Grow Your Best Tomatoes: 10 Tips
This year, enjoy the best-tasting tomatoes you’ve ever eaten. It’s simple with these expert garden tips.
When you bite into a homegrown tomato, you get more than the freshest flavor possible. You savor the real satisfaction that comes from having cared for it from sprout in the ground to the salad on your plate. Raising your own tomatoes is easy and guaranteed to be rewarding, even if all you have room for is a hanging basket on a patio. To help you get started, we asked a few experienced gardeners for their keys to success.
Which of the many tomato varieties you see in garden centers should you grow? After field- and taste-testing dozens of them, Scott Meyer, author of The City Homesteader, recommends these:
- Sun Gold bears clusters of orange tomatoes even before spring turns to summer, and it keeps it up until fall.
- Tiny Tim fits perfectly into containers and hanging baskets.
- Celebrity is the most reliable variety for salad-size red fruit.
- San Marzano is a meaty, red paste type that brings a balance of sweet and acid flavors to pasta sauce and salsa.
- Heirloom Brandywine’s huge, pink beefsteaks win prizes for their flavor.
A tomato plant typically produces about 8 to 10 pounds each season. “Figure on four plants per tomato eater in your household,” says Robyn Jasko, author of Homesweet Homegrown and founder of GrowIndie.com. “Double that amount if you plan to can and freeze your tomatoes.”
Before planting, dig and loosen the soil in your garden down to 12 inches, if possible. Mix in compost—homemade or bagged—with the soil. If you’re planting in a pot, use the largest you can move, and fill it with a mix of equal parts coir (shredded coconut husks) and compost.
Tomatoes have the unique capacity to grow roots from their stems, says Jessica Walliser, a horticulturist and the author of Grow Organic. Plant your tomatoes so the stem is buried up to the lowest set of leaves. The additional roots build a sturdier, more productive plant.
“Transplant shock” can slow the growth of tomato seedlings for a week or more. Help them settle in quickly by planting them on an overcast—or even better, drizzly—day, Walliser advises.
Every other week until you see the first tomatoes forming, water your plants with a liquid organic fertilizer made from kelp and other sea products. (Find it in garden centers and hardware stores.) “Organic fertilizers promote healthy growth without overfeeding the plants,” Meyer says.
To keep the tomatoes off the ground, hold the vines up with wire cages or tie them to wooden stakes. Set up these supports as soon as you see the plants growing in your garden—if you wait too long, you may damage the roots when you push the stakes or cages into the soil later on.
For the first couple weeks after transplanting, keep the seedlings consistently moist. When they’ve added a few pairs of leaves, begin to water them more deeply but less frequently to encourage the roots to grow down in the soil.
Tomato plants form branches, called suckers, in the spaces between the fruit-bearing limbs. Clip or snap off the suckers to allow air and sunlight to reach more of the productive branches and fruit, Jasko suggests.
Tomatoes change to their final color (red, pink, yellow, or orange) before they are fully ripe. And they stop converting starches to tasty sugars when they are picked. To get the most flavor from your homegrown tomatoes, gently press them with your thumb—if you can smell their aroma, they’re at their peak and ready for you to eat and share.