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
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).
JUMPSTART YOUR TOMATOES
In most of the West, set out seedlings in spring after danger of frost has passed. (In the low desert, plant after Labor Day ? spring planting doesn't work there because tomatoes won't set fruit above about 90?.) Choose a spot with full sun (at least eight hours a day is best), fertilize at planting and again in about two weeks, water sparingly but don't let plants wilt, and you'll get plenty of fruit two or three months later.
Beyond these basics, it always helps to dig 3 or 4 inches of compost into the top foot of soil before planting. The extra organic matter holds air, water, and nutrients better than most unamended soils, which promotes strong growth.
Tomato seedlings can be planted extra-deep to encourage stronger root growth. Bury plants so that the main stem is 2 or 3 inches belowground, and it will develop additional roots. Stake plants to keep ripening tomatoes off the ground, where they're prone to rot. We recommend using one of these two systems.
All the fussing done by tomato aficionado - pruning, elaborate tying and trellising, spraying with hormones - is designed to get sweeter or more fruit, extend the season, or deal with regional cultural challenges. You may eventually experiment with these things, but only after you've learned to love the scent of tomato leaves on your fingers and sampled a few different homegrown varieties.
SEED AND SEEDLING SOURCES
Nurseries are filled with seedlings in May. Plant them as soon as danger of frost has passed. You can also get mail-order seedlings from Laurel's Heirloom Tomato Plants; 310/534-8611, Natural Gardening Company; 707/766-9303, or White Flower Farm; 800/503-9624. For California, many types must be shipped prior to May 8, depending on the weather).
May is late to start tomatoes from seed, but if you have a long growing season, a warm spot in the garden (against a south-facing wall, for example), and act early in the month, you can still get a crop.
Here are some great Western seed sources:
Ed Hume Seeds (web orders only)
Gary Ibsen's TomatoFest (web orders only)
Nichols Garden Nursery; 800/422-3985
Peters Seed (web orders only)
Seeds of Change; 888/762-7333
Tomato Growers Supply Company; 888/478-7333
We talked to tomato growers around the West to narrow down the best varieties. 'Sun Gold' cherry and 'Early Girl' slicer are two that were top picks for flavor and ease of growing in every region. And while the following lists are by no means exhaustive, they represent the tastiest varieties that are proven performers in the five regions of the West that Sunset covers.
HOT TIPS FROM AN HEIRLOOM EXPERT
Below are several heirlooms recommended by Gary Ibsen, tomato book author and founder of the Carmel TomatoFest in Carmel Valley, California.
Best determinate tomatoes for containers
'Belii Naliv': red
'Bush Beefsteak': red
'Fargo': yellow pear
'Principe Borghese': red
'Roughwood Golden Plum' (semi-determinate): orange
Best indeterminate tomato for containers
Best-tasting cherry tomatoes
'Black Cherry': purple
'Camp Joy': red
'Dr. Carolyn': cream yellow
'Grandpa's Minnesota': red
'Hawaiian Currant': red
'Isis Candy': yellow with red
Great varieties for desert gardens
'Costoluto Genovese': red
'Indian Moon': yellow-orange
'Marvel Stripe': bicolored yellow and red
'Pantano Romanesco': red
'Super Sioux': red
'Texas Star': yellow
Next: More warm-season crops