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Select and Grow Tomato Plants

Tomato plants offer delicious fruit and tomatoes are a source of vitamin C, vitamin A and lycopene. Learn how to grow tomatoes — a must for a vegetable garden.

Tomatoes Growing on a Tomato Cage.

Tomato History

The tomato (Lycopersicum esculentum) has a legacy of misunderstanding. A member of the nightshade family, tomatoes probably originated in South America. After migrating to Europe when the first explorers returned they were considered poisonous and grown only as ornamentals (or not at all). Thomas Jefferson was one of the first Americans to recognize the culinary possibilities.

From that humble origin, Americans now consume an average of  70+ pounds of tomatoes and tomato products each per year.

The tomato plant itself is an herbaceous perennial. However, tomatoes are grown as annuals in most of the United States since they do not survive fall frosts.

A fruit is the mature reproductive body (ovary) of a plant (a bloom that develops into a fruit and contains seeds). A vegetable is the edible part of a plant such as a root, stem or leaf. Therefore the tomato is technically a fruit even though in 1893 the Supreme Court declared the tomato was indeed a vegetable.

Tomatoes are juicier grown at home - some of the juiciest varieties can't be shipped by commercial growers without damage. They are relatively easy to grow. Four or five plants will produce enough tomatoes for a normal-sized family.

Selecting Tomatoes to Grow

selecting tomato types

The key to a successful tomato garden is selecting the right variety (there are hundreds for your climate). The other important consideration is what type of use you are planning on - sauce, slicing or salads or all three.

Determinate varieties grow to a certain size and then bear fruit. Bush tomatoes are the best example of a determinate type. Since the crop comes in pretty much at the same time, determinate tomatoes are great for canning or freezing for later use. These varieties do not need staking.

Indeterminate tomatoes will continue to grow and bear fruit until frost in fall. Indeterminate varieties can be staked or allowed to grow with abandon, hence the term "tomato vine". Lay down a good bed of mulch to protect fruit that will be lying on the ground. If you stake, use twine or soft cord to tie the plants. Make sure the loop is large enough to allow stem growth and not cut or pinch the plant.

Heirloom tomatoes are old varieties grown from seed saved from season to season. Heirlooms are a category unto themselves. They tend to be less disease resistant and "wilder" in appearance. Fans insist that their flavor and uniqueness make up for any disadvantages.

Hybrid tomatoes are developed to give growers the best characteristics of all varieties. Fruit size, crop yield and disease resistance are all traits of hybrids.

On the plant tag or container you may see some letters. They indicate resistance to various diseases.

  • V = verticillium wilt.
  • F = fusarium wilt. Two Fs on the label indicate resistance to both types of fusarium.
  • N = nematode.
  • T = tobacco mosaic.
  • A = alternaria stem canker.
  • S = stemphylium (gray leaf spot).

Gardeners in cooler climates should remember that early-season varieties are best for their shorter growing seasons. Depending on the variety, these types start to produce fruit in as few as 60 days.

Whether you choose plum or sauce, big beefsteaks for slicing, salad or cherry tomatoes, their names are as colorful as the fruit itself. Brandywine, Better Boy, Early Girl, Mr. Stripey, and German Johnson are a few of the more common types.

Tomato colors themselves range from every shade of red to yellow, orange, purple, and white cultivars. Flavors may be sweet or tart according to the amount of sugar and acid present.

Gardeners wanting large quantities can start tomatoes from seed. Home gardeners can purchase transplants at the garden center. These are about 8 weeks old and ready to put into the ground.

Learn more tips for choosing tomatoes by looking at Tomato Varieties: What Type of Tomato Should I Grow?

Planting and Growing Tomatoes

Learning how to grow tomato plants is simple:

  • Tomatoes like well-drained neutral soil with a pH of 6.0 to 7.0.
  • Plant them in full sun in an area that has access to water. Your plants will need 1 - 2 inches of water a week (supplement natural rainfall).
  • Space plants to allow maximum growth area, room for air circulation and harvest. The space needed varies by cultivar. Smaller varieties can be planted 18 - 24 inches apart, while some of the more vigorous indeterminate types should be 3 - 4 feet apart.
  • Amend soil with organic matter. Plant the seedling as deeply as possible. Roots will form along any part of the stem that is buried.
  • Fertilize lightly at time of planting. Too much can burn the tender young plants.
  • If you insist on planting early, be prepared to cover the young plants in the event of a late frost.
  • Pick them as they ripen to allow other fruit that's forming room to mature and also to keep the plant from getting too heavy. Tomatoes will ripen indoors on the kitchen counter. For best results, do not put them on the windowsill or in the refrigerator.
  • Rotate your tomato planting beds every year. Plants to be rotated include any member of the tomato family, including bell peppers, potatoes and eggplant.

Tomato Care and Feeding

While easy to grow, tomatoes do need a little extra TLC.

Suckers: Tomatoes grow rapidly in the first weeks after planting. Not all growth can support fruit - the plant simply cannot generate that much energy. To direct the energy to where it can be most productive, suckers need to be removed. Indeterminate plants that are staked need to be regularly "suckered". Suckers are shoots that grow from the crotch of the main stem and main side stems. The removal of these offshoots is technically pruning (but suckering is much more fun to say). Pinch suckers off when they are small (less than 6 inches). If pulled when they are larger, the plant could be wounded and opened for attack by disease.

Fertilizer is a must but go easy on the nitrogen unless you want lots of foliage and no tomatoes. Use a water-soluble fertilizer that's heavy on phosphorus (for root growth).

Tomato Pests and Disease

Tomatoes are susceptible to some natural enemies. The best prevention is vigilance, since some of these maladies can devastate your plants pretty rapidly.

Cutworms are larvae that hide in the plant bed by day and feed on leaves and stems by night. If you see moths, you will likely see cutworms soon. Look in the soil around the plants for worms that are 1 - 2 inches long with stripes or spots (depending on the type). One possible prevention method is to use a barrier. Cut the bottom from an empty plastic container (such as a yogurt container) and place it around the tomato stems when planting. Make sure it is at least 2 inches above the ground to keep the pests out.

are green, 3 - 5 inches long with a short horn extending from their backside. They are also very hungry. Pick them off by hand and destroy them.

Whiteflies are tiny white insects found on the undersides of leaves. They feed on sap. A telltale sign of whitefly infestation is yellow, falling leaves. Whiteflies are resistant to insecticides. An insecticidal soap is one treatment option.

Wilt (fusarium and verticillium) is the most common disease in the tomato garden. It appears as curling leaves and can quickly spread. Buy wilt-resistant varieties as a precaution. Get rid of the plant as soon as you detect wilt.

is a fungus from the soil. Leaves and fruit will begin to show spots when affected. Mulch around the plants to create a barrier between the soil and the leaves. Keeping the leaves dry can also help. Fungicides work, but use them sparingly. Crop rotation is one important way to reduce the risk of blight. Get rid of the plant as soon as you detect blight.