Tomatoes are one of the most productive plants you can grow in your garden, with harvests of 8-20 pounds over the course of months! We love to eat them in soups, sauces, salads, fresh or canned. With over 10,000 varieties of tomato plants growing worldwide, this is a very popular garden vegetable! Although it is botanically classified as a fruit, it is used as a vegetable for culinary purposes.
Tomatoes are one of the easiest and most rewarding plants a gardener can grow. In this growing guide, you will learn how to grow tomato plants from seed to fruit. Learn the tomato plant profile, how to start seeds, care and harvest instructions, companion plants, troubleshooting, recipes, popular cultivars, and even how to preserve your bounty.
Tomato Plant Profile
Family: Solanaceae (The Nightshade Family)
Species: S. lycopersicum
Origin: Western South America and Central America
Zone Hardiness: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Life Cycle: Tender perennial usually grown as an annual. Most tomatoes will re-seed themselves readily.
Height: 3-10 feet (1-3 meters)
Width: 1-4 feet (.3-1.2 meters)
Bloom Time: 5-7 weeks after sowing
Appearance/Habit: There are 2 types of tomato growth habits, determinate and indeterminate. Determinate varieties grow to a compact size, usually around 3 feet, then stop their vertical growth and put their energy into fruit ripening. Indeterminate varieties continue to grow to heights of 6-10 feet and produce fruit until they are killed by frost.
Tomato vines are covered in small, very fine hairs that transform into roots when they come in contact with soil. A plant with no vertical support will grow along the ground and develop roots all the way up it’s stem.
Flowers and Fruit: Tomatoes produce small yellow flowers from which fruit develops. The fruit consists of a thin skin and meaty flesh containing hollow spaces inside which are filled with seeds and juice. Fruits come in a variety of colors including red, pink, orange, yellow, green, purple, and black. All parts of a tomato’s fruit are edible.
Pollination: Domestic tomato cultivars are self-fertile but their pollen must still be moved from the anther to the stigma of their flowers by insects, wind or hand pollination.
Ace 55 – A determinate tomato cultivar with low acidity that is delicious when eaten fresh (not suitable for canning).
Golden Sunray – An indeterminate variety that produces large 8 – 10 oz golden orange tomatoes. Their rich flavor and meaty flesh make them perfect for salads or sauces.
Ponderosa Red – A large indeterminate beefsteak tomato variety with small seed cavities. Very meaty and full of flavor, great for slicing.
Black Krim – an indeterminate cultivar which produces high yields of sweet dark reddish/black beefsteak tomatoes. A popular heirloom tomato variety from the Black Sea region of Russia.
Green Striped Zebra – a semi-determinate cultivar which produces medium sized 3 oz. green tomatoes with dark green stripes. A popular old fashioned heirloom tomato with excellent flavor.
Rio Grande – A large determinate plant that produces high yields of large size red tomatoes. An excellent variety for fresh market and processing.
San Marzano – An indeterminate red plum tomato cultivar with 3 1/2″ fruits. Typically used in many popular Italian dishes such as Bolognese, Marinara, Soups, Pizza Sauce, Bruschetta, and more!
Heritage Rainbow Mix – Plant a colorful range of heirloom tomato varieties to experiment with different flavors. Planting different cultivars with different days to maturity can also extend the harvest period.
How to Plant Tomatoes
When to Plant: Plant tomato seeds or transplants outdoors in spring as soon as the nighttime temperatures reach 50°F (10°C).
Propagation Techniques: Start seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before the last spring frost. Seeds can also be sown directly into the soil when the risk of frost has passed.
Tomatoes can be propagated very easily from cuttings either in containers or in the ground. To do this, cut a branch or sucker from a mature plant and plant it so that 2/3 of the cutting is below the surface of the soil. Keep it consistently moist until roots begin to form on the new plant.
The newly propagated plant is a genetic clone of it’s original and cuttings can be taken from it and propagated again. Theoretically, one tomato plant can be cloned repeatedly and grown in a greenhouse for an endless supply of tomatoes! (This is actually how apple trees are grown, as their seeds produce unreliable offspring characteristics. However, unlike tomatoes, apple tree cuttings must be grafted onto the rootstock of another apple tree variety.)
Seed Depth: 1/4 inch
Germination: 5-10 days at 70-80°F (21-27°C)
Hardening Off: Over 7-10 days, gradually increase the tomato seedling’s time outside to prepare them for the change in environmental conditions.
Transplanting: Transplant tomato seedlings outdoors when they are at least 3-4 inches tall and have at least 4 true leaves. Every time you transplant a tomato, plant it 1/3 to 2/3 it’s height deeper in the soil. This will encourage a much stronger root system.
How to Care for Tomato Plants
Days to Maturity: 50-90 days
Light Requirements: Full Sun
Soil pH: 6.0–6.8
Water Requirements: 1-2 inches per week. Consistent watering is key to preventing tomatoes from cracking or splitting. A sudden increase in water intake can cause a growth spurt in the ripening fruit which makes the inside of the tomato grow faster than its skin. Mulch can help retain moisture in the soil and keep water levels more stable.
Care Instructions: Tomato plants benefit from staking so keep them up off the soil. Fruit that comes into contact with the ground is more susceptible to soil borne diseases. Popular choices for staking are tomato cages, spiral stakes, plant clips along a fence or a string trellis.
Fertilizing: Tomatoes require large amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to thrive, along with smaller amounts of calcium, magnesium, sulfur, zinc, iron, boron, chloride, molybdenum, copper and manganese. The fertilizer you use depends on what nutrients are already present in your soil. Perform a soil test to discover what nutrients your soil is lacking. This can be done at home with a pH meter or soil samples can be sent to testing labs in your state. Tomatoes generally do well with an organic fertilizer or compost tea applied every few weeks after they begin setting fruit.
Pruning: Plants that are well pruned allow better air circulation, which prevents diseases. Always remove any dead or diseased portions of the plant right away. Remove suckers as they develop. Suckers can be seen growing at a 45 degree angle off each branch where it meets the main stem (the axil). Remove the main growing tip 4 weeks before the first fall frost to encourage fruit ripening. This will stop the plant from continuing to produce new flowers and fruit. Tomato plants will stain bare hands and the small hairs can irritate skin, so long sleeve garden gloves are recommended.
Plants per Person: 5
Harvest Instructions: Pick larger tomatoes by lightly grasping the fruit and pulling it off the vine. Smaller tomato varieties can be harvested and stored on the vine using Chinese scissors or pruning shears if all fruits are ripe.
Yield: A single tomato plant can yield between 8-20 pounds of produce depending on the cultivar and growing conditions.
Length of Harvest Time: Indeterminate tomatoes continue to produce fruit for 2-4 months until they are killed by frost. Determinate tomato cultivars stop producing once the top buds have begin to set fruit and usually yield for 4-8 weeks.
Saving Seeds: Tomato seeds are found inside the fruit of the tomato plant. Seeds from hybrid or GMO plants should not be saved because their offspring will not be true to type. Save seeds from open-pollinated heirloom plants by cutting an unblemished tomato and scooping out the seeds. Wash the seeds in a mesh sieve to remove any residue, then air dry and store.
Alternatively, tomato seeds can be fermented, which may result in a higher germination rate and treat some seed borne diseases. To ferment tomato seeds: scoop the seeds, pulp and juice from the tomato into a fermentation container with lid and keep at room temperature (don’t add water). Stir once a day for 3 days, then add water. Any seeds or pulp that float to the top of the water should be discarded (continue to add water and remove pulp/floating seeds until only clean seeds remain at the bottom of the container). Then strain, air dry and store.
How to Preserve and Store Tomatoes
Storage Requirements: Tomatoes continue to ripen after they have been removed from the plant. Ethylene (a chemical off-gas of ripening fruit) speeds the ripening process. Store unwashed in a dark location at room temperature. Tomatoes can be stored in a refrigerator, but this causes them to lose flavor.
Maximum Storage Time: 1 week at room temperature, 2 weeks refrigerated, 6-12 months frozen dried or packed in oil, 12-18 months canned (7 days after opening).
Food Preservation Methods:
Canning – Since tomatoes are highly acidic, they can be canned in a hot water bath. They can be canned using raw pack or hot pack methods.
Freezing – To freeze tomatoes, remove the core and seal in a container or vacuum seal bags. Tomatoes can be frozen with or without their skin, cooked or raw, whole, sliced, chopped or pureed.
Drying – Tomatoes can be dried using the oven, a dehydrator or set out in the sun. Core the tomatoes and remove seeds and juice prior to drying. The tomatoes can then be kept whole or powdered and added to recipes as needed.
Packed in Oil – Dried tomatoes can be packed in oil along with herbs and spices to be added to dishes later on.
Culinary Uses for Tomatoes
Tomatoes have a high water content of 95%, are low in carbs and are a great source of fiber. They contain beneficial antioxidants, vitamins and minerals including, vitamin A, vitamin C, Potassium, and Folate. For a full analysis of the tomato’s nutritional content, visit the USDA Nutrition Database.
Flavor Profile: Umami (Savory)
There are too many tomato recipes out there to count, but here are some delicious ideas to try this season.
For a classic dish with deep, rich tomato flavor, this Roasted Tomato Soup Recipe from Our Salty Kitchen fits the bill.
Try this Tomato Pie Recipe from Biscuits and Burlap for a delectable summer side dish!
Preserve your harvest with this Italian Tomato Sauce Recipe from A Family Feast.
If you’re swimming in garden produce, this Fresh Salsa Recipe from Little Broken is a healthy and simple snack to whip up.
Nothing tastes more like summer than this Caprese Salad with Balsamic Glaze Recipe from Natasha’s Kitchen.
Medicinal Uses for Tomatoes
Tomatoes are thought to aid in preventing various types of cancer due to the chemical they contain called lycopene. Tomatoes may also help treat cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, cataracts, asthma, arthritis, common cold, chills, and digestive disorders. The tomato leaf, stem and unripe fruit are all toxic in high doses.
Tomato Companion Plants
Using companion planting techniques can be very beneficial for your garden. Compatible plants help each other in the garden by saving space, improving flavor, providing shade/shelter, accumulating soil nutrients, attracting pollinators and repelling pests.
Good Companions: Roses, Peppers, Asparagus, Basil, Beans, Bee Balm, Oregano, Parsley, Marigold, Alliums, Celery, Geraniums, Petunias, Nasturtium, Borage, Coriander, Chives, Mustard, Fenugreek, Barley, Carrots, Eggplant, Mints, Okra, Sage, Thyme
Attracts: Bumblebees, Sweat Bees, Carpenter Bees
Repels: Asparagus Beetle
Bad Companions: Black Walnut, Alfalfa, Corn, Fennel, Chili Peppers, Peas, Dill, Potatoes, Beetroot, Brassicas, Rosemary, Jerusalem Artichoke
Tomato Plant Pests
One of the best ways to prevent Tomato pests is companion planting. This can deter pests and bring predatory and beneficial insects. If necessary, you can pick off pests by hand, let your chickens into your garden, spray with neem oil or use an organic insecticidal soap.
Beet Armyworm and Leafhopper, Cutworms, False Chinch Bug, Flea Beetles, Garden Symphylans, Aphids, Hornworms, Leafminers, Loopers, Lygus Bugs, Potato Tuberworm, Stink Bugs, Thrips, Tomato Bug, Tomato Fruitworm, Tomato Pinworm, Tomato Psyllid, Tomato Russet Mite, Western Yellowstriped Armyworm, Whiteflies, Wireworms
Tomato Plant Diseases
The tomato plant is plagued by a slew of diseases, but many can be avoided with proper plant care. To help prevent tomato disease, practice regular crop rotation, keep fruits up off the soil by staking or trellising, remove dead or diseased parts of the plant immediately, disinfect gardening supplies regularly and avoid over-watering. There are also organic disease control sprays that can eliminate a wide range of fungi and bacteria.
Alfalfa Mosaic, Alternaria Stem Canker, Anthracnose, Bacterial Canker, Speck and Spot, Black Mold, Corky Root Rot, Curly Top, Damping-Off, Early Blight, Fusarium Crown and Root Rot, Fusarium Foot Rot, Fusarium, Wilt, Gray Mold, Late Blight, Mosaic Diseases, Phytophthora Root Rot, Powdery Mildew, Southern Blight, Tobacco Mosaic, Tobacco Streak, Tomato Big Bud, Tomato Bushy Stunt, Tomato Infectious Chlorosis, Tomato Pith Necrosis, Tomato Spotted Wilt, Tomato Yellow Leaf Curl, Verticillium Wilt, Water Mold, White Mold