Most gardeners would agree that tomatoes are one of the most rewarding foods to grow. The texture, fragrance, and flavor of a homegrown tomato completely outshines that of store-bought alternatives, especially since many of the best varieties aren’t even sold in stores. Here’s how you can experience this for yourself…
Although an easy vegetable to grow, tomatoes have a few specific requirements when it comes to growing conditions. Meet these, and you’ll be enjoying an abundant harvest in just a few months.
Being a sub-tropical plant, tomatoes love the heat. They need both warm air and warm soil.
Ideal temperatures for tomato plants are between 15°C and 30°C during the day, with a drop to no colder than 12°C at night. Consistent temperatures are a must in order for tomato plants to properly set fruit.
If temperatures get higher than 30°C at night, fruits won’t color properly. Anything hotter than 35°C will cause tomato plants to completely stop growing.
Too much heat may be a problem for some, but many gardeners have the opposite problem – they live in an area that’s too cold for growing tomatoes outside. In these cases, a greenhouse or a polytunnel is the best way to grow tomatoes at home.
There are three main types of tomato plants:
Indeterminate/Cordon – these have a long main stem that needs to be staked, and will also require regular pruning.
Determinate/Bush – rather than growing tall and straight, determinate varieties are bush-like. This makes them well-suited to hanging baskets.
Dwarf – small and compact, dwarf varieties are great for growing in containers.
Think about how much space you have and then grow the type that best suits the conditions you can offer.
Whether you’re growing your tomatoes in containers or in the ground, tomatoes do best in rich and fertile soil.
A good quality compost mixed with well-rotted animal manure is perfect. If growing outdoors, this can be mixed into the top 8 inches of soil in your growing area.
While tomatoes will tolerate poorer soils, the higher in quality your soil is, the bigger and more productive your tomato plants will be.
While it’s pretty easy to purchase young tomato plants that can be planted out straight away, growing them from seed has its advantages.
Not only does this give you access to so many more varieties, but it’s also much cheaper than buying in plants.
When to Sow Tomato Seeds
Ideally, you should be planting your tomatoes out about two weeks after your last frost date (you can find these dates online). They’ll take about 4-6 weeks to reach this stage, so aim to sow your tomato seeds about a month before your last frost date.
A seed starting mix or a potting mix. Don’t be tempted to use garden soil – this compacts easily and isn’t sterile, which exposes your seedings to harmful pathogens that will doom them before they even get started
How to Sow Tomato Seeds
Start by preparing your seed trays, filling them with your seed starting mix. Leave just under an inch of space at the top. Don’t pack the soil in – you want it to stay light and fluffy so that your seedlings can easily produce long roots.
Place your seeds over the top of each cell. Two seeds per cell is ideal – this allows you to pick the healthiest seedling in each, while also giving you a bit of insurance in case some seeds don’t germinate.
Add another quarter inch of your seed starting mix over the top of your seeds and then gently pat it down.
Use a spray bottle to water your seed trays. Try to keep the soil consistently moist, but don’t allow it get soggy.
Place your seed trays in a warm and bright room in your house, or in a cold frame or greenhouse if temperatures are warm enough.
After about a week, you’ll notice sprouts appearing in your seed trays.
At this point, make sure that your seedlings are receiving plenty of light. A sunny windowsill works well, but you’ll need to regularly rotate your trays as the seedlings will lean towards the light as they grow.
Once your seedlings have two sets of true leaves, remove the weakest one from each cell.
You may also need to transplant your seedlings into larger pots at this stage to make sure that the roots have enough room to properly grow.
Remove any leaves from the bottom half of your seedling so that you can plant it deeper in its new pot. Roots will grow from any part of the stem that touches the soil, so this will give you a much stronger root system.
How to Plant Tomatoes Outside
Before planting your tomatoes outside, you will need to harden them off. This basically means helping them to adjust to the temperatures in their new environment.
How to Harden Off Tomato Plants
Start doing this about a week before you intend on planting them out. Move your seed trays outdoors for a couple of hours on the first day before bringing them back in.
Gradually increase the amount of time they spend outside, but make sure that you keep them protected from the wind.
Dig a hole that’s just slightly larger than the size of the pot your seedling is currently in.
Make sure that your seedlings are well watered before gently sliding one out of its pot. Keep the root ball intact if possible.
Plant your tomatoes deeply, just like you did when repotting them, before backfilling the hole.
Staking them at this stage is a good idea too. If you wait too long, you risk damaging the roots while you’re staking. Bamboo canes and string work well, or you could also use a wire cage.
Water well after planting, ensuring that you keep your plants well watered as they grow.
How to Plant Tomatoes in a Greenhouse
When planting tomatoes in a greenhouse, use pots that are as large as you have space for. Aim for containers that are at least 20 inches in diameter and 24 inches deep.
Half-fill each container before placing your plants in and backfilling. Just like when planting outside, don’t be afraid to remove lower leaves and plant them deeply.
Water well after planting.
How to Care for Tomatoes
Once your tomatoes have been planted out into their final location, you’ll need to take good care of them to ensure a good harvest.
Your tomato plants will need about a couple of inches of water a week. Don’t let them ever dry out, but make sure that the roots aren’t constantly sat in soggy soil either.
Daily watering is usually sufficient for tomatoes. If you live in an especially hot climate, then you may need to water them twice a day.
Try to do this in the morning – this gives the water enough time to evaporate during the day, which prevents diseases from developing.
Once you’ve planted out your tomato plants, you’ll need to start feeding them every couple of weeks. Use a balanced, slow-release fertilizer, or one that has been formulated specifically for tomato plants.
Keep fertilizing your tomatoes until you have finished harvesting them.
While determinate tomato varieties don’t need to be pruned, indeterminate ones do.
As your indeterminate tomato plant grows, it will produce side shoots. Also known as suckers, these grow from the base of leaf stems.
As soon as your tomato plant has six sets of true leaves, you will need to start removing any suckers you see. If not, you’ll end up with a tomato jungle featuring plenty of foliage but very few fruits.
Simply use your fingers to snap off each sucker at its base. If you happen to miss one and it grows too big to snap, snip them off with some shears.
How to Harvest Tomatoes
It’s easy to tell when your tomatoes are ready to be harvested. Their color will turn from green to a vibrant red or yellow (or other shades, depending on the variety you’re growing), and the fruits will feel plump, juicy, and slightly soft.
A gentle tug on the stem should release the tomato easily.
How to Store Tomatoes
Keep your tomatoes cool, but don’t put them in the fridge. A cellar or a cold pantry are great places to store them, so long as they aren’t exposed to the sun either.
Try to store them upside down, so that the top part of the tomato that was attached to the stem is what sits on a surface. This part is much stronger than the more delicate bottom, which helps the fruits to last for longer.
How to Prepare and Cook Tomatoes
Nothing quite beats the taste and scent of a freshly picked tomato, so before thinking up of ways to prepare and cook your harvest, make sure that you’ve sampled a few straight away first!
Tomatoes don’t need much preparation. Simply pick off any green stem at the top and they’re ready to use.
Fresh tomatoes are delicious eaten raw, but they can also be cooked in so many tasty ways:
Tomato sauces and ketchups
Tomato chutneys and jams
Common Tomato Problems
Are your tomato plants not looking quite right?
Here are some common tomato problems you may experience:
Dark spots on fruits, leaves, or stems are signs of bacterial diseases, such as canker and blight. Copper fungicides work well for some bacterial diseases, but severely infected plants should be removed to prevent infecting others nearby. Ensuring that your tomatoes have plenty of space and ventilation, and are also being watered and fed adequately, will help to prevent these diseases from forming.
A white powdery coating on leaves is a sign of a bacterial disease called powdery mildew. A mixture of potassium bicarbonate and water sprayed onto your plants weekly will help to eliminate powdery mildew.
Yellowing leaves that look wilted mean that you’re either under-watering or over-watering your plants. Adjust your watering regime and make sure you keep this consistent – tomatoes don’t do well with irregular watering.
Stunted growth and very few fruits are usually because a tomato plant is lacking in nutrients or light. Increase light by removing any surrounding plants that are casting shadows on your tomatoes, and increase the frequency at which you’re fertilizing.
Pests are another issue – everything from aphids to flea beetles to slugs can damage your tomato plants. Regularly check your plants for signs of an infestation – there are many pesticides out there, both organic and chemical, that can help your tomato plants.
Popular Tomato Varieties to Grow
When it comes to the best tomato varieties, every gardener will have their own favorites. However, there are some that truly shine, outperforming the others in terms of both flavor and yield.
The Best Cherry Tomato Varieties
Small, deliciously sweet, and incredibly juicy – cherry tomatoes are a must in your garden.
These are the best varieties to grow:
The Best Plum Tomato Varieties
Although they don’t taste very special when eaten off the vine, the flavor of plum tomatoes intensifies during the cooking process, making these the tomatoes of choice for sauces and canning.
These are the best plum tomato varieties to grow:
The Best Beefsteak Tomato Varieties
Being impressively large in size, with a firmer texture than other tomato types, beefsteak tomatoes are perfect for sandwiches and salads.
These are the best beefsteak varieties to grow:
The Best Standard Tomato Varieties
Looking for some medium-sized, all-purpose tomatoes, just like what you would buy in the shops?
These are the best standard varieties to grow:
While tomato plants do require a certain amount of care and attention, the harvests that they provide make them well worth the effort. So long as you are able to meet all of their growing requirements and ensure that your plants are well-fed and well-watered, you’ll be well on your way to enjoying your own delicious crop of fresh tomatoes in just a few months!
Alina Jumabhoy has spent several years learning about, and experimenting with, different organic growing techniques at various gardens and farms around the country. Fuelled by her quest for self-sufficiency, she’s now putting that information to good use on her own rural farm.