How to grow tomatoes from seed to table including a handy chart showing the types of tomatoes and where to grow them.
For more, also see these plant growing tips.
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Why You Should Grow Tomatoes
Taste and variety! Supermarkets are supplied with tomatoes that have uniform appearances and travel well. If that doesn’t sound delicious, you’re right!
There are hundreds of tomatoes to grow—both heirlooms and hybrids—that look weird, come in a sorts of colours, and, most importantly, taste exquisite. When you’re growing from home, taste comes first. Try out a few new types each year and develop your own list of favourites.
Grow What Works In Your Region
If you want good success, pick tomato seeds (or plants) that you know do well in your region. Local seed sellers and small plant nurseries often have a list of recommended tomatoes that are proven to flourish in your conditions.
Hybrids Are Not GMOs
It’s important to note that hybrid tomatoes are not GMOs and there are many wonderful varieties. Hybrids are unlikely to breed true to the parent plants so seed saving from hybrids is generally not worthwhile. Because of this, many gardeners will buy hybrid seeds and save heirloom seeds. The definition of heirlooms varies but in general, it’s a tomato seed that has bred true for several decades or more: what you plant is what you get.
Two Growing Styles—Bushes and Vines
There are over a thousand types of tomatoes (both heirloom and hybrid) and they can grow as bushes (“determinate”) or vines (“indeterminate”). Most heirloom tomatoes are indeterminates (grow as vines).
It’s helpful to check which type you’re growing so you know how big it will get, how to support it, and how long a harvest to expect. Not all companies list this information on the seed package or plant tag but you can always find the information online (see Cornell database below).
If you grow several types, you can have tomatoes for fresh salads as well as preserving (canning, freezing, dehydrating).
Time To Mature
You also want to pay attention to how long it is expected to take from transplant (when you plant it) to harvest (maturity date is listed by number of days). This way you can make sure that there is enough time before your first average fall frost date to allow the plants to fruit and ripen.
My average last frost date is around May 9. My average first frost date is around October 8. That provides 152 frost free days of growing for warmth-loving plants.
Determinate, or bush types, bear a full crop all at once and reach a specific height. Determinate tomato plants start to die after fruiting.
Indeteriminates grow as vines and provide ongoing ripe fruit beyond the first harvest. Indeterminates are “tender perennials”. Some greenhouse growers say their vines live as long as three years if conditions are right (no frost, good light, etc.) and can grow tremendous lengths (16 feet+). I let the vine continue fruiting until fall frosts kill them off.
Semideterminates grow like bushes the way determinates do, but can produce a second crop. I grow just one of these: Roughwood Golden Plum.
Extend The Season On Both Ends
The tomato growing season can be extended by offering weather protection in the form of a greenhouse, polytunnel, cloches, or covers. This will buy you more time in the spring and fall.
Did you know that in 1883 the Supreme Court of the United States decided that the tomato, although botanically a fruit, is used as a vegetable, and therefore should be classified as one? Read it here. It’s all about taxes, of course.
Here’s Some Of The Tomatoes I Grow
I start them from seed indoors under the grow lights in March and April. Here’s my grow light setup.
I harden them off (get them used to being outdoors) in the covered patio area for about two weeks before planting them out in pots in May. I like growing them in pots because I can ensure they have excellent soil and I can move them around as needed.
I’ve marked the two that are hybrids, the rest are heirlooms.
Indeterminate Tomatoes (Grow as vines, ongoing harvests)
Black Cherry (64 days)
Black Plum (82 days)
Brandywine Red (78 days)
Chianti Rose (80 days) 5-7 feet tall
Djeena Lee’s Golden Girl (80 days)
Earl of Edgecombe (73 days)
Indian Stripe (79 days)
Marvel Stripe (90-110 days)
Old Time Red and Yellow (80-90 days)
Plum Lemon (81 days)
Purple Cherokee (72-80 days)
Red Oxheart (80-90 days)
Sweet Cherry Hybrid (68 days) – hybrid
Thai Pink (75 days)
Determinate Tomatoes (Grow as bushes, ripen all at once)
Principe Bourghese (78 days)
Tiny Tim (45-55 days) – hybrid
Semi-Determinate Tomatoes (Grow as bushes but can have second harvest)
Roughwood Golden Plum (76 days)
- I plant my tomatoes in big plastic pots with drainage holes. My potting soil is a mixture of garden soil and compost (see Composting 101 for slow and fast methods). It’s worked well in the past so I continue to do this.
- I put 1-4 plants per pot, depending on the expected size of each plant and the size of the pot.
- I use tomato cages for support and then add tall supports later as needed.
- Tomatoes like to be planted deep. I remove the leaves from the bottom half of the plant and submerge that in the soil. All the little “hairs” on a tomato stem are potential roots.
- Suckers and shoots can be removed and planted as new plants. Use rooting hormone if you like.
- Only save seeds from your healthiest, most robust heirlooms to ensure good plants next year.
Know What You’re Growing
Always look up the type of tomato you are growing so you can anticipate it’s needs. Is it a bush or a vine? How long until the fruit is ready? Is it best grown outdoors or is a type the prefers the indoors? These are the basic questions to ask.
Cornell University Veggie Database
Here’s the tomato database.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛