Planting and Growing Tomatoes

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On this page, I talk about planting and growing tomatoes, with many helpful tips and some advice based on my (David's) own experiences.

"How do I get a great tasting tomato?"

It will take me some time to write this page because there is so much to know about growing tomatoes.

I am not talking about those tasteless tomatoes you get at your local grocery store. Most are just awful. Even the stores that claim their tomatoes are "vine ripened" and to make the point they leave them on part of vine, are not good.

This is a trick to make you think they are vine ripened when in fact they are not.

Most tomatoes are picked while they are still green and then they are kept very cool so that the chemical ethylene is not produced.  Ethylene is what helps them to ripen. 

Once they arrive at their destination, they are sprayed with ethylene so that they turn red but do not actually ripen.

This is why they taste like cardboard.

A tomato that is truly allowed to ripen on the vine has so much more taste to it.  The only way to know if you are eating a truly ripened tomato is to grow it yourself or become friends with someone who grows their own.

And do not be fooled by farmers markets.  We have bought tomatoes from them that tasted like cardboard.  The difference was in price.  They charged a higher price for a "home grown" tomato that was no more homegrown that what I purchased in the store.

Tomatoes come in many different shapes, sizes and colors.  They are usually divided by their size.

There are beefsteak tomatoes which can weight up to a pound or more.  One slice of these can cover a whole sandwich or hamburger.  These are usually round.

There are slicing tomatoes which are 6 to 8 ounces in size.  They can be used in salads and for sandwiches or hamburgers as well but you may need several slices.  These are usually round.

There are plum and paste tomatoes which are about 4 to 6 ounces in size. They are used for salsas, sauces, ketchup and tomato paste.  They are usually oblong and have less water content than beefsteak and slicing tomatoes.

There are cherry tomatoes which are the size of a cherry.  These are usually about 1 to two ounces in size.  They are used for snack eating or salads.  They are usually round but there are some that are pear shaped.

Grape tomatoes are a bit bigger than cherry tomatoes. They have a firmer texture and are sweet so they make a great snack.

There are currant tomatoes which are about 1/2 ounce in size and are good for snack and salads. These are usually round.

I am sure there are other types but these are the main ones.

What color do I choose?

Tomatoes come in a rainbow of colors. There is the usual red, but there is also yellow, orange, purple, white, green (ripe green) and black with a host of multi-colored ones as well.

I know what size and what color I want.

Now how large a plant do I want and how long do I have to wait until harvest time need to be decided.

There are determinate (bush) and indeterminate (climbing) plants. Determinate plants grow to about three to four foot in size and all their tomatoes are ready to harvest over a one to two week time period.

Indeterminate plants will continue to produce tomatoes until it gets down to about 45 degrees. They will also stop producing when day time temps are above 94 degrees. When the night time temps do not get below 75 degrees, they will also stop producing. 

Here in Texas we get two growing seasons for tomatoes. The best thing for us here is to grow two crops of determinate tomatoes.

However, cherry tomatoes will produce and produce and produce until it gets too cold.

Determinate plants can be grown inside a cage that is 2 feet wide by 4 feet tall. Indeterminate plants will need a cage that will allow the plant to grow 6, 8 and even 12 feet.

You can also tie them to stakes and there are several methods you can use if growing in a greenhouse.

You will need to choose between open-pollinated and hybrid. 

Open-pollinated plants will produce tomatoes that you can save the seed from. Hybrid plants are not recommended for seed production since they are the results of combing characteristics from different tomato plants.

Hybrid are usually easier to grow since they are less susceptible to insects and diseases. Hybrids have been designed to ward off certain insects and diseases. Some say the yields from hybrids are greater but I have not noticed a difference.

You would need to check the internet or ask your local county extension agent to make sure you are planting a tomato variety that will do well in your area.

Open pollinates have some built in disease and insect resistance but not as much as hybrids. Hybrids are not GMOs.  GMOs are the combination of different plant families. They are created by changing the DNA make up of a certain type of plant. Currently in the US, the only GMO seeds are some corn and some squash.  But not anyone can buy or grow GMO seeds or plants.

Some open pollinates are heirlooms. Heirlooms are seeds that have generally been around for about 50 to 75 years. There is no standard on this like with organics. 

I have seen companies claim that all open-pollinated seeds are heirlooms and this is just not true. They are spreading false information for the sake of a buck.

You will also need to decide whether to buy plants that have been started or to start your own with seeds.

I chose to start my own tomatoes from seeds. There are hundreds and hundreds of types of tomatoes I can choose from.

Now let's talk about grafting. This is simply taking a sicon (your choice) and grafting it to a root stock.  With grafting, you get a plant that is more disease resistant, easier to grow, higher yields and a much larger plant than it would be without grafting.

GROWING SEEDLINGS: Don't start too early. Root-bound, leggy plants that have open flowers or fruit when planted out may remain stunted and produce poorly. Sow 1/4 inch deep using a soil-less mix (not potting soil), 5 to 6 weeks before plants can be transplanted out after frost danger.

Keep temperature of the starting mix at 65 to 75 degrees. Tomato seeds germinate slower in cooler soil. I like to use the standard 4 inch by 4 inch black plastic pot. 3 inch CowPots will work as well but will require more watering as they tend to dry out quicker.

When first true leaves develop, transplant into 6 inch pots.  Grow seedlings at 60-70°F. Water only enough to keep the mix from drying. I use a germination mix that keeps the seeds at the right moisture.

Also you will want to bottom-water your plants. Pouring water on the seeds can cause them to dislodge and disrupt the germination process thus killing the seeds.

Plants are ready for transplanting outside when they are about six to eight inches tall. Use a hardening off process before transplanting. If you take the plants from inside to outside without using one, the plant growth will be stunted or the plants just might die. They will not perform well.

Plant your plants into the ground. Use a transplant solution like fish fertilizer. You can bury the plant as deep as you want but leave at least four inches above the ground (unless you are using grafted plants, then plant so the graft is about one inch above the ground). 

The tomato plant will grow roots from any portion buried below the ground. If the plant has gotten tall, you can bend it when you plant it so you do not have to dig a deep hole.

Water and fertilize accordingly. Cage them if you want. You can just let them grow on the ground but then they will be more susceptible to disease and insects.

You can prune them by cutting off "suckers" which is a vine that does not have any tomatoes on it. I would not recommend this where the temps are high since these "suckers" provide shade for the fruit and plant as it grows. 

Pick when the fruit has ripened to its mature color. Pick it early and it will not develop its full flavor.

Put some sort of shade on your tomatoes if growing in hot climates. This will also help keep birds and other animals from eating your fruits.

There are many great articles about growing tomatoes on the internet and YouTube. These are just a few things I have learned over the years.

Click here to read more about tomato planting and growing.


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