If you’re only going to plant one fruit or vegetable in your garden this year, there are none more versatile than the tomato! Most gardeners have a special affection for their tomato plants, and may even grow a few varieties at a time. From sweet, snackable cherry tomatoes to big, juicy Beefeaters, growing tomatoes may be the most rewarding plant you grow this year. Here’s our guide to tomato plant care.
Once you’ve made the decision to become a tomato gardener, the next step is to choose what kinds of tomatoes you want to grow. There are more tomato varieties than we could ever get through in this one article, so let’s first break down the categories that tomatoes fit into to help you narrow down some options.
If you want your tomato fix ASAP, you might prefer a determinate variety. Determinate tomatoes tend to mature earlier and grow in a bushy shape that doesn’t require staking or pinching. Most smaller tomato varieties like Tumbler cherry tomatoes and Roma tomatoes are determinate varieties.
If you prefer non-stop tomato action but you’re prepared to wait for it, indeterminate tomatoes are big, heavy yielders that produce fruit until frost hits. These varieties need to be staked to keep the plants upright, as the fruit gets heavy and weights down the plant.
You’ll also need to pinch back the plant to force the plant to focus on producing more fruit instead of more leaves and stems. To pinch, look along the main stalk for signs of new growth between the stalk and the maturing stems. When you see new stems or leaves sprouting from the stalk, simply pinch them off the plant.
Larger tomatoes tend to be indeterminate varieties, which include most heirloom tomatoes. Beefmaster, Sweet Million, and Early Girl are some popular indeterminate varieties.
Heirloom Tomato Varieties
Heirloom tomatoes sound a little bit like a tomato plant you inherit from your grandmother, but that’s not exactly the case. An heirloom variety produces viable tomato seeds that can be saved and grown into new plants. Heirlooms have become very popular over the past few years because of their interesting flavours, patterns, and colours. Kind of like the craft beer of tomatoes, each heirloom variety has a unique feature that makes them a pleasure to sample. Black Krim and Brandywine are a few examples of heirloom tomatoes.
Where to Plant
Tomatoes are heat lovers and need to be planted in a spot with at least 6 hours of full sun per day. A raised bed or container is best, as the soil maintains a warmer temperature in these environments. If the temperature dips below 16ºC, the plant will stop growing and wait for sunnier days.
Tomatoes aren’t big fans of the wind, so keep them in an environment where they’re protected from strong gusts. The best place to plant tomatoes is against a south-facing wall. If the wall has a light colour, even better— this will reflect light back onto the plant for extra warmth.
Tomatoes love evenly moist soil, which is very different from waterlogged soil! Too much water will drown their roots or cause them to rot, which is the most lethal thing that could happen to a tomato. To prevent this, make sure your garden soil drains quickly enough that your plant isn’t sitting in a puddle after watering. You can mix some peat moss into the soil to improve drainage if the soil seems a little too heavy.
If your tomato plant is looking leggy, you can mound dirt around the stalk of the plant. Tomatoes will grow new roots from any part of the stalk that touches soil, so this will only help to make the plant more stable with a stronger root system.
Tomatoes are heavy feeders and need to be treated with fertilizer in order to grow their best yields. They can also be prone to a condition called blossom end rot, which causes your tomatoes to develop black, rotten bottoms.
To prevent blossom end rot, some folks recommend applying Epsom salt, but this can be misleading. Epsom salts can be beneficial to your tomato plants, but it depends a lot on your soil chemistry. In many cases, Epsom salts can make blossom end rot worse by impeding calcium uptake. We recommend using a product called Cal-Max to get a good balance of calcium and magnesium in your soil. Start using this early on in the year, because once your plant develops blossom end rot, there’s no getting rid of it.
To keep your plants happy and well-fed, go for a slow-release tomato fertilizer. We have several at our garden centre you can choose from, including synthetic and organic types. These fertilizers get mixed into the soil and release nutrients over time to give your tomatoes a consistent balance of nutrients for ideal fruit production.
There’s no inherently better option between organic and synthetic fertilizers. Organic fertilizers are made from plant-based organic material that breaks down and nourishes soil over time, but it’s hard to know exactly what the breakdown of nutrients is in the bag. Synthetic fertilizers are formulated to have an exact balance of nutrients, to make it simple and effective to give your tomatoes the right stuff. Whichever you purchase, make sure to read the package instructions to avoid over-applying!
While we’re lucky in BC to get some pretty early yields versus the rest of Canada, it can be tricky to pinpoint when your tomatoes are ready. While for many varieties the green tomatoes are the unripe ones, some tomatoes are naturally green when ripe or may even keep some green colour at maturity. Instead, look for other clues that the tomato is ready to go.
Read the tag to get an idea what colour your ripe tomatoes should be.
Smell the fruit before picking. Ripe tomatoes will take on a more appetizing smell than unripe ones. If they don’t smell ripe, they probably aren’t.
Weigh them gently in your hand. Ripe fruit should feel pretty heavy, especially compared to unripe tomatoes.
Check the firmness of the flesh. Ripe tomatoes should feel a little soft and juicy, whereas unripe tomatoes are very firm to the touch.
By mid-summer, you should have a tidy sum of delicious tomatoes to harvest! Add them to recipes, can them for the winter, and share them with friends and neighbours. There’s no better hostess gift than a basket of fresh, sweet tomatoes— grown and nurtured by you.