Tomatoes are to summer what pumpkins are to fall, and weird hair is to Donald Trump. Tomatoes are the most common summer vegetable grown partially because of this iconic status and also because of the variety of things you can do with them. Think about it; salsa, tomatoes in salad, on sandwiches or roasted, plain with some salt or mayo, pasta sauce, pizza sauce, stewed, crushed, or pasted. The list of tomato uses just keeps going. While not rocket science, growing tomatoes is not as simple as it might seem. This article will cover some of the most essential tips and info needed to successfully grow beautiful and delicious tomatoes.
Tomatoes can grow pretty well in most soils, however, there are some optimal soil conditions to grow the biggest plants. First, pH, the concentration of hydrogen ions in a substance, should be somewhere between 5.8 and 6.8. For a reference point, neutral pH is 7.0, milk is somewhere in the ball park of 8.0 and stomach acid is somewhere around 2.5. Tomatoes grow best in soils that are moderately acidic. Testing your soil before you plant can help determine if you need to amend the soil with an acidifier or lime to adjust the pH down or up.
Another important element in your tomato growing success. The soil should hold some water but drain well. Too much sand will cause water to run through the soil and the tomatoes will never get the water they need to grow healthily. Too much clay and water stays in root zone too long and can kill or rot the roots. A quick and easy test for soil is too grab a chunk of the soil in your hand and using your thumb and forefinger try to push it out of you hand. If the soil crumbles to the ground and does not stick together there’s a bit too much sand. On the other hand if it stays together and you can form a long flat extension of soil past your fingers, called a ribbon, then there is too much clay. The nice thing here is that there is an easy way to fix either problem, adding compost. Compost in soils that drain too well help hold water in. In soils that hold too much water, compost loosens the soil up to allow water to flow.
Quality soil has a good amount of organic matter, (which you can get from compost), and a good amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium or N,P,K. Whenever you see bags of fertilizers it will always have three numbers separated by dashes which represent the amount of N, P, and K the fertilizer has. Both organic and inorganic fertilizers should have this listed on the bag, and compost also adds these nutrients (see there it is again). Tomatoes also need a little calcium too. Calcium can be found in certain fertilizers like bone meal, but several years back I was privy to some simple insight from an old gardener. When transplanting your tomato plants (if you do that), crush an old egg shell and place it in the bottom of the hole under the plant. The egg shell will breakdown slowly over time and the calcium will be absorbed into the roots as the plant grows and let me tell you it works, I have no rot due to calcium deficiency and my plants are big.
Hybrid vs Heirloom or Open Pollinators
I’ve heard the term heirloom and open pollinators used interchangeably so for arguments sake I will as well. These are traditional non-hybrid or non-GMO (genetically modified organisms) plants. Think non-Monsanto franken-tomato here. There are dozens of varieties of reds, yellow, greens, purples, and so on. In fact, I have 6 different varieties I’m trying this year. Mine include green zebras, Brandywines, Uglis, and yellow slicers. I get them from a biodynamic farmer near us who has varieties of things that I’ve never even heard of, but they are fantastic and she swears by them. The beauty of these plants is that not only do you get a great variety of tomatoes and a great crop, but the seeds can be saved as well. Once properly collected and dried, these seeds can be grown again next year to get quality producing plants.
Hybrid tomatoes and plants in general are crosses from two distinct varieties to form a new plant, usually to get the best attributes of both plants. They are frequently capable of growing larger both in crops and yields, and often are resistant or tolerant to diseases or varying climatic conditions better than the heirlooms. The problem with them, like other hybrids, is that seeds saved are sterile. Like a mule or liger, true hybrids cannot reproduce. This will require you to buy new seeds or plants the following year. And when the zombie apocalypse occurs you may be prepared for them but you not have your favorite pizza sauce, just think about that for a second.
Determinate vs. Indeterminate
Yes, this is an actual thing. I had never heard of this until a few years ago but there are determinate and indeterminate types of tomatoes. The difference is size, shape and fruit production. Determinate tomatoes tend to be grown in ‘bushes’ and are only about 3 to 4 feet tall. They grow great in small spaces like containers or small beds. The big difference is that they stop growing and flowering after the top buds flower. So you get one crop all at the same time. Growing tomatoes that are determinate is great because they require little to no staking or training and need little fuss like pruning.
Indeterminate tomatoes are the vining variety. Not shockingly, these grow like a vine and need to be trellised or staked somehow to help them grow. Typically indeterminate tomato vines grow around 6’ tall. I’ve seen taller and once read about a man in Georgia I think that grew them as tall as 22 feet. I can’t even fathom it, but the picture that was with the story was incredible. The scaffolding alone to get to the top of the tomato plant was out of this world. Outside of this enormous height potential, the fruiting is different than determinates. Indeterminate tomatoes can grow new flowers and buds while older buds are growing into tomatoes and while other tomatoes are ripening. This gets you longer harvesting and potentially larger yields.
Finally, varieties. The number of tomato varieties is staggering, and they all have different tastes, uses, and acid contents. Larger tomatoes like beefstakes, big boys, and Brandywines are good for slicing for sandwiches and hamburgers. Cherry tomatoes are great for salads because of their small size. While the classic Roma tomato and other plum like tomatoes are generally used for sauces and pastes.
But size isn’t everything for tomatoes. Colors can also say a lot about tomatoes. It’s generally considered that the lighter the color of tomato the less acidic it is, red the most acidic and yellow the least, however, that isn’t always the case. In some cases yellow tomatoes have the same pH as the red or vice versa. There is a general rule of thumb for color though; yellow and lighter colored tomatoes tend to have higher sugar content then dark red tomatoes. This high sugar content masks the acidic taste that is common with the tomato which perhaps is why many think that they have a higher pH. Either way growing a variety can be aesthetically pleasing as well as gastronomically pleasing.
We hope this guide helps you grow fantastic tomatoes, whatever particular variety you choose to grow. If you have any tips on growing tomatoes, please share them with everyone in the comments section below.