Sun-ripened tomatoes deliver the taste of summer in every bite. Just a few healthy plants will produce buckets of fruit. Tomatoes run on warmth; plant in late spring and early summer except in zone 10, where they are a fall and winter crop. Choosing tomato varieties can be confusing because there are so many, but it’s a good idea to plant a wide variety. Our article “Learn Tomato Terms” explains a few basics about terms like VFN (disease resistance), variety characteristics (indeterminate vs. determinate), and others to help you choose among the different ones. Varieties resistant to diseases are always a good choice because, of all veggies, tomatoes tend to get the most diseases.
Soil, Planting, and Care
Devote a prime, sunny spot to tomatoes, which will grow into a tall screen of green foliage studded with ripening fruits in mid- to late summer. Tomatoes need at least 8 hours of sun to bring out their best flavors, and you will need to stake, trellis, or cage the sprawling plants to keep them off the ground. Decide on a support plan before you set out your plants, then add that support directly after planting.
- Space robust, long-vined, indeterminate varieties about 3 feet apart.
- Stocky determinate plants can be grown 2 to 3 feet apart.
- A single patio tomato will fill an 18-inch-wide container.
You can combine fast-maturing varieties with special season-stretching techniques to grow an early crop, but wait until the last frost has passed to plant main-season tomatoes. Tomatoes take up nutrients best when the soil pH ranges from 6.2 to 6.8, and they need a constant supply of major and minor plant nutrients. To provide the major nutrients, mix a balanced timed-release or organic fertilizer into the soil as you prepare planting holes, following the rates given on the fertilizer label. At the same time, mix in 3 to 4 inches of compost. The compost will provide minor nutrients and help hold moisture and fertilizer in the soil until it is needed by the plants. Or, in place of the fertilizer, feed your tomatoes with Bonnie Herb & Vegetable Plant Food when planting and every couple of weeks during the growing season.
To grow really strong tomato plants, we recommend burying two-thirds of the plant’s stem when planting. This crucial step will allow them to sprout roots along the buried stem, so your plant will be stronger and better able to find water in drought. Please note that this deep-planting method only works with tomatoes (and tomatillos), not other veggies.
Cover the ground with 2 to 4 inches of mulch to keep down weeds and keep the soil evenly moist. Straw and shredded leaves make great mulches for tomatoes. If summer droughts are common in your area, use soaker hoses, drip irrigation, or other drought-busting techniques to help maintain even soil moisture – the key to preventing cracked fruits and blossom-end rot.
As summer heats up, some tomatoes have trouble setting fruit. Be patient, and you will start seeing little green tomatoes again when nights begin cooling down. Meanwhile, promptly harvest ripe tomatoes to relieve stressed plants of their heavy burden. If you live in an area in which summertime temperatures are typically in the 90s, be sure to choose some heat-tolerant tomato varieties, bred for their ability to set fruit under high temperatures.
By late summer, plants that began producing early in the season will show signs of exhaustion. With just a little effort, you can rescue those sad tomato plants by pruning away withered leaves and branches. Then follow up with liquid fertilizer and treatments for leaf diseases or insects, if needed.
Humid weather creates ideal conditions for fungal diseases like early blight, which causes dark spots to first form on lower leaves. Late blight is a more devastating disease that kills plants quickly; the only way to control it is to protect against it by spraying the leaves with an approved fungicide such as chlorothalonil or copper, and to keep the garden clean of tomato and potato debris. Of all crops, tomatoes are the most likely to get problems, but many hybrids have been developed that resist the most prevalent diseases. (Check your variety description in our online catalog to see what diseases it might be resistant to.) Often diseases tend to be worse in one region of the country and practically non-existent in another, which is why it’s important to have varieties suited to your area. You’ll also want to be on the lookout for pests. In mid-summer, for example, big green caterpillars called tomato hornworms eat tomato foliage and sometimes damage fruits. One or two hornworms can strip a plant leafless.
Check out our article on Tomato Quirks for more troubleshooting information.
Harvest and Storage
As tomatoes begin to ripen, their color changes from vibrant medium-green to a lighter shade, with faint pink or yellow blushing. These “breakers,” or mature green tomatoes, can be chopped into salsas, pickled, or pan-fried into a crispy appetizer. Yet tomato flavors become much more complex as the fruits ripen, so you have good reason to wait. The exact signs of ripeness vary with variety, but in general, perfectly ripe tomatoes show deep color yet still feel firm when gently squeezed. Store picked tomatoes at room temperature indoors, or in a shady place outside. Never refrigerate tomatoes, because temperatures below 55° cause the precious flavor compounds to break down. Bumper crops can be frozen, canned, or dried for future use.
Your plant tags say to plant tomatoes deep: two-thirds of the plant underground. Is that really a good practice?
The tag says full sun, but in Arizona with temperatures reaching over the 100 degree mark, is that going to be an issue with this plant?
What is meant by “maturity is reached in __ days”?
What size cage should I use for my tomato plants?
When the plant says full sun, what exactly does that mean?
Is it a good idea to always stake or cage my tomatoes?
Can I plant one tomato plant in a five-gallon bucket on my patio? How large should the container be for a tomato?
What do the letters VFFN stand for in the names of your tomatoes?
Is there such a thing as nematode-resistant tomato plants?
Should I be pruning off the lower branches of my tomato plants? How far off of the ground should the lower branches be?
Is it true that pinching off the flowers on the tomato plant helps it to produce more fruit?
I just planted my tomatoes and found out that it is too early. Should I put something over them to protect them at night?
What causes tomatoes to turn black on the bottom?
Do I have to replant tomatoes every year, or do the plants come back when the time is right?