Tomato Seeds post.

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Marie Beausoleil

Saturday 11th of June 2016

Great tip about harvesting them early. Every time we've tried to leave them until they're ripe, they get gobbled up before we can pick them. :)

Thank you so much for sharing with us at #SustainableSundays and I look forward to seeing what you share with us this week.

Anni

Wednesday 8th of June 2016

My grandma always said that tomatoes don't need the scalding sun to ripen they just need the heat. I, too, have always picked them before they are really red because our Kansas sun is scorching in the summer!

Anni

Katy from SkipTheBag Blog

Monday 6th of June 2016

I wouldn't have thought to pick them before they are fully red and let them ripen on the counter! It's what they do in the grocery stores! I may have to try that out, unfortunately mine are still green right now. #sustainablesunday.

Lauren Dibble

Monday 6th of June 2016

I HAVE to pick them before ripe or else the birds get to them first! Plus there's something so fulfilling about seeing tomatoes ripening on the window sill. Where are you located? I've just put out my seedlings this week!

Susie at Oui Crochet

Monday 6th of June 2016

Great info! I planted a ton of tomatoes this year. :) Visiting from #SustainableSundays

CookieD-oh

Sunday 5th of June 2016

Well this explains why my tomatoes didn't do so well last year. I planted them right next to the cabbage and the cauliflower. :-P Think I'm going to have to browse around your blog for some more tips! #sustainablesundays