Your perfect tomato

Homegrown tomatoes are one of the great joys of summer. You've peppered us with questions―here's how to get your most luscious crop ever

Jim McCausland

How can I grow the sweetest, most flavorful tomatoes?
A tomato's sugar content is largely a matter of its genetic makeup. Some varieties, like the cherry types, are extremely sweet. Others, including black varieties such as 'Black Krim', 'Cherokee Purple', and 'Paul Robeson', naturally have a robust, intense flavor. But any tomato grown in full sun – for at least eight hours a day – is more flavorful than one from a plant in part shade.

Can I plant tomatoes in the same place every year?
Try to avoid that; diseases build up in the soil and spoil future crops. Grow tomatoes in the same bed only every third or fourth year. If you have just one sunny spot for growing tomatoes, plant in large containers, and change the soil every year.

What are the best varieties for beginners?
All are easy to grow if they're adapted to your region. In climates with a short or cool summer (at high altitudes and along the coast, for example), long-season beefsteak types won't ripen well, but shorter-season varieties will. Cherry (salad) tomatoes are almost foolproof there and elsewhere in the West; our favorites include 'Black Cherry', 'Green Grape', 'Isis Candy', 'Sun Gold', and 'SunSugar'. For a medium-size slicer, 'Early Girl' also produces well nearly everywhere.

Do heirlooms taste better?
Often, but not always. Tomato tasting is not unlike wine tasting – different flavors appeal to different palates, and few crops offer a greater range of flavors than heirloom tomatoes.

What types are best for growing in containers Do potted tomatoes need special care?
The best tomatoes for growing in pots are cherry tomatoes. They do well in containers at least 16 inches deep and wide, and need watering and feeding more often than tomatoes growing in the ground. The bigger the container, the less frequently you'll have to water in hot weather, and the more room roots have to run. A half whiskey or wine barrel is perfect.

What's the difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes, and why should I care which type I grow?
Determinate tomatoes such as 'Celebrity', 'Roma', and 'Sprite' set all their fruit over a relatively short period, so many are great for canning and freezing. They don't grow much after flowering starts and tend to be more compact - better for small spaces and pots. Indeterminate tomatoes flower and fruit over a long season, and plants keep growing larger until cool weather shuts them down. They need room to sprawl and most likely will require sturdy stakes.

Which tomatoes are for which purposes?
Big tomatoes make good slicers; cherry tomatoes are usually used in salads; tomatoes that are good for paste have less water and more pectin, resulting in a smoother paste, and they can also be eaten fresh. Canning tomatoes need high acid to help prevent botulism.

Why are some tomato varieties tagged "VFFNTA"?
Those have been bred to resist verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, nematodes, tobacco mosaic virus, and alternaria leaf spot (early blight) - all diseases or pests that can be devastating in other plants.

Do tomatoes need pollination?
Tomatoes pollinate themselves when wind or insects shake the flowers (the latter is called buzz pollination). If you're growing tomatoes in a greenhouse, give flowering stems a shake whenever you walk past to increase fruit set.

How long does it take from planting to fruit?
Usually about three months, but sometimes faster with short-season varieties. Whatever the variety, fruit always takes longer to ripen (as much as 50 percent longer) in cool-summer climates.

Can tomatoes self-sow?
Definitely. But remember that only heirloom or other open-pollinated tomatoes produce offspring that are like the parents. Hybrids do not.

Should you prune tomatoes?
In cool-summer climates, where tomatoes often don't get enough heat for the fruit to ripen, you can prune plants to let the sun in. Pinch out suckers that sprout from the crotches between the main stems and side branches. On plants trained to stakes, keep one vertical leader. For caged plants, train three or four vertical leaders along the sides of the cage and thin out congested growth to improve air circulation.In warm-summer climates, tomatoes should be pruned only minimally to prevent sunburned fruit. Be sure to keep enough leaves to shade the fruit.

When is it time to pick?
Pick after fruit colors fully. In fall, when night temperatures drop below 55°, pick any tomatoes with some color and ripen them indoors on a windowsill (dark green fruit never ripens).

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