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How to Grow Tomatoes Ultimate Guide

Growing tomatoes couldn’t be easier. Even if you're just starting out on your vegetable garden adventure, the humble tomato plant will give you a confidence boost to tackle anything.

Our guide to how to grow tomatoes will help guide you through every stage of growth, just to make it even easier.

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How to Grow Tomatoes Ultimate Guide
How to Grow Tomatoes Ultimate Guide

The tomato is a firm favorite in all cultures’ culinary history. What would your favorite Pizza be without it? We have the Americans to thank for this staple ingredient.

Solanum lycopersicum by its Latin name, can be traced as far back as the Aztecs where it was used in cooking but the species we know today was probably cultivated and domesticated by the indigenous people of Mexico. 

Europe and the rest of the world soon adopted it where it has been sauced, fried, curried, souped you name it.

Natural Habits of Tomatoes (Solanum Lycopersicum)

Solanum pimpinellifolium is where it all started, this is the small edible ancestor of the lycopersicum of today and still grows wild in northern Peru and Ecuador just south of the equator.

So, you may be unlikely to stumble upon any trailing wild tomatoes. However, I wouldn't recommend snacking on them even if you were lucky enough to find any. 

They are part of the nightshade family and several very similar looking berries in this family are poisonous. 

The best traits of the wild tomato were chosen for its cultivated successors but the trailing, sprawling, vining habit of the wild tomato gives you an idea of how to grow its contemporary.

Different Types of tomatoes

All tomato plants want to grow and grow, they all have that in common. So much so that they will grow from cuttings in summer, to continue flowering and bearing fruit the same year, the stems will produce roots and happily continue this way until checked! 

There are some types of tomato that require a little more attention, but knowing the difference, while important, is pretty easy to grasp. There are two main families of tomato plants; cordon (indeterminate), and bush (determinate). We’ll explore each in a bit more detail:

Cordon Tomatoes

Indeterminate tomatoes, otherwise known as cordon tomatoes, are tomato plants that have no pre-decided height, width or truss coun

Indeterminate tomatoes, otherwise known as cordon tomatoes, are tomato plants that have no pre-decided height, width or truss count.

As the name suggests, their shape is not determined by their breeding, and as such they need a little more support in the way of canes, wires, or cordons, and regular pruning to increase fruit bearing trusses.

Cordon tomatoes tend to send out more side shoots than other varieties, as their natural habit is to send out vines, which can take up the energy needed to ripen fruit, leading to more foliage and wonderful looking (and smelling) plants that are ultimately unproductive.

Bush Tomatoes

Bush tomatoes, or determinate tomatoes tend to produce all their fruits at the same time so are perfect for batch cooking sauces

There are certain types of tomato plants which have a little more self-control. These are the determinate, or bush, varieties. They have their mind made up on how big they want to grow and are typically between 0.5-1m tall.

They tend to produce all their fruits at the same time so are perfect for batch cooking sauces. My favorite, the Banana Legs tomato, produces tons of gorgeous long yellow fruits.

Maskotka is another prolific dwarf bush variety perfect for container gardening producing small perfectly formed round red fruit.

Tumbling Tomatoes

A subdivision of bush tomatoes is the trailing or tumbling tomatoes. Typically producing cherry tomatoes or smaller salad crops. Like bush tomatoes they don’t require much pruning and are completely happy to do their own thing.

Best Types of Tomatoes to Grow in the US

Here’s our list of the best tomato varieties you can grow in the US, including some incredible beefsteaks, and our favorite heirlooms.

Beefsteak Tomatoes

Beefsteak tomatoes are significantly larger fruits than any other variety, sometimes growing up to 20cm wide and need a two-handed approach to harvesting.

They are less juicy than plum, salad, or cherry tomatoes, but make up for it with an incredibly fleshy center which is brilliant for slicing or saucing.

In our experience, they are more prone to blossom end rot, caused by a calcium deficiency in the soil, but we’ll talk more about preventative care for that later.

1. Pink Ponderosa Tomato

Pink Ponderosa is a beautifully blushing pale pink tomato, growing flat pin-cushion fruits

Pink Ponderosa is a beautifully blushing pale pink tomato, growing flat pin-cushion fruits. Because of their firm flesh they slice perfectly into discs making them the ideal accompaniment for a summer burger.

If you’re partial to a BBQ, it doesn’t really get much better than a fresh pink ponderosa straight from the vine, lightly griddled on a toasted bun.

2. Mountain Merit Tomato (F1)

Mountain Merit is the benchmark for a good beefsteak

Source: Bejoseeds.com

Mountain Merit is the benchmark for a good beefsteak, specially bred to have excellent blight resistance, and less likely to develop blossom end rot than other beefsteaks.

Its bright red skin, surrounded by exceptionally sturdy flesh. It makes a wonderful addition to blended tomato soups to thicken them without cream or sugar.

As an F1 variety, it has been bred from two varieties of proven tomato seed, usually taken from well-established heirloom tomatoes. Because of their decided heritage, they will always grow true to the picture on the packet.

Heirloom Tomatoes

Heirloom tomatoes are varieties that have lasted the test of time. While they have less disease resistance than F1 they almost always have better flavor and create a talking point in the kitchen garden.

We really struggle with blight in our garden, so heirlooms are never really a good idea, but every year, we see beautiful packets of exciting heirloom tomato seeds, and these are two of our favorites:

3. Black Krim Tomato

Black Krim Tomato is an old beefsteak heirloom

Black Krim is an old beefsteak heirloom. As the name suggests, it’s dusted black skin is truly distinctive. The inside of the fruit is one of the richest colors you can grow in the garden, with a sunburst hew from black to bright red, and they make the most vibrant sauces, with a real depth of flavour.

4. Zlatava Tomato

Zlatava Tomato have a really potent umami burst when you bite into them

Zlatava is one of those tomatoes that when you grow it, you’ll wonder how you’d never heard of it. They have a really potent umami burst when you bite into them.

Their bright orange exterior is accompanied by a bright red juicy center, which looks more like a grapefruit than a tomato. It’s almost a shame to cook these beauties, which are at their best with a pinch of salt, straight in the mouth.

Salad Tomatoes

I’m pretty sure I don’t need to explain what a salad tomato is, but just in case, it’s a tomato you put in a salad. All salad tomatoes are better sliced than cooked, but most will still work great in a sauce.

Here’s our favorite salad tomatoes to grow (and seriously, it was painful trying to whittle this down to two):

5. Tigerella Tomato

Tigerella Tomato is one of the most vibrant salad tomatoes that looks almost like it’s been covered in dappled gold-leaf, and incredibly reliable

One of the most vibrant salad tomatoes that looks almost like it’s been covered in dappled gold-leaf, and incredibly reliable. We’ve grown Tigerella for the last eight years, and every year got a full harvest from every single one of our plants.

They don’t claim to have any disease resistance built in to their genes, but we’ve never had any issues with Tgerella, even in greenhouses where other tomatoes have succumbed to blight.

6. Green Zebra Tomato

Green Zebra Tomato is pretty unique, with a gentle zingy flesh that works through the sweet juice, and is absolutely perfect in salsa.

Green Zebra always looks unripe, so you need to squeeze the fruits every few days in late summer, once they have started developing yellow stripes.

These stripes are the first sign of ripening, but you’ll only know for sure when they start to soften a little under slight pressure. 

The flavor of Green Zebra is pretty unique, with a gentle zingy flesh that works through the sweet juice, and is absolutely perfect in salsa (even if you forget to buy limes).

Plum Tomatoes

Plum tomatoes are those pre-peeled fruits you find in every tin of tomatoes on supermarket shelves. They come in all sorts of shades, but are always roughly the same size and shape, at around 3-4 inches long, and 1-2 inches wide.

The majority of plum tomatoes are determinate, so take a little less work to care for - Gladiator being a notable exception to the rule, as one of the rare cordon plums.

7. Gladiator (F1) Tomato

Gladiator tomato, known as Supermama in Europe, is one of the most flavorsome plum tomatoes

Source: Ru.all.bi

Gladiator tomato, known as Supermama in Europe, is one of the most flavorsome plum tomatoes, which is used most often as pastes to create tomato sauces, and purees.

They can grow to a seriously impressive size too, at almost 8oz and are one of the largest plumb tomato varieties in cultivation.

8. Banana Legs Tomato

Banana Legs Tomato are incredibly reliable bush varieties

Source: Garden-en.desigusxpro.com

Banana Legs are a great way to understand why some people call plum tomatoes ‘paste tomatoes’. With almost no watery center, they thicken up soups and sauces like no other tomato, with a sweet rounded flavor.

They’re also incredibly reliable bush varieties, in that the entire plant will ripen at the same time, rather than requiring regular picking.

Cherry Tomatoes

Cherry tomatoes are extremely prolific, and will rarely make it to the kitchen because they are a perfect snack while you potter in the garden.

So far this year I haven’t eaten a single cherry tomato, because my family sneaks them every time they visit before I have a chance to harvest them.

Cherries can be determinate or indeterminate tomatoes, but for me, it’s the visual impact of a basket of trailing cherry tomatoes that takes the win.

9. Romello Tomato (F1)

Romello Cherry Tomatoes have the visuals of a tiny heart shaped plum

Romello Cherry Tomatoes have the visuals of a tiny heart shaped plum, but the crisp juiciness of a fresh salad tomato - essentially, someone who was breeding them, got it very right with these umami, snackable, bitesize wonders.

Romello have high late blight resistance too, so are ideal for growing outdoors. Even when they catch blight, they will continue to develop and ripen fruits.

10. Hundreds and Thousands Tomato

Hundreds and Thousands are the least practical tomato you can possibly grow, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it

Source: Thetomatoladyblog.com

Hundreds and Thousands are the least practical tomato you can possibly grow, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. They look like strung jewels, and their tiny fruits cascade from hanging baskets, making a staggering talking point for garden guests.

Because of their size you can just harvest them and throw them straight into the salad bowl for a true pop of flavor.

11. Black Cherry Tomato

Black tomatoes has all the umami flavor of a beefsteak with the vinegary freshness of a perfect salad tomato

Black Cherry is probably our all-time favorite tomato. This heirloom cordon cherry tomato has all the umami flavor of a beefsteak with the vinegary freshness of a perfect salad tomato. 

It has a clean gradient flowing over its skin from black on top to burgundy on its base. It is a truly vigorous grower, so make sure you top it at a height you can manage as it will quickly outgrow you.

How to Grow Tomatoes

How to Grow Tomatoes

How to Grow Tomatoes from Seeds

Tomatoes have an unbelievably easy start to life, and while you can buy tomato plants online, as the tomato seed is very willing to germinate it's much cheaper to grow your own.

It does prefer a warmer environment as most germinating seeds do, so if you have a heated propagator this will come in handy. Sow your tomato seeds from late winter to early spring to give your plants an ample growing season. 

Sow tomatoes thinly, directly into the surface of fine seed compost in a seed tray. Cover lightly with no more than 2mm of sieved compost, or gently press them into the soil surface.

Water from the base by standing the seed tray in water for 5-10 minutes, then leave them on a sunny windowsill, or a heated propagator, and leave them alone. Seedlings should appear in 7-14 days.

Once your seedlings have developed their ‘true leaves’ (these are the leaves that have more character and look like mature tomato foliage) your seedlings are ready to prick out. 

Gently tease each seedling out of the soil, being careful not to damage the stem. The safest way to prick out is to hold the seedling by its leaf.

Placing your seedling into its own 3” pot with fresh seed potting mix will give your seedlings a chance to stretch their legs and produce a healthy root structure. Sprinkle compost around the seedling to fill in, don't apply too much pressure as those roots are precious. 

If your tomato seedling becomes too ‘leggy’ this is likely due to low light levels, they need as much indirect light as possible or they will seek it out.

But don't worry, support your seedling and it can always be planted deeper later on to give it more support. 

How to Grow Tomatoes from Cuttings

Taking a cutting of your tomato plant is an extremely easy and convenient way to create new plants from your original stock. Have you left a tomato side shoot to grow too long?

This is perfect material to stick in some soil and let grow. They will rapidly root as the stem will produce aerial roots and presto, you have a new plant. Make sure you do this early on in the season as it needs enough time to grow big and strong. 

Guide on Planting Tomatoes

Planting Tomatoes Guide

When to Plant Tomatoes

You’ll know when your tomato seedling, or shoot, is ready to be potted up as roots will be poking out the bottom of its pot, and lower leaves may start to turn yellow as the plant has used up all the nutrients in its current home. 

When this happens, usually late spring (around mid-late May) or when the last frost has completely passed and night time temperatures are reliably above 50F, your tomatoes should be ready for their final home, whether that’s in a pot, or in the ground.

Where to Plant Tomatoes

Once they reach around 2ft in their propagation pots, plant young tomatoes in full sun, ideally in a ventilated greenhouse. Ventilation is incredibly important for tomatoes as without it their environment can become too humid, promote leaf wilt, fungus, and in the worst case, blight.

There is no right or wrong container for tomatoes, but we prefer growing in the ground, as they require slightly less maintenance and can regulate their water intake better. Most domestic growers tend to grow 2-3 tomato plants, either indoors or in a greenhouse. 

To achieve this, the most convenient planting method is tomato grow bags, which can be placed directly on shallow trays to stop water flooding your carpets or running out of the soil too quickly on dry days.

Tomato Soil Requirements

Tomatoes are hungry feeders so need nutrient rich soil. While you can buy tomato grow bags with fertilizer in, it can be costly, and can actually lead to overfeeding, so digging a regular garden compost through the soil (for planting in beds) is enough to maintain their growth, along with the nutrients already in your rich earth.

For planting in pots, bags, or containers, you’ll need to create the right environment from scratch. We prefer a mix of tomato compost, and general peat free garden compost for all the nutrients and water retention, with a good handful of perlite mixed through each pot for proper drainage, and root space.

Tomato Plant Care Guide

Watering Tomatoes

How to Water Tomatoes

Tomatoes are thirsty plants and when you plant them in their final position they need watering at least three times per week. Tomatoes prefer rain water as while the fluoride and chlorine in our tap water might be good for us, it’s not for them.

When watering tomatoes, regularity is more important than amount. When the fruits begin to form on the plant, over-watering, or watering at irregular intervals will cause the fruits to split, and become more susceptible to molds.

Water tomatoes from the base, ideally standing pots in trays, or digging recycled plastic bottles into the soil for tomatoes planted in the ground.

By watering from the base, you promote root growth, but also avoid the risk of splashing leaves, as over wetting tomato leaves promotes blight and fungal problems.

Pruning Tomatoes

Cordon, or indeterminate tomatoes are the most complicated to prune, but it’s still probably the simplest job in any tomato care guide.

Side shoots (the small suckers that grow between a main truss and the stem) should be removed every time you see them. They take energy away from fruit production, and slow down flowering.

For all cordon varieties it is important to maintain a height you can manage, so any trusses (the horizontal limbs of your tomato plant, that will later bear fruit), or stems growing above head height should be removed regularly. 

And before we move on, never, ever forget about DDD; dead diseased or damaged. Any dead, diseased or damaged materials need to be removed from tomatoes.

It will lead to stem rot, fungal disease, attract pests, and blight. DDD plant materials should be pruned out as soon as you see them.

How to Train Tomatoes

For bush tomatoes, no real training is needed, simply provide a central stake, and tie in the main stem if it gets floppy. For cordon tomatoes, training is absolutely essential and is likely to become something of an architectural addition to our garden. 

If you grow tomatoes indoors or in a greenhouse, the simplest way to train them is to attach twine to any overhead beams, and run them straight down to the base of the tomato.

Tie them gently to the base, and wrap them around the stem as the tomato grows taller.

For outdoor cordons, either build a frame out of bamboo canes, and repeat the twine supports in the greenhouse, or for individual plants, or individual pots, a bamboo teepee or obelisk is ideal.

Feeding Tomatoes

Your tomato feed should have an NPK of around 8-32-16 which supports overall health. Start to feed your plants when the first flowers are setting. Continue to feed every week during the growing season until all fruit is harvested. 

The best and most cost-effective tomato fertilizers are concentrated liquid feeds, this should be diluted with water at approximately 1-capful per 3-gallon watering can. There's no benefit of overfeeding and can lead to root rot and an empty wallet!

Tomato Best Companion Plants

Companion planting for tomatoes has two purposes; flavor and pest distraction. There are no plants that truly repel slugs (sorry) but there are plants that distract them. 

To distract slugs try planting sacrificial marigolds, these are really easy to grow and start from seed at the same time as your tomatoes so as soon as you plant your tomatoes out accompany them with young marigolds to provide an alternative feast for the slugs. 

Basil is not just a great companion for tomatoes on pizza, but growing them side by side is supposed to actually improve the flavor of the tomato fruit too.

Also see: How to Grow Basil | Complete Grow & Care Guide

When to Harvest Tomatoes?

When to Harvest Tomatoes

The best way to tell when a tomato is ready to harvest is when it looks like it’s ready to harvest. I know that’s an obvious answer, but unlike most other fruiting vegetables tomatoes are upfront with you.

And also give them a squeeze! 90% of tomatoes are red or orange but for the few green varieties like Green Zebra, a carefully timed squeeze in late summer is the best indicator. 

How to Store Tomatoes

Particularly with bush varieties, tomatoes tend to come in glut. When you feel overwhelmed by excessive harvests, there are a few great ways to not just make the most of them but to make your harvest last right through the winter.

Making big batches of sauce is quick, easy, and will keep in the freezer all the way through until next year’s harvest if needed. The other most common ways of using up tomato glut is to preserve them as ketchups, pickles, or chutneys. 

At the end of the season, even the green tomatoes that haven’t ripened make a brilliant zingy fresh chutney that will last for years in properly sterilized jars. (We still have homegrown chutney from 2018). 

One incredible trick we discovered (thanks to my mom) this year was placing whole tomatoes on a baking tray in the freezer.

Once they’ve frozen like billiard balls, put them in zip-lock bags and store in the freezer so even in the coldest darkest months of winter, you can cook fresh tomatoes straight out of the freezer.

Common Tomato Diseases

Tomatoes are equatorial crops that naturally grow in dry conditions, in hot sun with dry winds. Their cultivation in the US is accompanied by high humidity and colder temperatures which can easily lead to the most common and most frustrating of tomato diseases, blight. 

Blight is an airborne fungus which is spread by spores in many ways. It requires moisture to reproduce so by simply controlling humidity and keeping leaves dry you can minimize the chances of your crop developing blight or powdery mildew.

The treatment to slow down the progression of both is usually a spray fungicide like organic neem oil. Another common illness is tomato blossom end rot; read our full guide on how to prevent and treat tomatoes rotting.

There are a few other minor visual aesthetic problems that can occur on tomato plants such as Septoria leaf spot, verticillium wilt or bacterial spec but these are unlikely to seriously affect your plant.

Tools for Growing Tomatoes

Sharp secateurs are your best friend when growing tomatoes

Pruning Scissors or Secateurs

Sharp secateurs are your best friend when growing tomatoes. Ensure your secateurs are always clean before trimming any part of a tomato as blunt tools make rough cuts, which leads to fungal infections.

(Check out our review on the best secateurs for 2022.)

To get right into those hard to reach side shoots without bruising the main stem or trusses, a good pair of fine, sharp pruning scissors are really useful.

A lot of gardeners prefer to prick-out side shoots by hand but if (like me) you have sensitive skin which erupts at the first sight of a tomato plant's potent allergenic oil, then scissors are a must! (Also gloves).

Heated propagators

We have two and religiously use them every year, specifically for our tomatoes, aubergines, and peppers (so basically all the solanums). They like heat to germinate reliably, so a good quality heated propagator is worth investing in as it truly can last a lifetime of growing.

Tomato trays

Trays are a great way to water tomatoes in pots or grow bags either by watering from underneath or catching water as it flows through the pots and collects underneath. There are budget alternatives like using old kitchen trays but purpose made garden trays are sturdier and designed to fit growbags which is perfect for most gardeners’ home growing. 

Growing Tomatoes FAQs

Are tomatoes a fruit?

Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad. Science is knowing that it’s technically a berry. 

How can I treat tomato blight? 

A home-remedy is a part dilute solution of baking soda, castile soap and water. Sprayed onto plants this helps to dry out the fungus. Whenever you are dealing with blight the safest solution is to burn it. 

What soil is best for tomatoes?

Tomatoes prefer a soil that is slightly acidic to neutral. (5.5 - 7.5) Most garden compost either homegrown or from garden centers is about 6 so will do perfectly well. 

Wrapping Up Our How to Grow Tomatoes Guide

Any passionate tomato grower will tell you that it's frankly cheaper to buy tomatoes in a shop than to replenish soil, regularly fertilize and effectively support tomatoes year after year, but without breaking the bank you can create more flavor than you ever knew a tomato had. 

Whether you’re a first-time grower or an already passionate tomato parent, tomatoes are one of those plants that will always remind you of the first time you smelled them, and will always be a joy to grow.

I hope that you take some of the tips from our how to grow tomatoes guide and implement them in your garden next year. 

About the Author Mabel Vasquez

Mabel has enjoyed a long career as a horticulturist, working in nurseries and greenhouses for many years. Although she loves all plants, Mabel has developed a particular passion over the years for herb gardens and indoor plants. Mabel has since retired from her horticulture career and loves sharing her many years of experience with our audience here at Sumo Gardener.

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