Tomatoes are a staple in many people's diets. They're delicious, healthy and they can be grown at home with very little work! In this blog post, we'll discuss how to:
- Grow tomatoes from seedlings
- Water the tomato plants properly for a lush harvest of juicy tomatoes throughout the summer months
- Care for them so that you don't get any pests or diseases that kill your plants before it even gets started on its journey to becoming ripe fruit
- And finally—how to actually eat them!
And remember: not all tomatoes are created equal--so make sure you know what you're planting before you invest in your next garden!
What are the Benefits of Growing Tomatoes?
First and foremost, it's really satisfying to learn how to grow tomatoes. They take up very little space, they don't need a lot of maintenance- and even if something does go wrong (like a drought) you can usually salvage them with some supplemental watering.
There are also some health benefits to tomatoes that you might not know about. Tomatoes contain many vitamins and antioxidants, including lycopene, which can help prevent prostate cancer. Eating a tomato may even lower your risk of developing diabetes! And it's true—they're delicious too! Who doesn't love a fresh-from-the-garden tomato?
What Do You Need To Grow Them?
To plant and grow a successful crop of heirloom or beefsteak tomatoes, all you need is soil in the ground, sunshine and water- and the tomato plants will take care of themselves! But there are some things you should know before investing in growing tomatoes: while most varieties will do fine with less attention than others, some of the most prolific tomato producers take some time to prune and train.
Even though tomatoes are not technically a vegetable, they're grown and eaten like one. This means you'll need to get your tomato plants from the grocery store or farmer's market—these aren't plants that you can produce in your backyard (unless it is an incredibly large yard!).
Before you start planting tomatoes you will need to plan. But this is simply gardening—what could you possibly need to plan for growing tomatoes? Let’s start off with choosing the tomato varieties.
Hierloom vs Hybrid
Tomato varieties are either heirloom or hybrid. Hybrid tomatoes are bred for production and disease resistance, so they will need more attention than heirlooms. An heirloom tomato plant may be a better option if you have less time to devote to growing tomatoes in your garden (or simply want to grow them as an ornamental plant).
The term "heirloom" does not have a specific meaning. Most people think of it as organic or natural, but that is not true. It is often used to describe food that has been handed down for generations. This is an appropriate way to use the word for this type of tomato plant right now.
Heirloom tomatoes are types of tomatoes that have been grown for 40 or more years. They are not mixed with other varieties so they will be strong in certain characteristics.
Far from those marvels of modern food science, like the supermarket tomato, these old varieties do not qualify for state-of-the-art warehousing and shipping. Instead of being harvested by machines, they are notoriously slow to ripen and surprisingly delicate.
In contrast, hybrid tomatoes have been engineered to include certain qualities. These qualities are more important for large-scale food production instead of flavor. Hybrids are bred for certain traits, such as pest and disease resistance, firm flesh and thick skin- making them easier to harvest.
Planting a hybrid tomato plant is typically better for those who will be able to take the time in their garden to support the specific needs of these tomatoes.
Indeterminate Tomatoes vs Determinate Tomatoes
When deciding on different varieties of tomatoes, you need to choose between plants that grow in two different ways—one type has a canopy that matures and then abruptly stops growing (determinate) while the other plants continue to mature over time (indeterminate).
Determinate varieties of tomato plants are known for reaching a maximum height within 1–2 months. Determinate varieties typically produce a more compact, bush-type of plant so they can be grown in small pots, making them ideal for "patio gardens" or limited space gardening. They also have less growth and requiring little to no pruning once mature.
Determinate varieties tend to produce all of their fruit at once, making them popular for people who like to can tomatoes or make sauce.
Indeterminate varieties continue to grow and produce tomatoes all throughout the growing season. For this reason they need extra-tall supports. Indeterminate varieties produce a vine-like plant that is typically pruned to encourage additional tomato fruits and to support the weight of the growing tomato plants.
Indeterminate varieties may require more maintenance than determinate varieties, but they are able to grow larger and produce fruit over a longer period of time so you can harvest your crop at your own leisure. They also often have more favorable flavor profiles due to their prolonged maturation process.
When you decide to grow tomatoes, you'll have a wide variety of plants to choose from:
Cherry tomatoes are a smaller, more tender variety. They are the sweetest tomatoes and have a crisp, juicy bite.
Beefsteak tomatoes come in red and green, but both are large and meaty. While the red variety has more of your traditional tomato flavor, green beefsteak tomatoes are more tangy and crunchy.
Grape tomatoes are also small, but more oblong than cherry tomatoes. They're meaty for their size, and can have both sweet or tangy flavors.
Roma tomatoes are great for soups, sandwiches and sauces. They have fewer seeds than other types and are more dense.
Vine tomatoes give you a really garden fresh taste. They're firm, hearty and juicy.
Location. Location. Location.
Tomatoes are big eaters, so they take a lot of the nutrients from the soil. Give them space and give them sun.
Tomatoes' growing season is throughout the warm months, so plant them in the early summer. Tomatoes need at least eight hours of sun, so you can plant them in pots or containers that have full sun. The time that they fruit depends on the variety.
They tend to share diseases if they are too close. Air circulation is key, so make sure your plants have enough space. It is tempting to plant them close together when they are small, but the plants need at least 3–4 feet of space apart in the soil. Commercial farmers even plant in rows that are 4–6 feet apart. The row width often has to do with the spraying and harvesting equipment, but the real benefit of spacing is air flow. We suggest following these guidelines and space the plants 3 feet apart with at least 4 feet between each row for vining (for indeterminate tomatoes) and 18–24 inches with at least 4 feet between them for bush varieties.
If you are not growing in traditional rows, such as in a raised bed, a square foot garden, pots or containers, we recommend a similar pattern. Just because you have the benefit of a raised bed does not mean that air flow should be neglected.
Companions and Antagonists
The location of your tomato plants in the soil is important. They should not be placed near potatoes, peppers, eggplants, beans or strawberries because these plants provide food for pests that can then find their way into your tomatoes! The best place would be where squash family members live—away from other vegetables but still close enough to get some shade during the hottest parts of the day. You also don't want them too far away, either.
Some of us are not so lucky as to have good soil to plant in. We believe that nourishing the soil properly is the key to a healthier food supply. Try using a soil conditioner to restore your soil to healthy and fertile conditions.
Make sure to plant tomatoes deep into the soil so the plants are comfortable during transplanting.
Tomatoes in Containers
For those who do not have a traditional garden, it's too difficult to resist the sweetness of homegrown tomatoes. Fortunately, tomatoes grow well in containers and are perfect for someone without a lot of space.
When planting and growing tomatoes in a container, you will want to choose a vessel or pot that has drainage holes in the bottom and plenty of room for roots to spread out vertically. When using containers, make sure they have enough depth so you don't end up with unsightly soggy soil at the bottom when it rains. A good rule of thumb is twice as deep as your root structure will be long (so if your plant's roots are 24 inches long, then go for 48 inches deep). There should be at least 2 square feet of soil inside the pot. We recommend using a 5 gallon bucket or larger, as it provides plenty of room for the root system and will support the structure of the plant.
You will want to pack your pot or container with a rich and well-draining soil. Use garden compost, worm castings, aged manure (such as straw), peat moss, sand or perlite for this. Work in some bone meal too if you have it on hand—this acts as a natural fertilizer that feeds the tomato's root system while also providing plenty of calcium.
We recommend using cedar mulch around the base of the plant so that rodents don't chew their way into containers and steal tomatoes before they ripen up.
Tomatoes are big feeders. They love nutrients and are hungry plants, so give them a slow release fertilizer. Try using a fish fertilizer that treats heavy feeders at the beginning and watering twice a week. Tomato plants work best when watered underneath the plant, such as driptape, rather than water from above that gets the leaves wet. Continue to add fertilizer every other week or so, depending on growth.
How do I plant them?
- Plant tomatoes in a location with plenty of sun.
- Space plants 12 inches apart with 18 to 24 inch tall stakes nearby.
- Fill in between the rows with compost for more nutrients and water according to package directions when soil becomes dry or as needed.
- Keep leaves free of pests such as whiteflies by shaking off any infested foliage over a bucket filled with soapy water before disposing of it into bug-free areas.
- Add mulch around plant stems at planting time, not just on top because this will help retain moisture while also deterring slugs from eating your vines during wet periods later in the summer season.
Stakes & Cages
What size cage should I use for my tomato plants? Tomato plants grow best when they have help to climb, such as a trellis or cage. Indeterminate tomatoes can get very large—you may not care if they droop—so make sure you buy an appropriately-sized cage for your plant.
Tomato Pests and Prevention Tips
As the plants grow, stake them or cage them to support growth off the ground. Plants that sit on the ground are subject to more pest problems as they continue to grow.
Tomato Pests include Whiteflies and Tomato Horned Worms, and pest-related diseases include Blossom End Rot and Tomato Blight. An organic insecticide can address pest and disease issues like these while keeping your plants all-natural.
Eating and Harvesting Tips
Whether you buy your tomatoes at the grocery store or have a homegrown tomato plant in your yard, don’t put them in the fridge. The cold temperature will decrease their flavor, whether they grow with heirloom roots or hybrid vines.
Tomato growing rewards you with the satisfaction of seeing the fruit of your labor and getting to eat it, too! Gardening is cheaper than therapy...and you get tomatoes.
About the Author
This blog was written by Izy Dobbins, Southland Organics' Marketing Manager. Izy has devoted her education and career to communicating science-related topics. With an enthusiasm for sharing accurate and honest content relating to science and agriculture, she ensures Southland Organics' publications are as informative as they are interesting. Izy graduated from the University of Georgia with a bachelor's degree in advertising, minors in both Spanish and environmental health science and a Certificate in Sustainability. She has been working at Southland Organics since 2021. Learn more about Izy here.
This blog was edited by Mike Usry, the President of Southland Organics. Mike is an entrepreneur and soil enthusiast with a passion for educating on agriscience-based topics to help business owners and homeowners alike grow plants, turf, poultry and more. Mike received his Bachelor of Science in Education from the University of Georgia and his MBA from the University of South Florida. The combination of his education and experience has given him a deep understanding of both business and the science behind our products. Mike founded Southland Organics in 2009. Learn more about Mike here.