Primer on growing the perfect tomato: Part I

By Lynette L. Walther | Jun 24, 2020
Photo by: Lynette L. Walther Summer’s rewards. Come summer there’s nothing better than to fill our plates with big slices of vine-ripened tomatoes, cucumbers and fresh corn — all straight from the vegetable garden.

Hands down, tomatoes are one of the most popular choices for home vegetable gardens. I grew up in the shadow of my Grandmother Reba’s award-winning tomato vines. While the varieties she grew “way back when” were a far cry from some of today’s hot hybrids, her vegetable garden tucked into a small town lot pumped out must have been a hundred pounds of vine-ripened red tomatoes each summer.

One year news of her tomato success made it into the local newspaper, a feat of which she and the rest of the family were especially proud. A faded old newspaper clipping attests to that honor. Too bad I did not have the foresight to write down her formula for tomato success. But thankfully I do have the National Garden Bureau to come to the rescue on a variety of tomato-growing issues.

Here are NGB breeder members’ answers for the first half of dozen of the most often asked growing tomatoes questions. We’ll look at the second half next time, and since we don’t have my Grandmother Reba to coach us to gardening victory, hopefully these answers will help you have a delicious and productive tomato season as well.

What’s the difference between indeterminate and determinate tomatoes?

Basically, an indeterminate tomato will continue to grow vegetatively (leaves and stems) all season long, and they will also flower and produce fruit all season long. Indeterminate tomatoes typically perform best when grown in the ground rather than a container, and can get quite large/tall.

Determinate tomatoes, on the other hand, will grow vegetatively to a certain point and then produce a flush of flowers, which then form fruits. Most determinate tomatoes tend to have a bush habit and can grow well in a container or in the ground. They also tend to produce a large amount of fruit over a relatively short time period (approximately three to five weeks depending on variety and growing conditions).

There is a third type called semi-determinate which is bushy, like a determinate, but will set and ripen fruit over a longer period of time. The 2020 AAS Award Winner ‘Celano’ is a semi-determinate. The best way to grow determinate or semi-determinate plants is to place a cage around the tomato while still small and not prune.


A recent column on dandelions prompted questions from readers about the special tool the author uses to remove weeds. It is called a Weed Hound. The sturdy tool is operated from a standing position, so it takes the bending out of this laborious chore.

Can your tomatoes survive if you plant them too early in the season?

They might survive if you keep the young plants warm with a cloche or other protective cover. Tomatoes are not frost-hardy and will die if exposed to 32 degrees F without protection. It depends on what sort of temps you are experiencing. Tomatoes can tolerate the 40s and even high 30s F but don’t necessarily “enjoy” being grown in those temps.

How do I plant my tomatoes properly?

Remove the lower leaves off of the stem and bury the stem about two-thirds deep. The portion of the stem that is buried will form roots, which will allow more water and nutrient uptake, making the plant stronger and sturdier. Tomatoes are one of the easiest garden plants to grow. They need as much direct sunlight as possible to produce the highest yield.

Native to the tropics, tomatoes require warm temperatures for good growth, so wait until the nighttime air has warmed to about 55 degrees F before transplanting them. Planting tomatoes too soon will only slow them down.

How often should I water my tomato plants?

Continue watering regularly for about two weeks until the plants are established. Throughout the growing season remember to water the plants deeply during dry periods for as long as they are setting fruit. Established tomato plants need at least one inch of precipitation per week.

I’d prefer not to cage my tomatoes, is there another way to support my plant?

There are lots of different ways to support your tomato. The first thing to check is whether the variety is determinate (more bush-type) or indeterminate (more of a vining, larger plant).

If you get a thick stake and put it in the ground near the base of the tomato stem, you could tie up the plant along the stake as it continues to grow. Using fencing to support the plant is another option but there are also lots of attractive supports available from retailers. Another option is called the Florida Weave and works well if you are growing a number of tomato plants in a row.

What is blossom end rot?

Blossom end rot on tomatoes typically occurs when there is uneven watering, which can oftentimes be out of our control depending on the amount of precipitation. My recommendation is to evenly water as best as you can. Roma tomatoes tend to show the most amount of blossom end rot and cherry tomatoes tend to show the least amount. Next time we’ll look at more tomato issues and recommendations to solve them.

In the meantime don’t forget to plant some flowers too in those vegetable gardens. They will attract pollinators to insure a bountiful crop.

Lynette L. Walther is the GardenComm Gold medal winner for writing and a five-time recipient of the GardenComm Silver Medal of Achievement and the National Garden Bureau’s Exemplary Journalism Award. Her gardens are in Camden.

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