How To Plant, Grow, and Care For Tomatoes

Tomatoes are a gardener's best friend. They are commonly added to the gardens of beginning gardeners, and expert green thumbs alike. To get the perfect harvest, you need a combination of the right conditions, and a bit of luck. In this article, gardening expert and farm owner Taylor Sievers examines how to plant, grow, and care for tomatoes in your garden this growing season.

Grow Tomatoes

Would it be summertime without the image of bright red tomatoes piled high on country roadside stands and farmer’s market tables? Do you dream of harvesting your very own juicy, freshly-sliced tomato for your BLT sandwich? Are you looking for a sweet or tart snack that’s easy to pluck and pop in your mouth as you stroll through your backyard? If all this sounds wonderful, then I’d venture to say it’s time to step into the world of growing delicious tomatoes

Tomatoes, scientifically known as Solanum lycopersicum, are members of the Solanaceae family, also known as the nightshade family. The nightshade family includes popular garden plants such as eggplant, peppers, and potatoes. Other not-so-friendly alkaloid-producing plants this family includes are henbane, Jimson weed, belladonna, and tobacco. In fact, because of the bad rap of some of the plants in this family, the tomato was once thought to be poisonous, but we’ll talk more about that later. 

Tomatoes are grown as an annual, though in the tropics they can be grown as a perennial. They have soft, hairy stems and leaves. The leaves are often lobed, and the entire plant has a very distinct scent. The flowers are typically yellow. After pollination becomes round or plum-shaped fruit in colors varying in shades of green, yellow, orange, pink, red, and purple! Read on to learn more about the tomato’s interesting history, growth habits, uses, and awesome health benefits! 

Tomato Plant Overview

Red Fruit Growing on a Vine
Plant Type Annual
Native Area South and Central America
Hardiness Zone USDA 3-11
Genus Solanum
Family Solanaceae
Species Solanum lycopersicum
Growth Rate Medium
Plant Spacing 18-24′ Plants , 36′ Rows
Planting Depth 1/4 inch
Plant Height 2-8+ feet
Watering Requirements Moderate
Pests and Diseases Blossom-end Rot, Tomato Hornworm
Tolerance Temperate to Warm Climates
Maintenance Medium
Soil Type Loam
Attracts Bees
Plant With Basil, Borage, Squash, Garlic
Don’t Plant With Cabbage Family Plants, Fennel
Season Summer
Exposure Full-Sun
Days to Maturity 50-100 days

Plant History and Cultivation 

Unripe Green Fruit in a Garden
South America is the original home to these now-globally popular fruits.

All cultivated varieties of the tomato today are derived from the species Solanum lycopersicum. Wild relatives of this species are native to the coastal areas of South America from Ecuador down to northern Chile.  

The small, red, cherry-tomato-like fruits were cultivated by South Americans and eventually spread up into central America possibly by humans, birds, and other natural routes. Around 7,000 years ago, these smaller-fruited, often weedy-in-nature, plants became domesticated and gave rise to the more modern-looking tomato.  

Just like many plant species of the Americas, interest in tomatoes was piqued again after Columbus’ travels to America. This occured when Spanish explorers brought plants back with them to Spain. In Spain, the tomato was dubbed “pome dei Moro” or “Moorish apple.”  

The first written appearance of the tomato was in Italy in 1544, where the tomato was called “pomo d’oro” or “golden apple.” This reference to a golden color indicates that possibly the varieties that made their way to Europe initially were yellow, rather than red.  

Because the plants were members of the nightshade family, a family known for poisonous plants, people were wary about eating them. In fact, the tomato was thought of more as an ornamental plant at first because of its nightshade family relation. The French called the tomato “pomme d’amour” or “love apple.”  

Tomato Popularity Grows in the States 

Rows of Growing Fruit in a Large Garden
These acidic fruits did not gain popularity in the US until the late 1700s.

Finally, in 1781, we find records of the tomato being grown in Thomas Jefferson’s garden. It is also suggested that the tomato came up with a refugee from Santo Domingo in 1789. It was then introduced to Philadelphia, and then in 1801, the tomato was introduced by an Italian painter to Salem, Massachusetts. 

Tomatoes were used as food in New Orleans by 1812. This was doubtless because of the heavy French influence on southern cuisine, with dishes such as gumbo and jambalaya. However, in the northeastern United States, the tomato was still mostly thought of as poisonous or, at the very least, suspicious. In 1820, a man named Colonel Robert Johnson stood on the courthouse steps of Salem, New Jersey, and ate a raw tomato to prove that the fruit was edible! 

By 1850, tomatoes could be found at urban markets and were widely grown in American home gardens. There were still suspicions about their edibility. Some cookbooks would suggest “cooking for three hours or more” to get rid of the “raw taste.” 

Fruit or Vegetable? 

Two Red Fruit Growing on a Vine
Though technically a fruit, tomatoes have been treated as vegetables.

Though botanically speaking tomatoes are a fruit, in 1893 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the tomato is a vegetable for “tax purposes.” This was due to the tariff act of 1883 which placed a 10% tax on any “vegetables in their natural state” that were imported. Vegetables that were “green, ripened or dried” could enter tax-free. While the importers argued then that tomatoes were technically a fruit, their plea was dismissed.  

Tomatoes Today 

Bunch of Ripe Red Fruit Growing on a Vine
These fruits are one of the most widely grown plants in the US.

By the late 19th century, tomatoes were considered edible. They were widely grown and distributed, however, there were reports that tomatoes could cause cancer. Remarkably, the converse was actually found to be true because tomatoes contain high amounts of lycopene. Lycopene is an antioxidant correlated with decreased risk of cancer in the digestive tract, cervix, prostate, and pancreas.  

Today, tomatoes are widely cultivated across the world and in the United States. The average U.S. citizen consumed 19.32 pounds of tomatoes in 2020. Tomatoes are the second most consumed “vegetable” in the U.S. behind potatoes. Two main sectors exist in tomato production: fresh market tomatoes and processed tomatoes (canned tomato products, tomato sauces, and tomato pastes).   

Florida and California tomato production comprise about ⅔ of the total U.S. fresh tomato acreage. Greenhouse and unheated plastic tunnel production of tomatoes have helped growers in temperate climates extend their production seasons. These systems have also helped farmers increase the quality, consistency, and yields of tomato fruits harvested.  

Tomato Propagation 

Tray of Seedlings in a Greenhouse
These easy-to-grow plants are most commonly propagated by seed or as transplants.

You will likely be either growing your tomatoes from seed or purchasing transplants at a retail store when growing them in the home garden. Tomatoes can also be propagated by cuttings. However, there are few reasons to propagate tomatoes in that manner for a home gardener.

Commercial growers may use grafted seedlings, where the stem of the tomato plant is grafted (attached and grown) onto a different variety’s roots. This is a complicated process that, again, the home gardener will likely not need to worry about as they start their tomato growing journey. 

Seed Starting
Planting Tomato Seed Indoors
Seed starting is often best started off indoors.

To start tomato seed, you will get the best results if you start your seed indoors around 4 to 6 weeks prior to your last estimated frost. These plants are highly frost-sensitive, so don’t be in too much of a hurry to get them outside.

Sow the seeds at a depth of ¼ inch in a cell propagation tray, pot, or open flat filled with seed-starting mix. Tomatoes love heat. So, if you can purchase a seedling heat mat and set it to 75 to 85⁰F, you will have better and more even germination. Bump the heat mat temperature down to 70⁰F after emergence and provide bright light for your seedlings.

Keep the seedlings moist but not soggy. Make sure to monitor moisture levels more often if you are using heat mats. 

If you are not using heat mats to start your seeds, then make sure to put them in a warm, well-lit place. Sometimes people will start seedlings on the top of their refrigerator because of the warmth that exudes from there. Whatever the case, make sure you do not place your seedlings directly in front of a blowing heat source, like an air vent, because this will dry your trays and seedlings out quickly. 

Make sure your seedlings have a bright overhead light. Too little light and the seedlings will be elongated with smaller leaves and tend to flop over (a term known as etiolation). In cases with severely reduced light, the plant will turn yellow (chlorotic).   

When to Plant Tomatoes 

Gardener Planting a Fruit Plant
When to plant your tomatoes depends on whether you started them at home or of you got them at a nursery.

If you plan to direct sow your tomato seedlings into the garden, make sure to sow at ¼ inch depth after your last estimated frost or when the soil has warmed to at least 60⁰F. 

If you started your tomato seeds inside, when tomato seedlings are about 5 inches tall, you can begin to harden them off so that they have better chances of surviving outside. The first part of hardening off is reducing the amount of water you give them. Then, once the last estimated frost date has passed, you can begin to set the seedlings outside for periods of time during the day.  

Make sure that you keep your seedlings in an area that is shadier. It should be an area that’s not exposed to lots of wind. They will not be used to the bright sun at first and may become scalded. Their stems will likely not be strong enough to withstand too much wind either.

Increase the time they’re outside over a period of a week to two weeks until you’re ready to transplant them into the garden or into a container for your patio. If night temperatures are still below freezing, then make sure to bring your plants inside at night. 

How to Grow Tomatoes 

Healthy Tomato Plants
Growing tomatoes is simple and does not require much maintenance.

Transplant your seedlings into an area of the garden that receives full sun (6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight). The best time to plant transplants is in the late afternoon or evening. This is so the plants have time to get adjusted in the cool temperatures of the evening and night before intense heat sets in the next day.  

Most tomato plants are vining in nature (though some varieties are bushier). This means planting them at least 18 to 24 inches apart in the row and 36 inches apart between rows. Standard practice is to use tomato trellises, stakes, or cages to keep the stems and fruit from trailing along the ground. This will help reduce the incidence of disease and overall keep your tomato plants looking tidier.  

What’s neat about tomatoes is that if you bury their stems, the stems will produce roots! The more roots your plant has, then the higher likelihood that the plant will be healthier and more vigorous. If you are purchasing tomato seedlings that are quite leggy (or your own starts are very tall with a lot of space between the soil and the first set of leaves), then utilize this characteristic of the tomato!

Plant your seedlings deeper so that most of the stem is buried below the first set of leaves. You may even pluck off the lower leaves and bury that node in the soil. This practice will help a leggy seedling because it will be less likely to flop over. You’ll also have a bonus of hopefully more root production below the soil surface. 

Crop Rotation 

Young Fruit Plant Growing in Soil
Rotating crops each growing season is beneficial to your plants.

An important note about tomatoes is that you should practice crop rotation within your garden! Do not plant tomatoes in areas that have been previously cropped to other nightshade family plants like peppers, eggplant, and potatoes!

Rotate your crops in your garden each year. You want to make sure that you do not have the same family of plants in the same spot. If you do, you may end up with a buildup of pest and disease issues. Crop rotation helps break up the pest and disease cycles

Water 

Tray of Seedlings Next to Watering Can
Tomatoes need a good deep watering about once a week.

Make sure that tomatoes are receiving consistent moisture during growth. Tomatoes need 1 inch of rainfall per week in order to thrive. If you have to water your tomatoes, make sure that you water well, encouraging the water to go deep within the soil rather than just a shallow sprinkling on the surface that will only encourage rooting at the soil surface.  

For reference, 1 inch of water will wet sandy soil down to a depth of 10 inches and in clay soil 1 inch of water will wet the soil down to 6 inches. You can use a trowel or your finger to check the moisture level of the soil. If soil is only moist down to the first few inches after you’ve watered, then you need to water more.  

If you choose to plant in containers, make sure that the container is at least 12 inches deep or more. You do not want to restrict root growth, so a bigger container is better. The advantage of container growing is that it can be easier to trellis the plants and the roots will often be warmed more than if they were in the ground if you’re trying to get them growing early. 

Fertilizer 

Young Seedling Growing in Fertilized Soil
An application of a well-balanced or low nitrogen fertilizer will benefit tomato growth.

Fertilizers are often sold by their percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (N-P-K) on the package. A well-balanced fertilizer will have mostly equal parts of N, P, and K, and low nitrogen fertilizer will have a smaller first number (N) than the second two numbers (P, K). Too much nitrogen will promote more leafy growth and less fruit growth.  

To promote good soil structure and soil fertility, you can add well-rotted manure or compost to your soil before planting. Use a high quality compost, or even create your own mixed with spent fruits, vegetables, coffee grounds, and other items. Just be aware your tomato plants may need additional fertilizer other than the manure or compost, whether you choose to use synthetic or organic fertilizer.

If you wish to apply a foliar fertilizer, make sure the fertilizer is for foliar use (spraying on the leaves versus applying in the soil). You will burn the leaves of your plants if you use fertilizer as a foliar spray that was not intended for foliar use. Some people will use a foliar calcium fertilizer if they begin to have issues with diseases like blossom-end rot that are exacerbated by calcium deficiencies.  

Maintenance

Bright Yellow Fruit Growing in a Well-Maintained Garden
Pruning your tomato plant heavily depends on the variety.

There is debate on whether you should prune your tomato plants or leave them unpruned in order to receive good yields. Side shoots, known as “suckers,” will often grow at the axil between a leaf branch and the main stem. You may prune or pinch out these suckers for several reasons such as: 

  • Reducing incidence of disease due to increased air flow 
  • Earlier and/or prolonged harvest 
  • Larger fruits 
  • Reduces the total weight of the plant, so less support may be needed 

However, pruning will reduce the number of leaves per plant, and thus will decrease the amount of photosynthesis potential. The amount of fruit per plant may be reduced, and due to fewer leaves, the fruit may be more susceptible to sunscald. 

Should You Prune?

Whether or not you prune off the suckers might also depend on which type of tomato you are growing: determinate or indeterminate. Determinate tomato plants are bushier and grow from one main stem, usually reaching 24 to 30 inches tall. They will grow vegetatively for a period of time and then put on fruit at the end of their stem.

Indeterminate tomatoes will continue to grow vegetatively and reproductively (growing new leaves, stems, and fruit at the same time) throughout the season, and will usually have anywhere from 1 to 4 main stems. The flowers and fruit will come off of the side branches of the stem. Indeterminate tomatoes have more of a “vining” habit, and thus must be staked or caged well.  

Because determinate tomatoes are shorter and bushier, they are the most recommended for container gardening. It is recommended to prune all of the suckers below the lowest flower cluster on determinate tomato varieties, but pruning suckers off of indeterminate tomatoes is not a popular practice. 

When to Harvest Tomatoes 

Person Holding an Unripe Fruit
Tomatoes can be harvested at almost any stage of mature growth.

Harvest tomatoes at any stage between mature green, semi-ripe, or fully ripe. The mature green stage is when the tomato is fully developed in size (but not color) and the fruit cavity is filled with gel. Some gardeners will look for a streak of white or star on the bottom of the tomato. If harvested too green, then the tomato will not ripen after picking.  

Semi-ripe and fully ripe harvests will be when the tomato is starting to color or is fully colored. Some varieties will drop fruit before they are fully ripe, others will be ripe and you can simply give a gentle tug for the fruit to come free, and still others you will need to cut the clusters of fruit off the vine to harvest. It’s okay to experiment with harvest timing, especially when they’re right outside in your garden. 

Some varieties may need to be picked before they are fully ripe because they are prone to cracking. Most heirloom varieties of tomatoes are great examples of this characteristic. If the fruit is left on the plant until fully ripe, oftentimes the skin is so thin that it will split, and thus be susceptible to insects and disease invasion. 

Storage of Tomatoes 

Basket of Ripe Red Fruit on a Counter
Tomatoes are best stored in a cool, dry place, and refrigerators are not ideal as they are too cold.

To ripen tomatoes after picking, simply keep the tomatoes in a warm, well-ventilated area for 1 to 2 weeks. Don’t let the tomatoes touch each other and check on them often. Light is not necessary for ripening. 

To store tomatoes, it’s best to keep them out of the refrigerator. These fruits are especially susceptible to chilling injury, and if kept in a refrigerator they may never develop full flavor. The best storage temperature for ripe and semi-ripe tomatoes is between 50 and 55ºF.

If semi-ripe tomatoes only have 60 to 90% color, then you can store them for up to 1 week at 50ºF. Unripened green tomatoes should be stored at 65 to 70ºF to promote ripening.  

Popular Varieties 

The list of different tomato varieties seems to be almost endless, and each variety can be grouped into other categories based on growth habits, size of fruit, the quantity of fruit, and whether they’re hybrids or open-pollinated varieties. Seed catalogs will often separate them into categories for easy selection, and oftentimes you’ll see notes about disease resistance with the variety, too.  

Note, again, that the plant descriptions will often list varieties as “determinate” or “indeterminate”. This relates to the way a variety grows. Determinate tomatoes are bushier and will set flowers and fruit at the tips of the stems, while indeterminate tomatoes will vine and branch more and set flowers and fruit off of branches. Indeterminate tomatoes require more space and a definite trellis or cage system to keep growth under control.  

Here’s a list of the different types of tomatoes and the most popular varieties for the home garden: 

Cherry or Grape Tomatoes 

Person Holding Cherry Tomatoes
These tiny, tasty tomatoes are beautiful on top of salads or delicious just popping them in your mouth.

These types of tomatoes have smaller fruit that usually grows in clusters. Cherry tomatoes are round in shape, while grape tomatoes are more elongated in shape like a grape. Popular indeterminate cherry tomato varieties are ‘Sun Gold’ (orange-colored fruit), ‘Cherry Bomb’, ‘Sunpeach’, and ‘Supersweet 100’.

A few determinate cherry tomato varieties are ‘Gold Nugget’ and ‘Washington Cherry’. Popular indeterminate grape tomato varieties are ‘Five Star Grape’, ‘Nova’, and ‘Red Pearl’. 

Large-Fruited (“Beefsteak”) Tomatoes 

Beefsteak Tomato
These big guys are yummy sliced and put onto a sandwich.

Beefy tomatoes are excellent for slicing because of their large size with fruit weighing up to one pound or more. One slice can usually cover a sandwich. Popular indeterminate varieties of these tomatoes are ‘Better Boy’, ‘Big Beef Plus’ (a newer version of the popular ‘Big Beef’), and ‘Celebrity’ (semi-determinate). These varieties will mature between 70 and 78 days.  

Small to Medium-Sized Tomatoes 

Medium-Sized Tomatoes
Smaller varieties can serve a multitude of purposes.

Small and medium-sized tomatoes are excellent for slicing and canning. They are less prone to cracking or deformation due to their size. ‘Early Girl’ and ‘4th of July’ are indeterminate varieties with 4 oz fruits that mature earlier in the season. ‘BHN 589’ has excellent disease resistance and is a determinate variety.

‘Jet Star’ is a popular indeterminate hybrid tomato with the quintessential bright-red color and high resistance to blemishes and cracking. The fruit is sweet and uniform in shape, usually weighing between ½ to 1 lb. The flavor is said to be excellent because of the higher sugar content. 

Paste Tomatoes 

Juliet Paste Tomatoes
There are a number of tomatoes grown specifically to be processed into a paste.

These varieties are often red and oblong or plum-shaped. They are known for being “meaty” with very few seeds, which makes them excellent for making sauces and pastes. ‘Plum Regal’ and ‘Juliet’ are hybrid paste tomatoes that are red in color with great flavor and fair to excellent disease resistance.

‘Sunrise Sauce’ is a golden-orange colored low-maintenance paste tomato. Slightly different in shape, oxheart tomatoes (shaped like a heart with a tapered tip) are often large like beefsteak tomatoes but very meaty, so they’re excellent for making sauces. ‘Cauralina’ is a hybrid variety with good disease resistance and large fruit. 

Heirloom Tomatoes 

Heirloom Tomatoes
Heirloom tomatoes come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.

An heirloom vegetable or fruit is a variety that has been grown for several years (some say prior to World War II) and is usually open-pollinated, meaning the seed will be true-to-type from year to year, versus a hybrid, which is a cross between two genetically different individuals of the same species.

Heirlooms are prized for their intense flavors or unique characteristics, but oftentimes these excellent qualities come at a price. Heirloom tomatoes are sometimes more prone to cracking due to thinner skins or more prone to disease in general. This hasn’t stopped gardeners from loving them even to this day, so here are a few favorites: 

‘Chocolate Cherry’
Chocolate Cherry Heirloom Tomatoes
These flavorful little tomatoes are perfect as a snack on their own.

Dense clusters of 1 inch dark or brick-red fruits form on this indeterminate cherry tomato variety that matures around 70 days. These cherry-shaped tomatoes are sweet and excellent for snacking! The flavor is said to be exceptional. 

‘Mortgage Lifter’
Mortgage Lifter Heirloom Tomatoes
Gardeners love this variety of tomato for canning, but also for its low acidity.

This heavy beefsteak-type tomato puts out large, low-acid, pinkish fruit. Mortgage Lifter is a variety that was said to have been developed in the 1930s by a gardener that sold enough to pay off his mortgage! This variety usually matures within 83 days and produces 1 to 1 ½ lb tomatoes with few seeds, which is why people love this variety for canning purposes. 

‘Cherokee Purple’
Cherokee Purple Heirloom Tomato
The large Cherokee Purple has a beautiful color and mouth-watering flavor.

This variety is said to have been around since before 1890 and hailing from the Cherokee Native Americans. The flavor is sweet and described as having that “old-fashioned tomato” flavor. The fruit is relatively large and has a purplish cast at the top with pinkish skin below. Cherokee Purple is prone to cracking, but harvesting semi-ripe will help with this, and the flavor is excellent enough that it’s worth growing anyway.   

‘Amish Paste’
Amish Paste Heirloom Tomatoes
Amish Paste tomatoes have been loved by gardeners and consumers for their excellent taste.

This variety is a longtime favorite heirloom variety producing fruit that is plum to strawberry-shaped with excellent meaty texture and flavor.  

Pests and Diseases 

Tomatoes are a popular “vegetable” crop in the garden, but because of their popularity, it seems that pests and diseases are prolific in tomatoes as well. The great thing about their popularity for human consumption is that plant breeders have focused their efforts on creating new varieties with disease resistance, and you can usually find varieties with disease resistances listed in descriptions in seed catalogs.

Tomato Hornworm 

Tomato Hornworm
These tiny terrors can destroy the leaves of your tomato plant.

These caterpillars are about 2 to 3 inches long and are green with white stripes on their body. The distinctive feature of these caterpillars is the large horn that protrudes from the rear end of their bodies, which is why they’re called the “hornworm.” Several hornworms can quickly defoliate a plant (basically, eat all the leaves), and all you’ll see is a skeleton of bare stems. The hornworm will also feed on the fruits.

Because of their green color, they often blend in, but careful inspection of the plant near the areas of defoliation will usually yield at least 1 or 2 suspects. To control infestations, there are various biological insecticides that can be purchased, but handpicking is also an excellent method since they’re so large and easy to see if you look close.

If you see hornworms with small, white cocoons protruding from their body, leave them. These are pupae of parasitic wasps that are predators of tomato hornworms.  

Stink Bugs 

Stink Bugs
These little stinkers love to munch on the fruit of your tomato plants.

Stink bugs are green, brown, or black insects with a shield-shaped hard back. They like to suck juices from the plant, and you’ll notice hard whitish or pale yellow spots with a central puncture on the fruit just below the skin when there has been feeding by stink bugs. Many species of weeds are host plants of stink bugs, so make sure to keep your garden free of weeds to prevent an infestation. 

Tomato Pinworms 

Tomato Pinworm Damage on a Leaf
Plants infested with these pests should be destroyed.

If you see narrow, black tunnels through the flesh of the fruit and small holes near the stem, this may be a sign of tomato pinworms. Tomato pinworms are larvae that are small and gray. Some may have reddish markings. Destroy the infested fruit. Tilling the soil will help prevent these pests from overwintering.  

Blossom-End Rot 

Blossom-End Rot
Blossom-end rot is caused by a calcium deficiency, so it is best to add it to your soil when planting.

Caused by calcium deficiency and sometimes soil moisture fluctuations, this disease causes brown, leathery rot on the blossom end of the tomato fruits. In hot weather, this rot is especially problematic.

To prevent blossom-end rot, make sure to keep your tomatoes evenly watered and remove any diseased fruit immediately. Reduce stress on the plant as much as you can and choose varieties that are more resistant to blossom-end rot.

Some people will apply a calcium fertilizer to the soil, but to correct symptoms that are appearing during the season, a foliar calcium fertilizer could be the best option (foliar fertilizers are applied to the leaves and plant instead of the soil). Make sure the fertilizer is for foliar use, otherwise you will burn the plant by applying a non-foliar fertilizer to the leaves.

Some long-time gardeners will recommend dropping a Tums in the hole while planting tomatoes to prevent this, though there’s been no formal research on this phenomenon. The idea is that the calcium from the Tums will dissolve and break down in the soil. The best way to prevent this disease, however, is to mulch your plants, make sure they receive even moisture throughout the growing season and choose resistant varieties. 

Early Blight 

Early Blight Damage on a Leaf
This fungal disease can kill your entire plant.

Necrotic (or dead brown) spots will form on the lower leaves first and then progressively move up when your tomato plants are affected with early blight. If you look closely, you’ll often see concentric rings within the spots. Sometimes the spots will occur on the stems and cause defoliation. Choose more resistant varieties to help prevent early blight issues in your garden.  

Septoria Leaf Spot 

Septoria Leaf Spot
Another fungal disease that can be avoided with proper watering is Septoria Leaf Spot.

Patches of circular, dark spots with light centers peppered with dark specks are signs of Septoria leaf spot, which is a fungal disease. The older leaves will be affected first. Remove infected leaves and destroy them to prevent further spread. Water plants at the base instead of overhead to reduce the incidence of disease.  

Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus 

Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus
Thrips spread this deadly virus from one plant to the other, so it is best to prevent them.

Immature tomatoes will show light green rings with raised centers and ripening fruits will be mottled orange and red with blackened areas eventually developing. This virus is spread by thrips, which are very tiny insects that move quickly when disturbed. They suck the contents of the plant cells and their feeding will leave silvery speckling or streaks on the leaves.

Maintain weeds and encourage predatory insects like lacewings and lady beetles to reduce your chances of a thrip infestation. Some varieties are more resistant than others to viruses, but make sure to remove and destroy any infected plants. 

Fruit Cracking 

Fruit Cracking on a Vine
Diseases and pests can enter through cracks in fruit caused by thin skin.

While not necessarily a pest or disease, this is a physiological issue that can occur for a few different reasons. Some varieties are more prone to cracking than others, usually because the skin is much thinner.

Heirloom varieties are known for their flavor, but often have thinner skin that is prone to cracking. Also, irregular moisture can cause issues with cracking. If the fruit has begun to set and the plant receives too much moisture at once, the fruit will swell, causing splitting and cracking.

Cracks in the fruit will allow the easy entrance of pests and diseases, so if you notice the fruit beginning to crack, harvest and use immediately. If diseases or insects have already entered the fruit, remove the fruit immediately and dispose of or compost the fruit.  

Sunscald or Improper Coloring 

Red Fruit With Sunscald
Too much sun for early varieties can cause the fruit to get a sunburn or sunscald.

Sunscald occurs when large, faded, or gray-white sunken spots form on the fruit side that faces the sun (basically like a sunburn for a tomato). Sunscald can occur when too much foliage has been removed from the plant, either from disease or excessive pruning.

This can occur with earlier maturing varieties often because the plant does not have as much leaf growth as a later variety. Choose later varieties, keep your plants as stress-free as possible, and skip pruning if you think this may be an issue. 

Catfacing 

Red Fruit Catfacing
Though unsightly, catfaced fruits are still safe to consume.

Catfacing is a problem mostly in the large-fruited varieties. The fruit will be misshapen or deformed, and the misshapen parts may sort of “scab over,” leaving a rough, brown patch on the deformed part of the fruit. Earlier maturing varieties will have this happen due to incomplete pollination during flowering because of cold temperatures.

Make sure to plant your tomatoes after the weather has sufficiently warmed and to limit water when large-fruited varieties are swelling to reduce catfacing. These tomatoes are still safe to eat. Just cut out the bad parts if it bothers you! 

Few Flowers, No Fruit 

Small Yellow Flowers on a Vine
Too much nitrogen in the soil can cause problems such as no fruit being produced.

If you notice excessive leafy, green growth with little to no flowers, or several dropped flowers, you may have an excess of nitrogen in your soil or your plants may be too shaded. Avoid high nitrogen amendments which cause more leafy, vegetative growth and less flowering and fruit growth.

Make sure your tomato plants are planted in an area with at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day for optimum flower growth. If temperatures are over 100ºF or below 55ºF, the flowers can be damaged and fall. Make sure to wait until temperatures have warmed up to plant your tomato transplants or seeds.  

Preservation and Uses 

Person Cutting Red Ripe Fruit
There are countless dishes that call for tomatoes.

Tomatoes are probably the most common garden plant that’s processed in the home kitchen. Due to their high natural acidity, they can be easily canned at home. This is done with a water bath canner, which may be less daunting than using a pressure canner for the beginning gardener and canner.

If you’re canning for the first time, make sure to follow all processing guidelines to ensure you’re canning safely. There are many great resources out there to help you get started. 

Tomatoes can be scalded in a pot of boiling water and pressed or strained to make tomato juices, sauces, and pastes for fresh use or for canning. Tomatoes can be diced and used fresh or canned, and they can also be sliced fresh for a sandwich. Spaghetti sauce, salsa, chili, jambalaya, and vegetable soup are just a few of the recipes or dishes you can make with fresh and preserved tomatoes!  

Drying Tomatoes

Tomatoes can also be dried in a dehydrator for tasty snacks or used in various recipes that call for sun-dried tomatoes. You may or may not remove the skins depending on your preference. If you want to remove the skins, do this by scalding firm, ripe tomatoes in boiling water for a minute or so. Let the tomato cool and then easily peel the skins off and compost them. Place tomatoes in a dehydrator for 10 to 18 hours at 140ºF with the cut side up.

Store fully dried tomatoes in an air-tight freezer bag and freeze for 6 to 8 months. Note that sun-drying tomatoes may be tricky for gardeners living in cooler climates. This is why using a dehydrator by the manufacturer’s instructions is the safest way to dry tomatoes if you’re unsure about sun-drying.  

Health Benefits of Tomatoes 

Unripe Green Fruit Growing on a Vine
Tomatoes are not only yummy, but they also provide many benefits to your health.

Beyond their delicious uses for flavoring various dishes, tomatoes also have health benefits. Tomatoes are high in Vitamin C, Vitamin A, Vitamin B6, iron, potassium, manganese, and fiber. Tomatoes are rich in antioxidants, particularly an antioxidant called carotenoid, that can help protect against certain cancers. Some antioxidants also slow the development of plaque buildup in arteries.

The carotenoid of most importance that tomatoes contain is called lycopene. It’s known to reduce the risk of prostate, digestive, and pancreatic cancers. Tomatoes have also been shown to fight inflammation from chronic diseases. There’s also evidence that shows consumption of tomato products can reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease.  

Frequently Asked Questions 

How often should tomatoes be watered? 

Tomatoes should be evenly watered for optimal health of the plant. This means that during dry periods you should be vigilant about watering, especially if the plant is used to ample moisture prior to the dry period. Some diseases, like blossom-end rot, come about when the plant has already been aggravated by uneven watering.

Tomatoes should receive approximately 1 inch of water per week throughout the growing season. Install a rainwater gauge near your garden if growing your tomatoes outdoors to measure rainfall, and supplement with water as needed.

For reference, 1 inch of water will wet sandy soil down to a depth of 10 inches and in clay soil 1 inch of water will wet the soil down to 6 inches. You can use a trowel or your finger to check the moisture level of the soil. If soil is only moist down to the first few inches after you’ve watered, then you may need to water more.

What does an overwatered tomato plant look like? 

Just as underwatering a plant can be an issue, so can overwatering. Overwatering creates soggy conditions with little oxygen in the soil, which can be detrimental to plant roots. Soggy conditions can cause root rots and the overall decline in the health of the plant.

Tomato plants may have leaf yellowing or browning if watered too much, and the whole plant may begin to wilt and decline if the roots begin to rot. Other symptoms of overwatering are rapid swelling and cracking of fruit.

Planting in full sun will help promote water evaporation in the soil, and also planting in a pot or raised bed will help with drainage if your garden has poorly drained soil. If you stick your finger in the soil and you feel moisture a few inches down, it’s likely you won’t need to water just yet.

What’s the best fertilizer to use for tomatoes? 

Use a fertilizer that is low in nitrogen and higher in phosphorus and potassium when growing tomatoes. Bags or jugs of fertilizer at hardware stores will often have a triple number listed on the back which indicates the percentage of nitrogen-phosporus-potassium (or N-P-K) in that specific fertilizer.

Some examples would be 8-32-16 or 6-24-24. In addition, tomatoes will benefit from calcium fertilizers to prevent diseases like blossom-end rot. Make sure to use lower nitrogen fertilizers because too much nitrogen will promote only leafy, vegetative growth and not flower or fruit growth.

Why is my tomato plant not putting on fruit?

If you’ve heavily fertilized your tomato plants, the reason you may be seeing only leafy, green growth and not flower or fruit growth is because your soil may have excessive nitrogen in it.

Eventually, your tomato plant will flower, but make sure to back off on the fertilizer if this occurs. Some varieties naturally mature later as well, so it may be that you just haven’t given your plant enough time to flower and set fruit.

Can tomatoes get too much sun? 

Yes, tomatoes can become sunscalded if they receive too much sun. The fruit will develop patches of whitish-gray on the side exposed to the sun. Oftentimes, sunscald will occur when plants are pruned too much, which results in fewer leaves to protect the fruit from sunscald. Excessive leaf drop due to disease can also result in sunscald issues on tomato fruit.

Should I companion plant with my tomatoes?

Yes, there are many benefits of companion planting with tomatoes. You need to make sure that you pair them with the right vegetables, herbs, or flowers as companions though, or you may end up with problems in your garden.

Final Thoughts 

Wow! If you haven’t already noticed, there’s a lot of information about tomatoes out there. It may seem daunting, but in my garden, I feel like one of the easiest “vegetables” (technically, they’re a fruit) to grow has been tomatoes. I almost always have a few disease problems. However, as long as I’m removing diseased fruit and foliage and practicing crop rotation, my tomato patch has produced beautifully and bountifully!

If you’ve never had a garden-fresh tomato on your BLT sandwich or made homemade salsa with your homegrown tomatoes, then you’re missing out! Even if all you have is a small balcony off your fourth-floor apartment, you can grow a tomato plant. You won’t be disappointed by adding these plants to your list for next season! 

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