Everything you need to know to grow tasty tomatoes

Tomatoes 101 - Here's everything you need to know: trends, tips for easy growing, and recommendations of tasty favorites.

Courtesy of Doreen Howard
Any homegrown tomato tastes wonderful. There are so many colors, forms, and sizes in the tomato world that an array of them, such as these, becomes a work of art.
Courtesy of Doreen Howard
Spread a two-inch layer of composted manure or compost on tomato beds a week before planting. The topping will provide all the nutrition needed for the entire season and help build overall soil fertility.
Courtesy of Doreen Howard
Pineapple beefsteaks are my favorite tomatoes. So are Black Prince from Siberia and San Marzano paste tomatoes.

I’ve grown more than 100 tomato varieties in the two decades I’ve seriously gardened. I love them all. Each one – heirloom, hybrid, cherry, beefsteak, or paste – has a distinct flavor, texture, and appeal. Once you’ve tasted a home-grown tomato, it’s hard to swallow grocery store versions.

Interest in home-grown tomatoes is booming due to the economy and the quest for healthy, untainted food. Tomatoes are easy to propagate, produce big crops – even in containers – and are lusciously flavored.

These are the trends for tomatoes, according to a number of experts I talked with:

– The demand for black tomatoes has grown substantially as gardeners get beyond their appearance (brown flesh with greenish interior) and taste the tomato’s complexity, according to Gary Ibsen of Carmel, Calif., founder of the heirloom seed company TomatoFest .

Cherry tomatoes of different colors are another trend Mr. Ibsen is seeing. His customers are ordering five or six different colors of cherry types to mix for salads or to eat out of hand. Varieties like Black Cherry, white Italian Ice, Gold Nugget, and Green Grape look stunning with red cherries on salad plates and offer an array of flavors.

– Shorter plants are another new development, because yards are smaller and container cultivation is easy for busy people, says George Ball, president of W. Atlee Burpee & Co. Brandy Boy was one of Burpee’s top five sellers in 2009, because it produces high yields on a shorter plant.

Dwarf varieties are being developed by Tomatopalooza heirloom tomato festival founder Craig LeHoullier, of Raleigh, N.C. Ones like Lime Green Salad, a 20-inch plant that yields three-to-five-ounce green fruit throughout the season, are easy to plant anywhere. He also says that two-to-four-foot plants bearing 20-ounce tomatoes in black, green, gold, orange, pink, and bicolors will be on the market within two years.

– Paste tomatoes are surging in popularity, too, for salsas and sauce. “I use Russian Big Roma and Purple Russian for salsa, because of their acidic, big flavors and firmness of fruit,” Ibsen says.

Mr. LeHoullier goes a step further and color codes his salsas, using whatever tomatoes are ripe. “Green ones go into mild salsas, yellow in medium, and red tomatoes for hot!”

Grow tomatoes the easy way

• Spread a 2-inch-thick layer of bagged mushroom compost or composted manure on top of beds a week before planting. (See second photo at top.)

• Choose varieties that are adapted to your climate.

• After transplants are set out, snake a drip irrigation line or soaker hose through them.

• Mulch plants, covering the water line with grass clippings. Straw is also excellent mulch.

Compost provides the nutrition, weeds are suppressed by the mulch, moisture is conserved, too, and watering is easy. Turn on the water faucet when the soil is dry two inches under the surface.

My favorites

• Striped Cavern: red and orange striped, fluted, hollow tomato that is great for stuffing with tuna salad.

• Garden Peach: fuzzy yellow, blushed with pink, the 2-ounce tomato looks and feels like a peach. Fruity flavor. Kids love them.

• Black Krim: violet-brown small beefsteak with the perfect sweet-tart flavor with plenty of nuanced undertones like salt and lemon.

• Green Zebra: green and amber striped 3- to 5-ounce tomato. Sweet, fruity flavor with citrus undertones.

• Pineapple: huge orange, amber, and red-swirled beefsteak that can weigh up to 1 pound. Firm and sweet with tart nuances. The perfect BLT and hamburger tomato.

Seed sources

Tomato Growers Supply Co.

Tomato Fest
Internet only ordering


Seed Savers Exchange
3094 North Winn Road
Decorah, Iowa 52101
(563) 382-5990

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
(417) 924-8917

Territorial Seed Co.
(541) 942-9545


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Doreen Howard, the Edible Explorer, is one of nine garden writers who blog regularly at Diggin' It. If it’s edible and unusual, Doreen figures out a way to grow it in her USDA Zone 4b garden. She’ll try anything once, even smelly Durian. A former garden editor at Woman’s Day, she writes regularly for The American Gardener and The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s Garden Guide.

Editor’s note: To read more by Doreen Howard, click here. The Monitor’s main gardening page offers articles on many gardening topics. See also our blog archive and our RSS feeds. You may want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our next contest.

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