Marianne Lipanovich, Houzz Contributor
There's no contest: Homegrown tomatoes, freshly picked, taste best. Given that, including them in a summer vegetable garden is a no-brainer. The next question is, which one to grow? There are tomatoes for every region, from Alaska with its short summers, to the cool Pacific Northwest, to the hot and humid South.
But there are other considerations besides climate. Do you want giant beefsteak tomatoes, salad tomatoes, tiny cherry tomatoes or paste or sauce tomatoes? Are you committed to "traditional" dark red fruits, or are you intrigued by tomatoes that are rosy pink, yellow, orange, green, striped or so dark a purple they look black? Do you want to return to your roots with heirloom varieties, plant one of the newer hybrids or mix and match? The options are endless -- here are some tips to help with the process.
When to plant: Set out starts on nursery plants when the soil is warm and there's no danger of frost. To grow from seed, start seeds indoors five to eight weeks before your planned planting date.
Days to maturity: 50 to 90 days once the plants have been set out
Light requirement: Full sun
Water requirement: Regular and deep watering, but let dry out between waterings
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Planting: Wait until frost is past and the soil has warmed up before planting tomatoes outdoors. Choose a site with rich, well-drained, neutral or slightly acidic soil; amend your soil if it is either alkaline or very acidic. If fusarium or verticillium wilt is a problem in your area, don't plant where you have planted tomatoes in the past two years. Look for a site in full sun for at least six and preferably eight hours per day. Cherry tomatoes can take less sun, but the sunnier the spot, the better the results.
If you don't want to start from seed, you can generally find a good selection of transplants at nurseries, including unusual and heirloom varieties. Look for plants that are short and sturdy rather than tall and lanky with blossoms or fruit.
Remove the bottom two sets of leaves from each transplant, whether nursery bought or started from seed. Dig a hole deep enough to cover the stem up to the bottom of the remaining leaves and add amendments. Set in the plants; add soil and firm the plant in place.
Leave 2 to 3 feet between plants if they will be staked or in cages; 3 to 4 feet if you want to let them grow unfettered.
If you're growing in pots: Look for containers that are at least 20 gallons; a half barrel is a good choice. Cherry tomatoes can be grown in somewhat smaller containers, but choose as large a size as possible. Some people swear by upside-down containers; others find they aren't as productive.
Whatever you choose, make sure there is good drainage. Fill the container with well-amended potting soil and plant as described above.
Once you've planted the tomatoes, whether in the ground or a container, water them thoroughly. If you live in an area especially prone to cutworms, place collars around the seedlings at this time.
This is also the best time to add stakes. They can be traditional tomato cages, stakes or any sturdy support, including a woven support of branches. Nonmetal stakes or cages won't burn the plant if they get hot. Determinate types need little to no staking. Other types can be left to sprawl, but getting them off the ground helps prevent soil-borne diseases and keeps the fruit from rotting or attracting pests.
Growing-season care: Water regularly, directing the water to the base of the plant rather than using overhead sprinklers, and let the soil dry out between waterings. You may need to water only every week to 10 days, depending on your climate. Try to avoid seesawing on water applications -- too much one time, then excessive drying out -- as this can cause fruit split. Cut back on watering as the fruit sets.
Tomatoes don't need too much food. If you have rich soil, you're probably fine. If your soil is less rich, just lightly add a low-nitrogen fertilizer every couple of weeks from the start of blossoms until you finish picking. You can also apply controlled-release fertilizer or use a diluted foliage fertilizer. Many experts recommend worm tea.
As plants grow, use soft ties to attach the stems to the support. If you're using a cage, keep the branches inside. Some people suggest pinching off the suckers that brow between the central stem and the branches. It's not necessary; doing so will result in larger fruit but an overall smaller harvest.
Managing pests: The pests that bother other vegetables will not leave tomatoes alone either. Aphids, Colorado potato beetles, cutworms, flea beetles, leaf miners, melon flies (in tropical areas), nematodes and whiteflies can all cause problems. Tomato hornworms are other common pests.
Practice good gardening techniques and look for organic solutions for common problems, including picking off the hornworms and destroying them. Gophers and other creatures -- raccoons, birds and rodents -- can also wreak havoc on your crop.
Harvest: Pick the fruit when it's firm and fully ripe (which can be a challenge to determine with tomatoes that are still green when ripe). Store it where temperatures remain above 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) -- in other words, not in the refrigerator.
If frost threatens, pick unripe tomatoes and allow them to fully ripen indoors or use immediately in specialty dishes. You can also pull the entire plant and hang it upside down in a sheltered spot until most of the fruit ripens.