If you’re new to gardening and are interested in growing tomatoes, this guide is for you! Not only are tomatoes a staple in many dishes, but they’re also easy to grow and care for. Whether you have a large backyard or just a small balcony, this beginner’s guide will provide everything you need to know about successfully growing juicy and delicious tomatoes. From learning some important terminology to planting and pests, we’ve got you covered with all the tips and tricks. Let’s get started on your tomato-growing journey today!
What Supplies You Need to Grow Tomatoes
Tomatoes are so simple to grow and are often the primary choice for new gardeners. You don’t need a whole lot of equipment and there are no complicated rules to follow. To grow tomatoes, you simply need:
- Tomato plants or seeds
- A sunny spot in your garden or yard
- A container if you don’t have a yard or garden
- Well-drained soil
- A watering can or hose
- Mulch (optional)
You can buy tomato plants or seeds at your local nursery or home improvement store. Once you have your plants or seeds, you’ll need to determine where they will grow. Do you have space in a garden, or do you have access to a balcony? You can then decide whether to grow directly in the ground or a container. Once you have that figured out, find a sunny spot in your garden or on your patio for them to grow. Tomatoes prefer hummus-rich, well-drained soil. If the soil is heavy or clay-like, you may need to amend it with some compost before planting.
There are hundreds of varieties when it comes to growing tomatoes. Make sure to read the package label or the growers’ tag before making your purchase. On the labels, you will see terms such as indeterminate or determinate, heirloom or hybrid, and slicer, salad, or sauce. Next, we’ll look at what each of these terms means and why they are important for growing the best tomatoes.
Indeterminate vs. Determinate Tomato Plants
Tomatoes are one of the most popular vegetables to grow in the home garden and with good reason. They’re relatively easy to care for, and they produce a bountiful crop of delicious fruit. But there are so many options to choose from and it can get quite overwhelming very quickly when you’re not entirely sure what you are doing, or if you are doing the right thing.
When you purchase your tomatoes, be it seeds or an established plant, one thing you may notice is that the package, or growers tag, will list whether that variety is indeterminate or determinate. But what does this mean?
The difference between indeterminate and determinate tomato plants is in how it grows. An indeterminate tomato plant will continue to grow and produce fruit until the first frost of the season, while determinate tomato plants will stop growing and stop producing fruit once they reach a certain size and have produced a certain amount of fruit.
Indeterminate tomatoes are best suited for growing directly in the ground and they work very well in warmer climates but will easily grow in cooler climates too. Determinate tomatoes are the preferred choice for container growing, which works well for small spaces and patio gardens, and they grow well in both warm and cool climates.
Heirloom vs Hybrid: What Does That Mean?
On your package label or growers tag you will see the terms heirloom or hybrid. When it comes to tomatoes, there are two types: heirloom and hybrid. Heirloom tomatoes are the original type of tomato. They’re open-pollinated, which means that they can be pollinated by wind, insects, or other natural means. This also means that heirloom tomato plants will produce seeds that grow true to form, meaning that the offspring will be just like the parent plant.
Hybrid tomatoes, on the other hand, are a cross between two different types of tomatoes. The seeds from hybrid plants will not grow true to form, so if you want to grow a particular type of hybrid tomato, you’ll need to buy new seeds each year. Hybrids are often bred for specific qualities, such as disease resistance or higher yields.
Slicer vs Salad vs Sauce tomatoes
Yet another set of terms you may find on the package label or the growers’ tag is slicer, salad, or sauce. Slicer tomatoes are the most common type and are great for eating fresh or slicing into sandwiches. Salad tomatoes are smaller and more flavorful, making them perfect for salads or snacking. Sauce tomatoes are larger and have a lower water content, making them ideal for cooking down into sauces or canning.
Having an idea of what you want to use your tomatoes for (ie. fresh eating on hamburgers, tossing them into a salad, or making tomato sauces that you can and preserve) will help you to determine which variety of tomato you should grow.
Planting: Water, Sunlight, Fertilizer
When planting your tomatoes (inground or in a container) be sure to follow the space and depth instructions on the package label or the growers’ tag as they do vary by variety. Also, be mindful of companion planting and plant your tomatoes with other plants that will encourage healthy growth.
Watering: Tomatoes need 1-2 inches of water per week. Water at the base of the plant, not from overhead to avoid wetting the leaves, tomato plants are not too fond of wet leaves as this is an easy way for disease to establish itself. Also, be careful not to overwater your plants either. Too much water can lead to problems such as blossom end rot and cracking fruit, which we will discuss shortly.
Sunlight: Tomatoes need full sun for at least 6-8 hours a day. If you don’t have enough sunlight, your tomatoes will be small and tasteless.
Fertilizer: Use a fertilizer designed for tomatoes or a general-purpose vegetable fertilizer. Apply it according to the package directions. Over-fertilizing can lead to lush foliage but fewer fruits, so be sure to always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for their product.
Staking Tomato Plants
The first step to staking your tomatoes is to know if your tomato plant even needs it! Some determinate varieties such as the Tiny Tim Tomato remain so small (about 12-18″) and therefore do not require any staking. Check the package or grower tag to see how tall your plant will grow before purchasing stakes.
Staking tomato plants is a great way to support the plant and keep the fruit off the ground. There are many ways to support tomato plants, but one of the most common is to use tomato cages. Tomato cages are easy to install, just be sure to install them when your plants are still small. If you require additional support, you can stake your plants using bamboo stakes. As the tomato plant grows, you will need to continue to tie it to the stake. You can also add more stakes if needed.
Pruning Tomato Plants
Regardless of the variety of tomato plants, you’ll want to prune them to keep them healthy. Pruning your tomato plants is an important part of the growing process. Pruning helps to encourage new growth and can also help to prevent disease and pests.
When pruning, be sure to remove any dead or dying leaves or branches. You should also cut back any leggy or straggly growth. You can remove any suckers growing from the plant’s main stem.
Most tomato plants do not like to have their leaves touching the soil. If you are growing an indeterminate variety, it is a good idea to remove all branches and suckers from the first 6″ to 10″ of the stem from the soil up. If you are growing a smaller plant, you may only have to remove the first row of branches closest to the soil.
Common Diseases and Pests Affecting Tomatoes
Several common diseases and pests can affect tomatoes and kill your entire harvest. It is imperative that you learn about each of the following pests and diseases and how to tend to them naturally. These include:
- Blossom end rot – This is a common problem that can be caused by a lack of calcium in the soil. It manifests as dark, sunken patches on the bottom of the fruit.
- Fusarium wilt – This is a fungal disease that can attack the roots and lower stems of tomato plants. The leaves will turn yellow and then brown and the plant will eventually wilt and die.
- Gray mold – This fungal disease affects tomato plants’ fruit and leaves. The fruit will rot and the leaves will turn grayish-brown.
- Powdery mildew – This is a fungal disease that affects the leaves of tomato plants, causing them to become covered in a white or gray powdery substance.
- Tomato hornworms – These are large green caterpillars that can do serious damage to tomato plants, eating both the foliage and fruit.
There you have it! Everything you need to know to start growing your tomatoes at home. You now have the knowledge and tools needed to get started on your journey of growing healthy, delicious tomatoes. Remember, gardening takes patience and practice so don’t be too hard on yourself if things don’t turn out as expected the first time around. Keep at it, take lots of notes, and soon enough you’ll be harvesting some of the most flavorful tomatoes imaginable!