How to grow tomatoes from seed to table includes a handy chart for beginners showing the different types of tomatoes and where to grow them. In cold climates our shorter outdoor growing season means tomatoes are often started from seed indoors in spring (at home or a nursery) to get the plant ready for outdoor planting, flowering, and fruiting.
This is the first part of a series on 5 Best Tips for Growing Tomatoes.
How to Grow Tomatoes
Tomato | Genus: Solanum
Tomato Growing Tips
Annual vegetable, truly a berry
• Vines (indeterminates) or bushes (determinates)
• Full sun – at least 6 hours total direct sun per day
• Soil: well-draining and fertile
• Propagation: seed or cuttings
• Self-fertile with help from wind and insects
• DIY tomato cages | Seed Saving | Ripen after picking
Why grow our own tomatoes? Taste and variety! Supermarkets sell 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.
- Basic Types of Tomato Plants—Bushes and Vines
- Tomatoes To Grow (Suggestions)
- Tomato Growing Tips
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. One example is Roughwood Golden Plum.
TIP When I was new to gardening, I’d remember what’s what with “indeterminate tomatoes are undecided”—as in, they have not decided how big they will grow.
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. This tomato database at Rutgers is helpful.
If you grow several types, you can have tomatoes for fresh salads as well as preserving (canning, freezing, dehydrating).
Hybrids Are Not GMOs
It’s important to note that hybrid tomatoes are not GMOs and there are many wonderful varieties of hybrid tomatoes.
The one drawback is that hybrids generally do not produce seed true to the parent. 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.
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.
Tomatoes to Grow (Suggestions)
I start my tomatoes from seed indoors under the grow lights in March and April. Here’s my grow light setup. This gives me a jump start on the growing season.
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 when the risk of frost is over.
I like growing them in pots because I can ensure they have excellent soil and I can move them around as needed.
These are some that I have grown. There are many more varieties available.
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)
Grow as bushes, ripen all at once
- Principe Bourghese (78 days)
- Tiny Tim (45-55 days) – hybrid
Grow as bushes but can have second harvest
- Roughwood Golden Plum (76 days)
Tomato Growing Tips
Know What You’re Growing
Always look up the type of tomato you are growing so you can anticipate its needs.
These are the basic questions to ask.
- Is it a bush (“determinate”) or a vine (“indeterminate”)?
- Will it need stakes, trellis, or a tomato cage? These should be installed at planting time.
- How long until the fruit is ready? How many days to maturity? Do I have enough time?
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 maturity. Once mature, the fruit begins to ripen. Only certain tomatoes can ripen after picking.
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.
What is the best month to start growing tomatoes?
- For gardeners in cold climates where last frost averages around mid to late May, the time start tomato seeds indoors is from March to May depending on how long the particular variety needs to get established. If you plan to buy starter plants from a nursery, they too will be starting the seeds during this time period.
- On this schedule, the tomato plants would be ready for planting outdoor after last frost in late May or June.
- Each variety has its own timeline, but generally it will take anywhere from 6 to 12 weeks to have ripe tomatoes ready for picking.
Find Your Frost Dates & Hardiness Zone
Average Frost Dates | Use this calculator at Almanac.com. Enter your city and state or province to find your first and last frost dates and number of frost-free days.
Ecoregion | Learn about the native plant and animal species and environmental conditions specific to your region to better understand why your garden choices matter.
Learn More: Understanding Frosts & Freezing For Gardeners
Related: How to Read Seed Packets
Extend Your Growing Season
Besides starting seeds indoors in spring, you can also extend your growing season by keeping your plants in a heated greenhouse or growing them indoors. This shows how I grow tomatoes indoors. Indoor growing is mainly for fun since it takes up quite a bit of space.
Related: How to Build a Lean-to Greenhouse
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.
Organic Tomato-tone Fertilizer | Amazon
- 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 larger tomato plants. Install them at planting time.
- If the stem is on the thin side, you can plant deeply to better anchor the plant. Remove any lower leaves if they are within inches of the soil.
- 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.
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.
More Tomato Tips
- 10 Best Tips Before You Plant Tomatoes To Avoid Mistakes
- How to Grow Tomatoes From Cuttings (Including Suckers)
- Why Tomatoes Crack On The Vine
- How To Save Heirloom Tomato Seeds
- How To Ripen Tomatoes Off The Vine
- How To Make Tomato Cages From Wood
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛
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