How to Grow Tomatoes
The tomato is the edible, often red fruit/berry of the nightshade Solanum lycopersicum, commonly known as a tomato plant. The species originated in the South American Andes and its use as a food originated in Mexico, and spread throughout the world following the Spanish colonization of the Americas. Its many varieties are now widely grown, sometimes in greenhouses in cooler climates.
The tomato is consumed in diverse ways, including raw, as an ingredient in many dishes, sauces, salads, and drinks. While it is botanically a fruit, it is considered a vegetable for culinary purposes (as well as under U.S. customs regulations, see Nix v. Hedden), which has caused some confusion. The fruit is rich in lycopene, which may have beneficial health effects.
The tomato belongs to the nightshade family, Solanaceae. The plants typically grow to 1–3 meters (3–10 ft) in height and have a weak stem that often sprawls over the ground and vines over other plants. It is a perennial in its native habitat, although often grown outdoors in temperate climates as an annual. An average common tomato weighs approximately 100 grams (4 oz).
Botanical name: Lycopersicon esculentum
Plant type: Vegetable
USDA Hardiness Zones: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
Sun exposure: Full Sun
Soil type: Loamy
Soil pH: Acidic
Tomatoes are America’s favorite garden vegetable. (Yes, we technically eat the fruit of the tomato plant, but it’s used as a vegetable in eating and cooking and, thus, usually categorized in vegetables.)
This vine plant is fairly easy to grow and will produce a bumper crop with proper care. Its uses are versatile, however, tomatoes are susceptible to a range of pests and diseases.
If you’re planting seeds (versus purchasing transplants), you’ll want to start your seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the average last spring frost date. See our post on “Tomatoes From Seed the Easy Way.”
Select a site with full sun and well-drained soil. For northern regions, is is VERY important that your site receives at least 6 hours of sun. For souther regions, light afternoon shade will help tomatoes survive and thrive.
Two weeks before transplanting seedlings outdoors, till soil to about 1 foot and mix in aged manure, compost, or fertilizer.
Harden off transplants for a week before moving outdoors.
Transplant after last spring frost when the soil is warm. See our Best Planting Dates for Transplants for your region.
Establish stakes or cages in the soil at the time of planting. Staking keeps developing fruit off the ground, while caging let’s the plant hold itself upright. Some sort of support system is recommended, but sprawling can also produce fine crops if you have the space, and if the weather cooperates.
Plant seedlings two feet apart.
Pinch off a few of the lower branches on transplants, and plant the root ball deep enough so that the remaining lowest leaves are just above the surface of the soil.
Water well to reduce shock to the roots.
Water generously for the first few days.
Water well throughout growing season, about 2 inches per week during the summer. Keep watering consistent!
Mulch five weeks after transplanting to retain moisture.
To help tomatoes through periods of drought, find some flat rocks and place one next to each plant. The rocks pull up water from under the ground and keep it from evaporating into the atmosphere.
Fertilize two weeks prior to first picking and again two weeks after first picking.
If using stakes, prune plants by pinching off suckers so that only a couple stems are growing per stake.
Practice crop rotation from year to year to prevent diseases that may have over wintered.
Tomatoes are susceptible to insect pests, especially tomato hornworms and whiteflies. Link to our pest & problem pages below.
Late Blight is a fungal disease that can strike during any part of the growing season. It will cause grey, moldy spots on leaves and fruit which later turn brown. The disease is spread and supported by persistent damp weather. This disease will overwinter, so all infected plants should be destroyed. See our blog on “Avoid Blight With the Right Tomato.”
Tobacco Mosaic Virus creates distorted leaves and causes young growth to be narrow and twisted, and the leaves become mottled with yellow. Unfortunately, infected plants should be destroyed (but don’t put them in your compost pile).
Cracking: When fruit growth is too rapid, the skin will crack. This usually occurs in uneven water or uneven moisture due to weather conditions (very rainy periods mixed with dry periods). Keep moisture levels constant with consistent watering and mulching.
Leave your tomatoes on the vine as long as possible. If any fall off before they appear ripe, place them in a paper bag with the stem up and store them in a cool, dark place.
Never place tomatoes on a sunny windowsill to ripen; they may rot before they are ripe!
The perfect tomato for picking will be firm and very red in color, regardless of size, with perhaps some yellow remaining around the stem. A ripe tomato will be only slightly soft.
If your tomato plant still has fruit when the first hard frost threatens, pull up the entire plant and hang it upside down in the basement or garage. Pick tomatoes as they redden.
Never refrigerate fresh tomatoes. Doing so spoils the flavor and texture that make up that garden tomato taste.
To freeze, core fresh unblemished tomatoes and place them whole in freezer bags or containers. Seal, label, and freeze. The skins will slip off when they defrost.
‘Amish Paste’: Large paste tomatoes, good slicers.
‘Brandywine’: A beefsteak with perfect acid-sweet combination. Many variants are available.
‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’: Foolproof in any climate, cherries bear abundant fruit in high or low temps and in rain or drought.
For more about tomato varieties, see our post on “Tomato Trials: from blue to grafted; what grew this summer.”
Broiled Parmesan Tomatoes
Deb’s Fresh Tomato Sauce
Fried Green Tomatoes
Blue Corn Chips with Goat Cheese, Corn, and Tomato Salsa
Pasta with Tuna, Tomatoes, and Olives
Capture the garden-fresh taste of tomatoes all year long! See this helpful post on how to can tomatoes.
Wit & Wisdom
In 1522, Spanish explorers returned home from the New World with tomatoes. Wealthy people believed that the fruits were poisonous. Only the peasants were brave (and hungry) enough to eat them.
Ease a headache by drinking tomato juice blended with fresh basil.