Tomatoes are delicious herbaceous annuals and one of the easiest crops you can grow, even in a small space. If you’re a beginner gardener or had challenges, follow these practical tips for growing terrific tomatoes and a healthy abundant harvest.
Tomato Growing Guide
How to Select Tomatoes
Tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum syn Lycopersicon esculentum) are members of the Solanaceae (Nightshade) plant family. Their relatives include potatoes, chilli, capsicum and eggplant. There are a huge number of varieties. So, how do you narrow it down to what is best for you?
Obviously, the most important consideration is to choose cultivars suited to your climate. Locally adapted tomatoes tend to be more resilient to weather conditions, pests and diseases.
3 Considerations when Selecting your Tomato Cultivar
- Firstly, whether to grow heirlooms, hybrids or grafted varieties. Do you want to save seeds or space?
- Secondly, do you want large or small sized fruit? How do you intend using them in cooking and do you want to preserve them?
- Thirdly, whether to grow indeterminate or determinate varieties. Your space, microclimate and growing season will influence this decision too.
1. Heirloom vs Hybrid vs Grafted Tomatoes
First, heirlooms or heritage tomato varieties have been carefully saved for purity and handed down for generations – at least 50 to 100 years. For this reason, I favour old fashioned heirloom tomatoes because are grown for their flavour, size, yield or other beneficial characteristics like disease-resistance. Heirloom cultivars grow ‘true-to-type’ (identical to their parent plant). Their seeds are open-pollinated by insects or the wind.
Therefore, the key benefit of heirlooms is you can save seeds and grow future crops for free. You know they will produce an identical tomato. So, once you have grown your favourite varieties, try breeding your own cultivars. Choose the best characteristics that are adapted to your garden conditions. Then, save seeds so you enjoy future harvests with the same tomato traits. Learn more about saving and sourcing seeds.
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Next, hybrids are the result of a controlled pollination method. This is where pollen from two different species of tomatoes is crossed intentionally by a gardener. The purpose is that each parent plant provides a beneficial characteristic (such as early maturity). Thus, producing a better plant in the next generation.
Hybridization does happen randomly in nature too. If you choose hybrid seeds you will see them labelled as ‘F1.’ This indicates a variety that has been bred specifically for a desired trait. Hybrid plants tend to produce bigger harvests and grow better than the two parent varieties due to ‘hybrid vigor.’ This sounds good, right? BUT the fruits grown from F1 plants will produce genetically unstable, sterile seed. Consequently, you can’t save seed to use in following years. Why not?
F1 hybrids do not grow ‘true-to-type’ like heirlooms or grow as strong in the next generation. Hybrid plants will revert back to one of the parent cultivars. This means you have to keep buying new seed every year. So, hybrids are not a very sustainable choice and certainly more expensive! There’s huge pressure on seed banks globally. For food security, it’s safer to be self-reliant with the freedom to grow food from your own seed stocks.
Grafted tomato plants
Finally, grafted tomatoes are formed by joining two plants together. They are grown on vigorous, disease-resistant resilient rootstock. They produce a larger harvest, without compromising flavour. Grafted tomatoes can be ideal for container gardeners because you don’t need as many plants or as much space. You can also graft your own tomatoes.
But what about size?
2. Should you Grow Large or Small Tomato Varieties?
Cherry or grape tomatoes
A favourite for many gardeners, they are compact and don’t generally need staking. I find them much easier to grow. They are less susceptible to pests and diseases and more adaptable to drought. Cherry tomatoes are quicker to mature than most larger varieties. Oh, and they are perfect for salads – no chopping required! Cherry and grape tomatoes suit small gardens. They are great for snacks and are available in lots of flavours and colours.
Large Salad and Beefsteak tomatoes
Also popular, they need support and take longer to harvest as the fruit needs more time to grow and ripen. Salad and beefsteak varieties also tend to have more problems. If you want tomatoes for sandwiches and enjoy their full-bodied flavours, the bigger and heavier salad and beefsteak tomato cultivars might be a good choice.
Romas are ideal for sauces because they are firm, not too juicy and have fewer seeds. However, these cultivars need strong support. They also take longer to harvest as the fruit needs more time to mature.
In summary, large tomato varieties are not suitable for gardeners with a short or cool summer growing season. However, if you want to preserve your harvest by making sauces or bottling tomatoes, you may want to grow varieties that meet these specific needs.
The final consideration is whether you grow a determinate or indeterminate variety.
3. Determinate vs Indeterminate Tomatoes
These are also known as bush, dwarf or mini varieties. Determinate tomatoes are bred to grow to a pre-determined height when mature. They usually don’t grow over 1.2m/4ft. When mature, they stop growing. During this time, they produce flowers and fruit in a month or two. The benefit of determinate cultivars is you pick your tomatoes sooner. However, the plant completes its life earlier too. They are small and short-lived ‘sprinters’!
Determinates have a set number of flowers and fruit and are like ‘well-behaved kids’! You know what you get. If you prune these other than the lower leaves, you will lose your limited harvest. Like most crops, there are pros and cons.
Determinate tomatoes are a good choice if you want a quick crop, have a short growing season or small space.
These varieties are vining and continue to grow. They don’t have a determined height (just an estimate). They grow bigger as they mature and continue to produce fruit. So you can harvest over an extended period. These varieties grow on a vine that can extend 2-3m/6-9ft or higher.
Indeterminate tomatoes get quite straggly if left untrained and unpruned. They need strong vertical support so stems don’t sag or break. A tall trellis is ideal for varieties that grow >1.2m/4ft. Cages and other vertical structures also work well.
Think of indeterminate tomatoes as tall and long-lived ‘marathon runners’! Indeterminate tomatoes are a good choice if you have plenty of space, a long growing season and want an extended harvest.
Now to the juicy part, how to actually get a terrific tomato harvest.
How to Grow Healthy Tomatoes
When to Plant Tomatoes
Tomatoes grow in all regions. If you are in a warm climate, you may be able to grow them most of the year. However, high temperatures can cause problems with germination and fruit set. So, intense heat in summer may be more challenging. Tomatoes are generally sown in spring, summer and autumn as they are frost tender.
Check your days to maturity (60-85 days on average) for the variety you choose to grow. Then you will know how long to wait from seed to harvest. There’s also a way to work with nature to accelerate seed germination and give young seedlings the best chance to get a good start in life. Try planting in harmony with the moon cycle. New moon phase is the best time to sow and transplant. The easiest way to know the ideal time of the month to plant in your climate is to use a moon calendar.
Choose the Best Position for Growing Terrific Tomatoes
- Sow in a full sun location. Ideally, in nutrient-rich, well-drained soil with plenty of compost. Specifically, choose a warm position protected from winds and the cold.
- If you are growing in a container, choose a large deep pot (minimum 30 cm/12 in). Use enriched potting mix that has long-lasting moisture and nutrients. Tomatoes will grow in partial sun in warm climates. So, experiment with your microclimates.
- Avoid sowing tomato seeds or planting seedlings where you have recently grown other members of the Solanaceae family. Crop rotation is good practice. Rotating annual crops in the same family group helps minimise pests and soil-borne diseases.
- To aid pollination for a high yielding tomato crop, consider planting tomatoes near flowers that attract buzz pollinators. These are insects that shake the pollen in the flower for successful fertilization.
Preparing Soil for Tomatoes
Tomatoes are heavy feeders (much like hungry growing teenagers!). They will have a high need for nutrients throughout their growth cycle. As an annual crop, they are ‘takers’ and will leave the soil depleted. So, before planting you need to reinvigorate your soil. If you want lots of healthy fruit, strong roots and a good canopy of leaves to prevent sunburn, make sure to stock the soil pantry first. Good preparation is the key.
Prepare your garden soil well. Add compost, rock minerals (also known as soft rock phosphate, rock dust or minerals) and mulch. If you have a worm farm, add vermicast (worm castings). Avoid high nitrogen fertilisers as you will get lots of leaves but few flowers and fruit!
If you don’t have compost, use some slow-release pelletised organic fertiliser with a balance of nutrients. Aim to compost your food scraps. It’s a sustainable practice to build healthy soil. Simply bury them in the garden bed before planting to enrich it and encourage worms.
Container Grown Tomatoes
If planting into a container, improve your potting mix to provide additional nutrients and moisture-holding ingredients. This prevents it drying out too quickly. Potted tomatoes need staying power! So, put the effort in and you’ll reap rich (and tasty) rewards.
I find self-watering containers ideal for tomatoes. They provide you a buffer of time as they wick up moisture as needed. This can mean the difference between coming home to a ‘dried arrangement’ or a healthy plant!
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Sowing Tomato Seeds
Tomato seeds need a warm soil between 18 – 28°C to germinate. If you sow too early or in very hot weather, high temperatures can delay germination or result in failure. Check the forecast first!
Follow my Seed Starting Guide for success. Remember, sow seeds to save money and seedlings to save time.
Planting Tomato Seedlings
Seedlings will give you a head start on the growing season. Bury your tomato seedling or young plant deep (up the stem). This helps it establish a strong root system from day one. More roots, more shoots, flowers and fruit!
How does this work? Tomato stems have tiny bumps. So, by burying the stems deeper under the soil, adventitious roots form along the stem in addition to the main taproot. This additional root system allows a tomato plant to become more resilient to drought. Also, an extensive root system takes up more nutrients and soil moisture. So, when planting your seedling, bury it deep. Alternatively, lay it sideways in a shallow trench in your pot or garden bed. Leave the top leaves above the soil to photosynthesize.
Finally, you may need to gently stake the tender stem until it starts growing upwards again towards the light.
Feeding and Watering Tomatoes
- Maintain consistent moisture to avoid nutrient deficiencies, stress, pest attack, cracking or splitting of fruit and other problems.
- Avoid over-watering. This can result in split fruit.
- A compost-rich soil will hold sufficient moisture.
- Avoid high nitrogen fertilisers. Adding minerals to your compost or potting mix provides a balance of the macronutrients and micro elements tomatoes need for strong robust growth.
- Alternate feeding with liquid nutrients like vermicompost (worm casting) tea and liquid seaweed to provide trace elements.
- Maintain a thick layer of mulch to hold moisture in.
Tomato flowers are hermaphrodites. Biologically, they have both male and female reproductive organs in the one flower. So, they are ‘self-fertile’ or self-pollinating. You may be wondering ‘why do we need bees then?’ Studies clearly show that tomatoes pollinated by insects result in bigger fruit and greater harvests. It’s a no-brainer.
The most effective insects are buzz pollinators. These native solitary bees vibrate or shake the pollen into the flower. So, while they gather their food, they’re fertilising! Some bees, including Blue Banded Bees and Bumblebees use a technique called buzz pollination or sonication. Vibrating their wings releases pollen which is more or less firmly held by the anthers in the flower. They are fast and efficient. Attracting these bees to your garden is one way to ensure a better harvest.
How to Protect and Support Tomatoes as they Grow
- Firstly, bag, cover or net fruit to protect from birds, pest insects and other animals. Then you get to enjoy your harvest.
- To prevent diseases in tomatoes, they need good aeration. Stake or trellis your plant as it grows to support branches and avoid breakage.
- Prune off lower leaves and suckers to increase ventilation and avoid water splashing onto leaves.
- Snip off any damaged or diseased leaves as you notice them.
- Lastly, avoid moisture on the leaves by watering the soil, not the plant. High humidity is the most common cause of diseases. Drip irrigation and soaker hoses are ideal watering systems.
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Finally, we’re at the fun bit! Nothing tastes better than a warm sun-ripened tomato picked straight off the vine and popped in your mouth! Bite-sized cherry tomatoes make a nourishing healthy snack while gardening.
I use small bags for mine so I can just untie and tip the harvest out into my hand. They taste SO good freshly picked. Sometimes, I eat them all and they don’t even make it inside for dinner. Shh! Don’t tell my husband. He thinks they’re still growing.
Use scissors to snip off the vine to avoid tearing and damaging the stem or immature fruit.
How to Ripen Tomatoes Faster
Tomatoes ripen naturally with warmth and humidity. In fact, they have their best flavour when picked ripe. So, store at room temperature.
What if your tomatoes are not ripening fast enough? The easiest solution is add them to a paper bag with a banana or apple. These fruits release ethylene gas that can help speed up the process. Who can wait?
How to Store Ripe Tomatoes
If your tomatoes are ripe or overripe and you’re not ready to use them yet, store in the refrigerator. Alternatively, use a preservation method. Freeze tomatoes whole, chopped or cooked to lock in flavour and nutrients. Or, use a dehydrator or oven-dry tomatoes to remove moisture. Then, preserve them when semi-dry by storing in oil with herbs or garlic in sterilised jars.
Naturally, tomato flavour is intensified when semi-dried and paired with herbs.
Easy Homemade Tomato Sauce Recipe
One of my favourite ways to enjoy our tomato harvest is homemade tomato sauce. It’s seriously good! Make a small batch for yourself or a big pot to freeze. Don’t get hung up on quantities. Taste testing will make sure you get it right!
- 1-2 chopped large onions
- 2 cloves crushed or finely chopped garlic (organic)
- 1 chopped chilli or pinch dried chilli flakes (optional)
- 1 tblspn water or stock
- 8-10 whole large tomatoes (if you’re in a hurry or prefer a chunky sauce) or chop them if you have time or 2 cups of cherry tomatoes
- 1 teaspoon each of dried oregano and basil (or your favourite herbs)
- 3 teaspoons fresh herbs (whatever you have handy like parsley, chives or basil)
- Olive oil (to drizzle)
- Pinch of mineral salt (Himalayan, Celtic, vegetable etc)
- Good grind of black pepper (for flavour and digestive enzymes)
- Extra fresh herbs/microgreens to serve
- In a large pan, add chopped onions, garlic (and chilli if using).
- Gently sauté in a tablespoon of water or stock for a few minutes until they are translucent.
- Add tomatoes and stir well.
- Add dried oregano and basil (or other dried herbs).
- Simmer gently with the lid on for about 30 minutes.
- At this point, you might start drooling with the aroma of garlic and herbs wafting through your kitchen!
- While the sauce is cooking, pop on your favourite pasta and you’ll be ready to serve up.
- After the sauce has cooked down, add your fresh herbs.
- I’m not one for measuring as I usually cook by eye and feel. So if you’re like me, just grab a good handful of herbs from the garden, rinse and chop them and pop in the pot!
- Simmer for another 5 minutes to wilt them and incorporate the flavour, then turn off the heat.
- Drizzle with olive oil, add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
- Then the most important bit. TASTE the sauce. Adjust any seasonings. [See notes]
- Pour over your pasta, top with fresh herbs or microgreens for digestive enzymes and enjoy.
1. If you don’t have enough tomatoes, add capsicum or peppers to boost the quantity.
2. Tweak the flavouring to your taste as you go.
3. If you don’t have fresh or dried herbs, use pesto.
4. Add more tomatoes if you have them – just increase the seasoning proportionately.
5. If you like it hot, spice your tomato sauce up with chilli. It’s healing and healthy.
6. If the sauce tastes too acidic, I add a teaspoon of stevia, rapadura or coconut sugar to balance the flavours. Healthier options than refined sugar.
7. I use Himalayan pink salt or sea salt which is full of minerals as well as flavour.
8. If you want to bulk up your sauce, add chopped mushrooms, eggplant, grated zucchini and carrot.
9. If you like it smooth rather than chunky, blend your sauce.
10. If you want it thicker, blend a teaspoon of flour with water and stir in for a minute.
This sauce freezes well. It does. I promise. If you have any left that is! It’s a great way to extend your harvest and impress the family. Enjoy.
Why Tomatoes are Good for your Health
Of course, I have left the best for last! Not only do they taste great, tomatoes are a vital dietary ingredient for good health.
Tomatoes come in a variety of colours. These include green, variegated, yellow, orange, pink/purple and black. However, the most common cultivars are red. They are high in antioxidants (that help prevent disease). Red tomatoes are also an excellent source of Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) that supports a strong immune system. Tomatoes are a great source of vitamin A (beta-carotene), Vitamin E, folate, Vitamin B6, and other nutrients including zinc and iron.
Tomatoes are important for heart health. Their colour and shape give us a clue to this benefit! Read on.
Lycopene in Tomatoes
Lycopene is one of the most important phytonutrients tomatoes contain. For instance, one research study confirms “This carotenoid has been extensively studied for its antioxidant and cancer‐preventing properties. Prevention of heart disease has been shown to be another antioxidant role played by lycopene because it reduces the accumulation of platelets that eventually lead to blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes. Lycopene has been repeatedly studied in humans and found to be protective against several cancers, which now include colorectal, prostate, breast, lung, and pancreatic cancers.” Pretty impressive hey?
Research has shown eating lycopene-containing foods (including tomatoes) in the diet can help women reduce the risk of osteoporosis. In addition, the combined results of 21 studies confirm eating tomatoes, especially cooked, “provides protection against prostate cancer. Men who ate the highest amounts of raw tomatoes were found to have an 11% reduction in risk for prostate cancer. Those eating the most cooked tomato products fared even better with a 19% reduction in prostate cancer risk.” Food for thought!
Did you find these tips for growing terrific tomatoes helpful? If so, please share with your friends and fellow gardeners so they benefit too.
- A Review of the Science of Colorful, Plant-Based Food and Practical Strategies for “Eating the Rainbow”
- Dietary Lycopene: Its Properties and Anticarcinogenic Effects
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© Copyright Anne Gibson, The Micro Gardener 2021. https://themicrogardener.com. All rights reserved.
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