Here, you will learn the best way to grow tomatoes, how to grow tomatoes from seeds, transplanting, trellises, how to grow tomatoes in containers, growing and harvesting ripe, juicy tomatoes…and the dreaded tomato hornworm.
Tomatoes are the most popular addition to a backyard garden or a container garden. It is actually classified as a fruit, even though we use it as a vegetable. There is nothing better than picking a fully ripened tomato off the vine and eating it on the spot! Of course, most of them end up in the kitchen for food preparation and preservation. (Wikipedia, Tomatoes – Fruit versus vegetable)
There are determinate and indeterminate varieties:
Determinate or “bush” tomatoes grow to 4 or 5 feet and stop growing when the fruit starts to set on the plant. All the plant’s tomatoes will ripen about the same time, usually within a couple of weeks. Then, the plant dies. These are especially good for growing in container pots but, I always add some to my backyard garden.
Indeterminate or “vine” tomatoes can grow 6 to 10 feet. They will grow continually throughout the growing season, producing tomatoes until the first cold frost kills them. Most of mine tend to reach 6 or 7 feet before the winter comes.
Top of the list for Indeterminate tomatoes are Supersteak Hybrid, Steak Sandwich Hybrid, Better Boy, Big Boy Hybrid, Red Currant (red cherry tomato), Super Sweet 100 Hybrid (red cherry tomato), Honey Delight Hybrid (yellow cherry tomato), and Yellow Currant (yellow cherry tomato).
Buy the plants if you only want to grow a few but, they will cost you $4 to $6…or more.
A packet of about 20 tomato seeds cost about $1.50 to $2.50…a much better deal if you have the time to germinate them and grow healthy seedlings to transplant into your garden.
If you buy seeds, try to buy those marked “hybrid” since they have a greater resistance to many diseases and pests.
How to Grow Tomato Plants in Your Backyard Garden or Container
Germinating seeds – You can buy a seed starter kit and follow the directions. Or, you can germinate your seeds using my easy, time proven method.
Time to put your young plants in the ground – When your tomato plants have grown at least 4 to 6 branches with healthy leaves, they should be 6 to 10 inches tall…then, it’s time to harden them off before planting in the garden.
Harden them off for about a week to 10 days. Then, they are ready to be planted directly into your backyard garden.
Do you want to know how to grow tomatoes indoors or on your patio?
Use a 24 inch container for indeterminate tomato plants or an 18 inch container for determinate tomatoes. Then, follow the planting directions for tomatoes in your backyard garden.
NOTE: Tomatoes grow much better with the dirt temperature above 50 °F (10 °C). Above 70 °F (21 °C) is best.
Dig a hole about a foot deep. Mix some potting soil and a tablespoon of 10-10-10 fertilizer with the dirt…about half potting soil and half dirt…and place the plant in the hole using the mixture to fill in around the plant. If the ground in your backyard garden is very hard, dig the hole to at least 6 inches deep and place the plant on its side, angling the top portion of the plant up and out of the hole.
Make sure that you put ~2/3 of the plant, with the lower branches removed, underground. Allow at least 2 to 4 branches above ground. This will encourage a very strong root system and give the plant a better opportunity to get moisture even during drought conditions. The extra roots will make the plant stronger and the reward will be much better tomatoes.
Space the plants 4 feet apart in each row and space the rows 4 feet apart. If I have the space, I like to add an extra foot of space in the row and between rows. Thus, giving the plants more room to breathe, promoting air circulation, and discouraging disease propagation.
NOTE: This is a “tomato planting” technique. Putting other plants this deep into the ground may kill them.
Water well and label the plants. If the tomatoes are truly delicious, then you will know what seeds to buy next year!
Trellises And Cages And Stakes…Oh My.
Tomatoes need additional support as they grow taller, especially the indeterminate “vining” tomatoes.
Some people put a wooden or metal stake for each tomato plant and tie the main stem of the plant to it. However, when the branches are weighted down with tomatoes, they will begin to hang lower and lower and…sometimes crack and break.
Trellises are best in my humble opinion. Not only can the tomato stem be held securely but, the branches can be tied as well. My garden is fenced in to keep out the critters so, I plant my tomatoes around the inside circumference of the garden using the fencing as my trellis.
Tie Up Your Tomatoes
After the plants grow a couple of feet high, you will want to start tying them to your support structure. If you are growing determinate tomatoes in cages, you may not need for than a few ties here and there…if any. But, you will want to train your plants and try to keep them from touching each other as much as possible. This promotes air circulation and helps them to dry out quickly when they get wet, discouraging diseases such as Septoria leaf spot, which can kill a plant in a very short time.
Use a soft, elastic material. Thin strings and wires will cut into the skin of the plant and not allow much room for the stem to thicken as it grows.
Throughout the year, I save all discarded socks and nylon hose that my family no longer uses. They make ideal strings for tying up all my vegetables, including tomatoes.
A pair of my socks can make about 2 dozen strings. (What can I say? I have big feet!)
As your plants reach a couple of feet high, take a walk through the garden every couple of days. Look for very low hanging branches that are close-to, or touching, the ground…and carefully cut or pinch them off without damaging the main stem.
This is a good opportunity to “tie up loose ends” and keep the plant growing straight and true. And, once you start seeing blossoms, you can remove branches from the the bottom 18 inches of the main stem. If possible, keep a couple leafy branches below the lowest blossoms.
The leafy branches perform important functions for the developing tomatoes. The branches below the tomatoes bring up sugar and other nutrients. The branches above the tomatoes give them shade. However, too many leafy branches below the lowest blossoms will drain energy from the plant and lower the quality of the tomatoes.
I try to keep my pruning of determinate tomatoes to a bare minimum since they will produce all their tomatoes at about the same time.
The indeterminate tomatoes will continually produce new tomatoes and ripen at different times.
No…not you! I’m talking about suckers on the tomato plants. A sucker grows between the crotch of the stem and the branch. There are people who say pinch them off! There are people who say leave them alone.
I am somewhere in the middle. If I think I should open up an area for better air circulation, I’ll pinch them off. Otherwise, I will most likely leave them alone. I’ve seen them grow into healthy, tomato-producing branches and add significantly to your harvest.
Hornworms and Flea Beetles!!!
Also, keep a beady eye out for the dreaded hornworms. They come in all colors but, the ones that attack my plants are the same color as the leaves and almost impossible to spot.
Give them enough time and they can eat many times their weight in tomato leaves, leaving you with a skeleton plant. They stay in the ground during the heat of the day but, night and early morning finds them happily munching away on your beloved plants. Pinch these pests off and toss them as far out of your garden as you can!
But, you may want to leave alone any that you see with little white points on their back (looks a bit like rice). Those white points are wasp eggs. And, when the wasps hatch, they will eat their host hornworm inside and out, as well as other hornworms they find as they fly around your garden!
Another dreaded culprit is the flea beetle. It will turn young tomato leaves into Swiss cheese with tiny holes covering most of the leaves. Hopefully, the tomato plant grows fast enough to replenish its leaves.
Otherwise, an insecticide will be needed if you haven’t considered putting in some plants that will repel them such as catnip or rue. See Plants That Repel Bad Bugs and Attract Good Bugs for detailed descriptions.
There are a few gardening websites that recommend a recipe for a spray consisting of alcohol, water, and liquid soap to get rid of flea beetles and, even hornworms. DO NOT USE THIS SPRAY if you want your tomato plants to live! The alcohol removes the natural wax protection on the tomato plants and the soap clogs them up. Thus, the plants can’t breathe…they turn brown…then they turn black…then they die a horrible death!
Through the years, I have experienced several occasions in which I made the mistake of biting into a tomato that was way past its edibility stage…not a good thing. This has turned some tomato lovers into folks who loathe them! Thankfully, I still love them. I just inspect them carefully to ensure freshness. So, are you a “tomato lover”…or, a “tomato loather” ??? Tell me in the comments or in an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Growing tomatoes is a very educational activity. It teaches us the difference between knowledge and wisdom.
Knowledge is…knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is…not putting it in a fruit salad.