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Gardening 101: Everything You Need to Know About Growing Tomatoes

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Gardening 101: Everything You Need to Know About Growing Tomatoes

June 17, 2019

Everybody knows a tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable, but do we know why? Horticulturally speaking, the answer is simple. True fruits develop from the ovary in the base of a flower and contain the plant’s seeds. This applies to the tomato—as well as to the avocado, squash, pepper, cucumber, eggplant, and even the olive.

Tomatoes are the most popular fruit grown in American gardens for a good reason. With more than 700 different varieties in cultivation today, there are many sweet options— from heirloom beefsteaks to plums to cherry tomatoes, and in colors from red to yellow to orange to striped.

How do you pick the best variety of tomato to grow in your garden? The answer to that question isn’t so simple. It depends on how much sun you get, how hot your garden is, how long the growing season is in your climate, and how big your garden is (or are you growing tomatoes in a container?).

Tomato talk can a bit daunting, but we’re here to make it easy. Keep reading for everything you need to know to about tomatoes.

What are the different types of tomatoes?

Green zebra tomatoes in Gardenista editor Michelle Slatalla&#8
Above: Green zebra tomatoes in Gardenista editor Michelle Slatalla’s garden. If you want to start them from seed, a packet of 30 Green Zebra Organic Tomato Seeds is $5.19 from Burpee. Photograph by John Merkl.
With hundreds of tomato varieties to salivate over—from petite grape to plum to huge beefsteak, and all the other sizes in between—and with colors ranging from red wine to orange, yellow, zebra striped, purple, and chocolate, what to purchase is a tough decision. But start with this checklist.

Determinate vs. Indeterminate

A set of four sturdy -gauge-wire Tomato Cages with eight-inch-square openings (so you easily can get your hand inside to snag a ripe beefsteak). The 39-inch-high cages fold flat for winter storage and are available in three colors, including and green (shown). A set is $59.95 from Gardener’s Supply. See more choices at  Easy Pieces: Tomato Cages.
Above: A set of four sturdy 10-gauge-wire Tomato Cages with eight-inch-square openings (so you easily can get your hand inside to snag a ripe beefsteak). The 39-inch-high cages fold flat for winter storage and are available in three colors, including and green (shown). A set is $59.95 from Gardener’s Supply. See more choices at 10 Easy Pieces: Tomato Cages.

Determinate tomatoes are bushy, grow up to three feet tall, flower simultaneously, ripen fruit, and then die. Determinate tomatoes are sort of genetically preprogrammed to have a certain number of stems, leaves, and flowers—which means you know what you are getting.

Indeterminate tomatoes are more vine-like in structure and keep growing taller and taller and need caging or staking for support, and will continue to grow and set fruit until frost ends their life. Generally they produce later in the season than determinate varieties and give you robust crops over a longer period.

Heirloom vs. Hybrids

Tomato bushes and flowering annuals share a sunny spot in Brooklyn. For more of this garden, see Before & After: A $3,000 Garden Makeover for Brooklyn Designer Rebecca Atwood. Photograph by Tory Williams.
Above: Tomato bushes and flowering annuals share a sunny spot in Brooklyn. For more of this garden, see Before & After: A $3,000 Garden Makeover for Brooklyn Designer Rebecca Atwood. Photograph by Tory Williams.

The battle is on to figure out which variety produces the easiest and tastiest tomato.

Hybrids are created when plant breeders cross-pollinate two different plant varieties with the intention of producing an offspring containing the parent’s favorable traits: dependability, disease resistance, better flavor, easy maintenance, early maturity, bigger yield, and set size.

Heirlooms, on the other hand, are typically pre-WWII varieties or at least 50 years old. Most heirlooms have had their seeds regionally passed down for generations. And despite the outcome being more variable, and sometimes a quirky appearance, some heirlooms exhibit an unbeatable flavor. The downside is that heirlooms are not as disease resistant as hybrids, so keep that in mind. Tip: Stake heirlooms so no leaves touch the soil and pick a variety that is known to thrive in your area. Research where a tomato comes from and then decide if your garden has similar growing conditions.

What is the best tomato variety to plant?

 A harvest of cherry and heirloom tomatoes from the high tunnel at Greyfield Inn on Cumberland Island. For more of this garden, see Greyfield Gardens: A Chef’s Dream on a Remote Georgia Island. Photograph by Gabe Hanway.
A harvest of cherry and heirloom tomatoes from the high tunnel at Greyfield Inn on Cumberland Island. For more of this garden, see Greyfield Gardens: A Chef’s Dream on a Remote Georgia Island. Photograph by Gabe Hanway.

When choosing which tomato to grow, variables to consider include: growth habit, time to maturity, disease resistance, texture, and flavor. Specifically, make sure the tomato variety chosen will meet your expectations in the kitchen. If you want a tomato for paste, don’t plant a salad variety. Also factor in how much space you have and whether you want to use a cage (for indeterminate vining varieties) or not.

Tip: If you have limited growing space or will be growing in a container, consider a more compact determinate variety. Look for names that include the words mini, patio, or dwarf. Determinate varieties are also a smart choice for colder climates, where you need to harvest an entire crop within a few weeks. On the other hand, if you are fortunate to have space, or prefer to harvest over a long period and are geared up to provide sturdy, supportive cages or stakes, then an indeterminate variety is what you should be looking for.

I suggest growing both hybrids and heirlooms because by mixing tomato types you are spreading the wealth of a harvest over the longest season. Plant determinate or early indeterminate tomato varieties for early summer tomatoes, and salad or beefsteak tomatoes for mid- and late-summer harvest.

Cherry tomatoes grow in a garden in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photograph by Ancapron via Flickr.
Above: Cherry tomatoes grow in a garden in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photograph by Ancapron via Flickr.

Tips and Tricks

  • For healthy growth, tomato plants require at least six hours of direct sunlight a day to produce fruit, and eight hours of sun for a bigger harvest.
  • Always mulch beneath your plants because if water splashes soil onto plants, soil pathogens to transfer to the leaves.
  • Best mulch? Wheat straw, because it is easy to find and is inexpensive. Avoid hay because it has seeds that will germinate.
  • Choose a tomato support that will accommodate a fully grown plant. A flimsy, thin gauge support will topple under the weight of a mammoth Sungold variety.
  • Start pruning tomato plants when they are one to two feet tall.  When suckers appear, the simplest is to pinch it off entirely while still small.
  • Determinate tomatoes need little pruning other than removing suckers below the first flower cluster.

See more growing tips at Tomatoes: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design. Read our curated guide to Edible Plants 101 for companion plants that get along well with tomatoes, including Basil, Carrots, Nasturtiums, and Calendula.

It’s not too late to plant a summer edible garden. Read more:

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