Nothing tastes better than a tomato fresh from the garden. The tomato is the most popular crop (officially a tomato is classified as a fruit because it has seeds) grown by home gardeners. Tomatoes need a long growing season. Gardeners in colder climates should either start seeds indoors or buy transplants. (For information on starting seeds, see the "Planting Tips" article.)
How to Choose Tomato PlantsWhen choosing tomato plants, consider growth habit: tomato varieties can be either "determinate", "indeterminate", or "semi-determinate". Determinate varieties are short and bushy - about three feet (90 cm) tall - and don't require support. Indeterminates usually grow from five to eight feet tall and require stakes or cages for support. Semi-determinates are in between - about three to five feet (90-150 cm) tall. Determinates provide lots of ripe tomatoes at once. Indeterminates provide a continuous harvest from mid-season until first frost.
Also, think about how you plan to use your tomatoes when picking a variety. (See the "Nightshades" article for tips.) And remember: bigger isn't necessarily better. Avoid tall "leggy" plants or those with yellowish leaves - look for bright green bushy plants.
Time to PlantTomatoes like very warm soil and a warm air temperature. Tomato transplants should be put in the garden one to two weeks after last frost. Overnight temperatures should be consistently above 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius), as tomatoes are cold sensitive. If the thermometer unexpectedly dips into the thirties (0 to 3.8 C), cover plants with a tarp.
How Many Days to Harvest?Consider the number of days to maturity when choosing a tomato variety. Days to maturity refers to the time it takes for fruits to mature after setting out transplants. Tomatoes may be early (less than 65 days), mid-season (65-80 days), or late-season (80 days or more).
Early varieties include the ever-popular 'Early Girl' (60 days) and super-early 'Fourth of July' (49 days). Mid-season varieties include large 'Better Boy Hybrids' (72 days) and beautiful orange 'Sweet Tangerines' (68 days). Late season varieties range from succulent pale-yellow 'Garden Peach' (80-90 days) to large beefsteaks such as 'Red Brandywines' (80-85 days) and two-pound 'Mortgage Lifters' (80 days).
Plum varieties include 'Roma VF' (76 days) and 'Black Plum', a Russian variety with a deep mahogany to brown skin. Good cherry varieties include 'Matt's Wild Cherry' (60 days) and 'Yellow Pear' (70-80 days).
Keeping Your Tomatoes HappyTomatoes need full sun and well-drained, slightly acidic soil that's rich in organic matter. Add compost and lime as necessary to create a pH between 6.0 and 6.8. See the article on "Soil and Amendments" for more detail on nutrients and the article on "Watering Your Vegetables" for water requirements.
Staked, Caged, or Free-Growing?Tomatoes may be staked, caged, or left to sprawl on the ground. There are advantages and disadvantages of each method. Staked tomatoes require the removal of side shoots or "suckers" to train to a single stem. The advantages of staking include: less space, cleaner fruit, earlier harvest, larger tomatoes, and easier picking. Disadvantages include: more work, lower yield, and increased risk of sunscald, blossom end rot, and cracking. (See the "Vegetable Diseases" article for more details.)
Cages can be either store-bought or homemade from galvanized wire mesh. Cages save space, they're less work than staking, they provide shade for developing fruit (which prevents sun scald) and they shade the soil (which aids in water retention and can prevent blossom end rot and cracking). Cages produce about twice as many tomatoes per plant as staking.
The easiest method, no doubt, is to let tomato plants sprawl on the ground. Advantages of this method include: no extra work (no staking or removing suckers) and a somewhat higher yield per plant than staked tomatoes. The disadvantages are: you'll need to mulch to keep fruit clean and to keep it from rotting, and you'll need more space per plant. If staking tomatoes, use six- to eight-foot (183 to 244 cm) cedar stakes. Drive stakes to a depth of ten inches (25 cm). Stake soon after planting to avoid root damage. Tie plants to the stakes at one-foot (30 cm) intervals. Use soft non-abrasive cord tied in figure eight loops - with one loop of the "8" around the stake and the other around the plant - to allow for stem expansion.
Space RequirementsDeterminate tomato varieties should be planted at 12- to 24-inch (31 to 61 cm) intervals. Staked indeterminate tomato plants should be spaced at 18- to 24-inch (46 to 61 cm) intervals. Unstaked indeterminate varieties should be spaced at 24- to 36-inch (61 to 91 cm). If left to sprawl, plants should be spaced at 36-inch (91 cm) intervals. Tomato transplants should be planted with their first true set of leaves near the soil's surface.
Plant varieties that mature at different times, and enjoy homegrown tomatoes all season long!