16 things i know about growing tomatoes

tomato tips collageFROM THE FIRST SEED SOWN to the last fruit stashed in the freezer, homegrown tomatoes are a labor of love. Whether it’s tomato-sowing time (as it is April 15ish in my Northeastern Zone 5B), or maybe already transplanting time in yours, it’s a good moment to review what goes into tomato-growing success.

Don’t worry: There won’t be a quiz at the end, where instead you can also share any tomato wisdoms of your own for our collective benefit.

my 16 bits of tomato wisdom

1. Start with a homegrown seedling (grow it like this) or a locally raised one—not a big-box-store seedling that may have been shipped in from warmer zones, where more tomato diseases are endemic and overwinter. (That logic isn’t tomato-specific; I buy local seedlings or grow my own everything—especially that basil I hope to have at tomato-harvest time. Plants from far away can be vectors for disease.)

2. Getting great flavor out of a tomato is part nature, part nurture—meaning the genetics of the seed you start with, and the way you grow it both factor into what is probably a 60-40 equation. Choosing a Florida-bred variety for your New Hampshire garden will never let you hit the sweet(est) spot. Here’s why, and how to push for a perfect flavor score.

3. Growing a mix of both hybrids and open-pollinated types (including older heirlooms and newer non-hybrid varieties) may offer you the best overall insurance policy against failure. Whichever varieties you choose, read up on them first, and select not just by a pretty photo or extravagant flavor claims, but also for traits like regional adaptation, disease resistance, and days to harvest (so it’s a realistic match for your season’s length).

4. Open-pollinated tomatoes are not mass-produced, uniform widgets (nor is any other OP plant). A ‘Brandywine’ is not a ‘Brandywine’ is not a ‘Brandywine.’  With non-hybrid varieties like it, there can be great swings from seed-seller to seed-seller, based on where and how they raised the seed for generations, and what they had in mind as they selected each crop.

5. With open-pollinated tomatoes, it’s possible to save seed and get a next generation that reliably resembles the parent plant. However, careful selection—sort of a “survival of the fittest” regimen, but enforced by the gardener’s hand—is key to good seeds next time around. Therefore, seed saving begins at seed-starting time, I learned from a seed-farming friend. Sow only the biggest seeds in the packet, discarding the runts (and then discarding slow-to-germinate or weak seedlings), continuing your selection process ruthlessly at each life stage, right through to harvest.

6. Feeling daring? You can also save seed from a hybrid tomato, and try “dehybridizing” it, by selecting among its offspring next year and beyond for traits you like. Breeder-author Joseph Tychonievich talks about dehybridizing and about smart selection with OPs, too, in this story. When it’s time for harvest: how to ferment and clean harvested tomato seed.

7. With all the diseases and mechanical issues a tomato can experience, it’s a wonder we ever get a harvest—but blessedly we do, and we can even improve our odds. Most gardeners and farmers are fighting the presence of some kind of soil-borne tomato pathogen, such as the septoria and early blight that reside in Northeast, mid-Atlantic and upper Midwest soils. That means rotating tomatoes from one spot to another doesn’t cut it; we need to manage around disease presence. Start by choosing resistant varieties, and then following good tomato-hygiene, including:

8. Growing tomatoes on black plastic increases soil heat that tomatoes love; provides weed suppression, and helps with soil-splash control–keeping some of those soil-borne spores from getting up onto the plant by creating a barrier. Stripping the lower leaves from the plants to eliminate the “ladder” for spores splashing up may help as well. (Want to grow them up out of the ground, in straw bales? Here’s how, from NC Tomato Man Craig LeHoullier, who also wrote a book on straw-bale gardening.)

9. If you are worried about late blight specifically, the hygiene regimen also includes discarding any potato tubers missed at fall harvest, and these other steps. (Or: Read how a plant pathologist from Cornell grows her own backyard tomatoes with disease prevention in mind.)

10. Whether you stake or cage or trellis indeterminate varieties, think also about good air circulation to limit diseases. Never grow tomatoes trained together onto teepees or tripods; any tangle of tomatoes too closely spaced like that means a humid environment that invites more tomato troubles.

11. Be realistic: If you’re not going to prune all season, don’t stake plants; use a cage.  Staking requires that each indeterminate plant be kept to one or two main stems of vine-like, not bush, habit. All small suckers that develop in the crotches between the leaves and the main stem must be removed, too, on staked plants.

12. Yes, tomatoes are “heavy feeders,” but a good soil that’s high in organic matter (compost, compost, compost) is your best ally. Don’t overfeed, especially with nitrogen-rich fertilizers; it can invite trouble.

13. Sometimes, despite all the loving care, tomatoes fail to set fruit. Assuming you did not feed too much nitrogen, it may be weather-related. Nighttime temperatures that remain above 70 or temperatures below 50ish interfere with pollination. Fruit set can also be hampered by over-feeding nitrogen, or by irregular watering. Hot, dry conditions at blossom time prevents proper pollination and can causes buds or tiny fruit to drop. If it’s early enough, a next round of flowers may appear during favorable weather.

14. Nobody agrees on what the “best” tomatoes are. My friend Gayla Trail likes the dwarf types, as does Dwarf Tomato Project co-founder Craig LeHoullier (his picks are here). My farmer neighbor Max Morningstar and I agree life without ‘Juliet’ wouldn’t be as good. ‘Principe Borghese’ is often named as the go-to if you plan on making dried tomatoes (but not “the best” otherwise). The list goes on.

15. Nobody agrees on how best to ripen tomato fruit, either, if the weather turns on you late in the season. On the windowsill, or in the darkness of a paper bag, or…?

16. Don’t forget: Plant enough of at least one paste type for last-minute freezing of whole fruits. Forget canned tomatoes going forward; just pop some of those out of a freezer bag into that soup or stew or chili recipe instead. Or go one step farther, and herb and oil and pre-roast “extras” of your favorite tomatoes of any kind, then slide into freezer bags for the best “sauce” or ingredient ever. My other must-have to freeze: my easy, skins-on tomato sauce.

more tomato advice, in greater detail

    1. Kathleen Askins says:

      For the past few years, we’ve been putting black landscape fabric at the base of our tomatoes….it lets moisture through, but weeds can’t come up. We don’t put it throughout the garden, just around tomatoes. But I’ve been reading lately that this might be bad for the soil. Your thoughts?

      1. margaret says:

        I have some thick black plastic sheeting that I use (and roll back up and re-use the next year) to heat the soil and prevent weeds. The thing I hate about “landscape fabric” (if you mean the spun polyester fabric — almost like a thin felt) is that it can sort of grow into the roots of plants and be a big mess.

  1. Jack P says:

    Another great post. I’ve always found that tomatoes were difficult to grow, despite having grown typically ‘harder’ vegetables with very few problems. My soil is naturally good so I don’t think it’s a problem, but tomatoes does require quite a bit of attention, which I probably haven’t given them. I’ll make sure to try out some of these tips!

    Thanks again!

  2. Vickie says:

    I just read the best article yesterday about preserving tomatoes. This person no longer cans them, she roasts them — skin on– in a slow oven with some olive oil, some with garlic and thyme or other herbs. Then once they are cooled, she just slips them into freezer bags, gets out the air and stores them flat. She says they are the best for salads, stews and sauces of all sorts. Her favorite thing is to just saute some garlic and pop in a few olives and some of those roasted tomatoes and fresh basil for the best Pasta Putanesca sauce she has ever tasted. I’m gonna try this since I run out of freezer space with so many tomatoes in bags. They get bulky even if you cut them up.

    1. Vickie says:

      Oh good grief, somebody stole your idea. LOL It matters not, I’m roasting my tomatoes from now on, just like you say in your article too.

  3. Nancy Mitchell says:

    I agree with you Margaret, Juliet is one of the BEST tomatoes ever! I also have to have Pineapple and maybe a Mortgage Lifter or two.
    Thanks for a great website – I enjoy my “mental vacation: at work reading your articles

  4. Mary says:

    Further to point #11, tomato plants are either vining (indeterminate) or bush (determinate). Vining plants should be staked and tied and allowed to grow vertically, which is ideal if you have limited ground space. Pinch out the suckers that grow between the main stem and the leaf node. By contrast bush tomato varieties should be caged, and suckers can be allowed to grow as these will also produce fruit. Be sure you know what type of plant you have so you can manage it properly.

  5. Sharon DeSiato says:

    Once heard a great idea from a gardening radio show — Train indeterminate plants up to a “table”, made with heavy wire (with large enough holes to reach through for picking). Let them sprawl along the table. Keeps them high and dry with plenty of air circulation and sun exposure. You can mulch the ground heavily underneath once the soil is nice and warm to pretty much eliminate weeds. Works great. Love your site, Margaret.

  6. Marge Pinchbeck says:

    Margaret, I love the Juliet tomato also, especially for making tomato sauce. No need to peel, just use the whole tomato. I started using them based on your suggestion.
    I also had a hybrid medium size tomato last summer, but did not know the name. I used your
    suggestion to ferment and clean harvested seed and now I have little seedlings to watch.
    It was nice to see you last Saturday at the Master Gardeners of Ulster County’s event.

  7. JJ says:

    I love all the tomato info you have here! Growing tomatoes got me into growing a variety of other plants I would have been afraid to try.

    I’m curious about the landscaping fabric/plastic. I get the general idea but I want to make sure the plants get enough water. Can you put a soaker hose underneath? On top? Poke holes? Is it ok to use again? Does it need to be washed? Any info you could give on this topic would be great. Or point me in the direction of a good source of this information. Thanks!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, JJ. I confess I just water in the holes cut into the plastic to insert the plants, and it seems fine. The plastic holds moisture beneath, too. I use heavy plastic so I can re-use it, yes. I don’t scrub it but I am in the North where I am I have fewer diseases that can overwinter on such materials.

    2. sylvia says:

      just jumping in to say I use the plastic in the spring as summer progresses the plastic can get too hot so I mulch the plastic . And I have a soaker hose underneath to water when I am not adding a liquid fertilizer by hand to each plant.

    3. There is weed-blocking plastic with tiny holes to allow the water through, but keep the sunshine (to block weed growth). Also, I have seen gardeners put the soaker hoses underneath the plastic.

  8. Cene says:

    Oh my goodness… This is stressing me out… I just plant them, fertilize them, pick off those alien looking horned green worms every now & then – then..,, drum roll …. EAT THEM TIL THEYRE GONE… I eat em til my mouth has sores…

  9. LK says:

    Margaret, I have a very strange tomato thing happening. I bought an organic tomato at our local co op and sat it in a fairly bright spot. The last few weeks have been hectic and I forgot about it. Yesterday I realized it hadn’t rotted and when I looked closer I saw three tiny tomato seedlings growing from it through the skin. The skin isn’t damaged at all. You can see what looks like a few more just under the skin. The seedlings actually look healthy. I’ve been growing tomatoes for over 25 years and I’ve never seen anything like this. This is either Santa Claus playing a very strange trick or aliens have invaded my tomato:)
    Any ideas?

  10. Linda says:

    Heirloom tomatoes are so great to grow! I grew Big Rainbow tomatoes one year. The tomatoes were so huge they needed supporting. Trouble was we had more tomatoes than we or my friends could eat. So I reason that as tomatoes are really fruit, I’ll make jam with them! I made peach and tomato jam, apricot and tomato jam, I even made date and tomato jam! They all tasted fantastic! I want to grow more tomatoes just so I can make more jam!

  11. KC says:

    The very best tomato tip I’ve learned over the years, which is most applicable for growing tomatoes out in the open in our PNW climate with dry summers and incredibly rainy autumns, is to pull up the entire plant by the roots at the first sign of rain in September and hang them upside down in a cool dry place. The tomatos continue to slowly ripen over a long period of time. Last year I couldn’t do this because I moved in September, and when I visited my plants a couple weeks later they had been destroyed by Late Blight.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks for the tip, KC, and even here in the Northeast I know people who do that when we are threatened with early frost, and then have lots of fruit still on the plants.

  12. Vickie says:

    I have started my tomatoes from seeds the past few years, but didn’t know about using locally grown seeds. It makes sense. Too late for me since I have already sown my seeds (I am in Central California) but next year I will do that. I don’t have the best success with tomatoes, and I am going to read through all your articles. Thank you!

  13. Donald says:

    Oops – already started out in the wrong direction. I’m growing seeds that are F1 and not local. They are two of the new AAS winners for 2018, so maybe I’ll have some luck. They are doing great so far. Next year I’m starting out right! As always, Thanks for the knowledge!

  14. Doll says:

    One point seems to show up on everyone’s advice, protecting the plants from the very soil they grow in. I seem to get a chuckle out of that every time. Cut the bottom leaves, cover with plastic the area surrounding the plant, and last but not least avoid any splashing. Soil bourne pathogens, get splashed up when it rains, they are living so they move wherever they choose to go. They even get help from the wind and dew in the mornings. I think the most important part for any gardener is once the growing season ends feed your beds.

  15. Adrienne says:

    Last year, I had some cherry tomato plants that volunteered in some compost and I had some willow branches that I couldn’t bear to throw away, so I stuck the willow branches in the ground in a ring (a piece of rebar helps to get it going…) and gathered them together at the top to form a 4-5’ tall hut. The cherry plants twined themselves in and around the hut, leaving the cherries on the outside for easy picking!

  16. Ann says:

    I’ve always planted my seedlings in a mound and pretty deep up to the first stem so that it’s like a volcano shape. It eventually flattens out by the end of the season. I’m not sure where/when I learned this!

  17. Ellen Kirby says:

    Lesson learned. Last year at our food bank garden we planted about 100 Celebrity tomtoes. They produced beautifully however, after the first round of ripe tomatoes, they stopped ripening. We had a continuous production of green tomatoes from July through September. After considerable research, we figured it was high temperatures. Later we learned our mistake was to prune heavily as we did with our indeterminate varieties.

    Celebrity is described as “between indeterminate and determinate varieties”. Without enough foliage, the fruit will not ripen. Just a tip. Do not prune (except for lower branches that touch the soil) the determinate varieties.

  18. Jay Lundenburg says:

    I am a die hard master gardener. At 75 I fight thru back pain and arthritis to garden every year. My gardens are large but the variety of produce is worth it. Kudos to you and your responders for helping me over the years. There is always a tid bit more to learn. I am just not ready to be composted yet.

  19. Richard says:

    Hello, I really enjoyed reading your article about growing tomatoes, I found it very helpful. Thank you, Richard

  20. Leilani says:

    Have you heard about the gardener (in Nigeria, I think) who covers his picked tomatoes in ashes? He states they last most of the winter that way. I might try that this year, if I get enough tomatoes and they are not all eaten directly from the vine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.