How to grow tomatoes from seed to table including a handy chart showing the types of tomatoes and where to grow them. Tomatoes need warmth to flower and ripen the fruit, so start your seeds early or buy starter plants.
This is the first part of a series on 5 Best Tips for Growing Tomatoes.
How to Grow Tomatoes
Why grow our own 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—in all sorts of colors, qualities, and flavors. When you’re growing from home, taste comes first. Try out a few new types each year and develop your own list of favorites.
Hybrids Are Not GMOs
It’s important to note that hybrid tomatoes are not GMOs and there are many wonderful varieties of hybrid tomatoes. Hybrids are unlikely to breed true to the parent plants so seed saving from hybrids is a gamble. Because of this, many gardeners will buy hybrid seeds each year 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 Basic Types of Tomato Plants—Bushes and Vines
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 to 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.
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).
Days to Maturity
For many of us, our warm growing seasons are short so we have to plant our tomatoes (started from seed indoors or purchased as transplants from a nursery) as soon as the warm weather arrives.
Days to maturity is important for tomatoes because that tells us how long we need to grow the plant either from seed or transplant to harvest time.
When choosing seeds or plants, picks ones that fit your timeline.
My average last frost date is around May 9. My average first frost date is around October 8. That provides 152 frost free days which is plenty of time for growing tomatoes. although cool or drab summer weather can really delay growth and ripening.
Extend Your Growing Season
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.
Is it Possible To Ripen Green Tomatoes?
Yes, but it depends on a few things.
See How to Ripen Tomatoes After Picking.
Tomatoes to Grow
I start my tomatoes 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)
Growing Tomatoes in Containers
- I plant my tomatoes in big plastic pots (12-inches wide x 12-inches deep or more) with drainage holes.
- My soil is a mixture of organic potting mix (intended for food crops) and compost (see Composting 101 for slow and fast methods). It’s worked well in the past so I continue to do this.
- If the soil is rich in compost, you probably don’t need added fertilizers. I would use an organic, slow-release granular fertilizer if needed.
- I put 1-2 plants per pot, depending on the expected size of each plant and the size of the pot.
- I use tomato cages for support for smaller (determinate) plants and wood cages for tall vines (see how to make tomato cages here).
- 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. This is called cloning. See How to Grow Tomatoes from Cuttings.
- 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.
Rutgers Tomato Database
Here’s the tomato database.
Commonly Asked Questions
I’ve answered a bunch of frequently-asked question about growing tomatoes here including whether marigolds help prevent pests from attacking tomatoes and dealing with blossom end rot.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛