Tomato basics

I think that tomatoes are the reason many people think about starting a garden–and a lot of visits to the farmers’ market, too–but there is something special about picking a tomato that you have grown yourself.  The tomatoes are one of the first things that I look at when the seed catalogs start coming in about December or January.  There are literally dozens of varieties to choose from in any catalog.  It’s hard to decide–I always want to order too many.  While I’m looking in the seed catalogs, I have to make myself stop and think realistically about how much room I have in my garden, how many I can care for, how am I going to use the tomatoes, and how many can I honestly, really, truly use.  No matter how much you like them, there is a limit to how many you can use.

You  need to consider where you will grow the plants.  Tomatoes need lots of sun (at least six hours a day), even moisture, and good soil and fertilizer–just like any fruiting plants.  If you can’t give the plants enough sunlight, you’ll need to buy tomatoes at the farmers’ market because they absolutely beyond your control.  You can control the moisture and nutrition by applying fertilizer.

There are several ways to grow tomatoes–a traditional garden, even if only a small one, or in a container if you can meet the sun requirements on your deck or balcony.  There are advantages to both ways.  Most of the information here is applicable to either setting.  One advantage to container gardening is that since you will start with a soil-less potting mix that is sterile, you will avoid soil-borne diseases, and lots of weeds.

Image from The Regulator Bookshop

For full-size tomatoes, you need to plan on a container that is about 5 gallons since the tomatoes are heavy feeders with a large root system. (If you are thinking of “patio” tomatoes then you may be able to use a smaller container, but remember that in hot weather, you’ll need to water often.)  If you’re new to container gardening, you might check The Bountiful Container (see bibliography) for more detailed information (and other things that you can grow in containers, too).  This is an important part of choosing you tomato seed or plant if you are considering container on the deck or balcony.

To get an idea of the varieties available, you should go browse a seed catalog such as Johnny’s Select Seeds, Territorial Seeds, or some others that Google brings up–I’m just suggesting these as I know that they have lots of tomatoes, and some growing information.

When you’re looking at the seed catalogs you’ll see that plants are categorized in many ways–size, shape, early, late or mid-season, and may be designated as “determinate” or “indeterminate”.  Let’s look at what those things mean.

Determinate tomatoes have a kind of built-in height limit which they reach and then stop.  It’s not only height–but determinate tomatoes tend to produce their fruit in a  more compressed time.  That might be early, mid- or late-season.  So if you’re going to be on vacation in mid-summer, and you’ve planted a mid-season tomato, you may miss you tomato crop and the birds, squirrels, or the neighbors will have gotten the benefit of you tomato.  Tomato varieties that you’d plant out in the garden can be determinate–but large and still need support because of the heavy fruit load.  Patio tomatoes are also determinate–but have been bred to be even shorter–and may not need staking or trellising.  In fact some are short enough to be grown in hanging basket tomatoes or allowed to droop over the sides of a large pot.

Indeterminate tomatoes don’t have that build-in height limit–they keep growing, and growing, and growing, and–a bit like the Energizer Bunny–until cold weather kills them.  Since indeterminate tomatoes produce fruit starting at the bottom and continue upward as long as the weather permits.  They can get very large.  Whether the tomato is determinate or indeterminate is not related to the size of the fruit…so you can have a short plant that bears very large fruit, or an indeterminate plant that is very tall–and produces tiny one-inch cherry tomatoes.

Most tomatoes will need some kind of support–they’re pretty big plants unless you’ve decided to grow plants bred for patio or deck–and even those may need a support–unless they are going to be in a hanging basket,  just because of the weight of the fruit.

Tomatoes come in three basic types: slicing tomatoes–standard, round tomatoes like you see on your sandwich, or often  in insalata caprese; paste tomatoes, sometimes called “plum” tomatoes–with lots of flesh, usually used for cooking, and cherry tomatoes–small, round or perhaps grape- or pear-shaped that are usually very sweet and good for snacking, garnish, or eating out-of-hand.  Since I have limited space, I like one of each type, and because I want as long a season of picking ripe tomatoes, I’d want indeterminate ones.

Once you’ve figured out  these things you need to consider how you’re going to get those plants.  Are you going to start from seed or are you going to buy plants?

For your very first time growing a tomato, I recommend that you buying plant.  True, you likely will not have the selection that you’ve seen in the seed catalogs, but you won’t have the hassle of getting soil, containers, erratic germination, and things like that to contend with. You’ll be able to find more varieties at a farmers’ market or a good garden center, than at one of the “big box” home improvement garden centers.  Besides, if you buy at the farmers’ market the vendor will be able to help you with your choices and good advice.

Now that you have this tomato plant there are a couple more things you  need to consider.  Tomatoes are heat-lovers (well, within reason) so you really want to wait until after danger of frost is past to put them outside.  They’ll be happiest if the  soil has warmed up, and the nighttime temperatures are above 55 ° F  (12 to 13  ° C).

Now, a few other particulars about putting that plant in a larger container or out in the garden. You bought this plant in a small container, but to plant it properly you need to dig a big hole. Much of the stem/stalk needs to be buried to the lowest set of leaves.  Yes, really.  (There is a video to show you how the roots develop when planted deep.)   That gives the plant lots of area to form roots–and remember that tomatoes really need to slurp up lots of food and moisture, so they need to develop large root systems.  Roots will form all along that buried stem and that a good thing.  Water well immediately after planting.  If you have it, put compost in the bottom of the hole that you dug before putting in the plant, or if not, then water with a dilute fertilizer solution.  This plant is going to be busy growing and producing fruit so it needs good nutrition so unless your potting mix contains time-release fertilizer, you’ll want to feed it with dilute fertilizer or fish emulsion weekly or biweekly.  Remember that a tomato plant in a container is dependent on you since it’s root growth is limited by the container.  Tomatoes need calcium to support the tissues so adding oyster shell or quick-release lime will provide needed calcium and prevent blossom end rot in you fruits.

Here is another video which will give you some more details on growing tomatoes in containers, including pruning (suckering) indeterminate tomatoes.

image of blossom end rot (Ohio State University)

blossom end rot

Now, what can go wrong?  Blossom end rot is one of the things that can spoil your tomatoes–it’s from a lack of calcium so adding oyster shell or quick-lime in the hole when you plant can help prevent this.  Other factors contributing to blossom end rot are wide fluctuations in moisture–or even too much water–even moisture is important to tomatoes. No matter how it looks, blossom end rot is a physiological disorder of you plant,  not the result of any infestation of virus, fungus or other tomato pest.

image of tomato hornworm; Colorado State University Cooperative Extension


Since we share the world with insects, there are some problems with pests on your plants. You need to watch for signs of these so that you can control them before too much damage to your plant. One you may see is the hornworm.They have a voracious appetite and you may first discover that you have them by seeing tender parts of leaves eaten away with only the ribs left, or the black/very dark green droppings from the caterpillar.  The best way to control them on a few plants is just to pick them off.  There are other pests which may infest you plants–aphids, black flies, and other–but these are the most common ones here–and fairly simple to prevent or manage.   There’s the internet and/or your garden center to help you identify and manage others that cannot be covered here. There are many more potential pests and problems, such as wilts and blights,  but that is beyond the scope of this post.  You will likely not encounter these problems if you’re growing in a container.

You must keep in mind that if you ask three tomato growers for an opinion on how to grow the best tomatoes you will probably get four opinions.  What’s here is my attempt to cull the opinions and give you some facts to get started.  Now, you can anticipate….

tomatoes laid out on table

tomatoes, tomatoes...and more tomatoes

4 thoughts on “Tomato basics

  1. Pingback: Tomatoes, tomatoes, and more tomatoes….. « A Single Serving

  2. Hydroponic tomatoes can taste as good as tomatoes grown in rich soil outdoors. Hydroponic Gardening is fun and easy way to grow better and bigger yields.
    If tomatoes are to bear fruit, they need to be pollinated. Unless growers are going to engage in artificial pollination, the plants must be accessible to pollinators, which can include insects and wind. Obviously, it is difficult to provide pollinator access to plants grown indoors or in greenhouses. All you can do is buy a small, soft paintbrush and use it to manually pollinate the flowers.
    Pruning tomato suckers is never required and many gardeners don’t bother with tomato pruning at all. However even if you prefer to prune your tomatoes, whether to do so or not depends on the type of tomato plant you are growing.
    Tomatoes are categorized as either determinate or indeterminate, depending on their growth habit.
    Since indeterminate tomato plants can get extremely large and will keep producing tomatoes all season, they can handle some pruning. If you leave all the suckers to grow, your plants will become heavy and out of control. On the other hand, removing all the suckers will result in a more compact plant, but it will also lessen your tomato yield.
    Determinate type tomatoes don’t really require any pruning at all. Determinate tomatoes tend to be more compact. They reach a certain height and then stop growing. They don’t usually set their fruit until the branches are pretty much fully grown and then they set their fruit all at once.
    The main reason for staking and supporting tomato plants is to keep plants and fruit off the ground. This reduces losses from fruit rots when fruit touch the soil and from sunburn when fruit are not shaded by foliage.
    Supported plants are easier to spray or dust for insect and disease control and easier to harvest than those sprawling on the ground. Three popular methods of supporting tomato plants are staking, caging, and trellising.


  3. Pingback: Cherry Sweetie Tomato | Landscaping - Gardening

Comments are closed.