Tomatoes are one of the most popular home garden plants, and for good reason. Homegrown tomatoes are flat-out, hands-down, guaranteed more delicious than any tomatoes you can buy. You can grow your favorite kinds and harvest them at the peak of ripe juiciness. Plus, they’re truly easy to grow–for any level of gardener.
A Planting Primer
Plant tomato seedlings as soon as the last chance of frost has passed and you’ve had a short stint of warm weather (around 50 degrees for a week or so). If you want to start tomatoes from seed, do it indoors under grow lights about eight weeks before your last frost. Visit your local nursery for organically grown seedlings, or purchase seeds from a reliable seed source such as Seed Savers Exchange.
Choose a growing spot with loose, fertile soil that gets plenty of sun all summer. Raised beds allow you to fully control the quality and content of your soil. Set tomato plants, along with a scoop of compost, into holes about 18 inches apart in each direction. Bury plants so only the top few sets of leaves are above ground (even if a lot of the stem is buried), then tamp the soil down gently around the stem and cover the base with thick mulch. Unlike most vegetables, tomatoes prefer to grow in the same place every year, so plant in the same spot unless you have had a disease problem.
Companion planting can help tomatoes grow. Tomatoes are compatible with chives, onion, parsley, marigold, nasturtium and carrot. Planting garlic between tomato plants can help protect them from red spider mites, and planting stinging nettle near tomatoes improves their longevity after picking.
Tips for Success
Tomato plants require a lot of nutrition, so they benefit from regular applications of organic fertilizer. (Follow label instructions.) If the sky doesn’t water your plants every few days, water gently and generously at the root zone.
It’s important to stake tomatoes so they are supported as they grow upward. The easiest and most popular staking tools are wooden or wire cages. Vigorous plants may also need a tall pole for support along the central stem. Secure the stem to the pole with loose cloth or wire every 8 inches or so. Check plants regularly for tomato hornworms (large, green-and-white-striped caterpillars) and pick them off and destroy them when you see them.
Prune the lowest tomato stems to about 18 inches above ground to avoid potential problems with a disease known as early blight. Immediately pick off and throw away any leaves with brown patches surrounded by black rings. Most tomato plants will continue to produce despite losing some leaves to early blight. Late blight, however, can kill plants quickly after a cool, wet period. Your best defense against late blight is to trim branches to provide good light penetration and air circulation so plants stay dry.
Tomatoes will tell you when they’re ready to be picked–when they’re full, juicy and can be pierced easily. For the best flavor, never refrigerate tomatoes. If you have trouble keeping up with the harvest, freeze, dry or can them, whole or as a sauce.
Save Your Own Seeds
You can save your own seed from open-pollinated varieties (seeds should say OP on the package). When the best-looking tomatoes are fully ripe, squeeze the gelatinous seed mass into a jar, fill it with water and shake well. In a day or so, rinse the seeds through a strainer and dry them on a plate for a couple of weeks, or until fully dry. Store in a cool, dry spot. Note that if you grow different OP varieties near each other, your seeds may cross. But don’t worry–you may find that you’ve created an awesome new variety!
Determinate tomato plants: all fruits ripen around the same time and plants are fairly compact in size
Indeterminate tomato plants: produce tomatoes over a long period and shoot out many stems