Growing Tomatoes - Tips, Tricks, Health Benefits, Fertilizer

tomatoes on table

Being the crown jewel of many gardens, you like most people probably think of tomatoes when you think of growing a vegetable garden. Here on our homestead, the one plant we definitely have to grow in our garden is the tomato. I'm so amazed at the wonder and beauty of a tomato and the many health benefits it has.

I've been growing tomatoes for probably as long as I have had a garden which is most of my life. The tomato is so versatile in it's use and bountiful benefits for us. The health benefits of tomatoes are quite impressive with powerful nutritional content such as vitamin A, C, K, folate, thiamin, lycopene and much more.

I'd like to share some of these health benefits I learned with you plus tips, tricks, and fertilizer needs for growing tomatoes from my experience of growing them for many years.

Juicy red dripping with flavor, the tomato, known scientifically as Solanum lycopersicum, is the berry of a plant of the nightshade family. With origins tracing back to the early Aztecs about 700 A.D., it is believed the tomato is native to the Americas.

First of all though, I have a question for you. Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable?

It turns out that depending on which way you are looking at it...it's both!

Botanically it is a fruit which scientists agree to. The classification of a fruit: a botanical ovary - a sac that contains egg cells or seeds. The tomato perfectly fits this description doesn’t it.

Legally though, the tomato is a vegetable! Back in the year 1893, the U.S. Supreme Court so ruled it as a vegetable in the case of Nix vs. Hedden (1893 that raised the question of the tomato’s classification).

So the bottom line seems to be that even though the debate over whether the tomato is a fruit or a vegetable still continues, both are correct.

Varieties And Growing

It is estimated by some experts that there are up to 25,000 varieties of tomatoes to choose from. Even for the most enthusiastic home gardener this can be overwhelming.

No wonder I have such a hard time deciding just which variety to plant – I have so little garden space I have to be somewhat selective to plant just the right ones! According to the USDA, there's a lot of people who love tomatoes for which I'm not surprised.

According to ERS’s (Economic Research Service) loss-adjusted food availability data, Americans consumed 46.4 pounds per person of potatoes and 29.6 pounds of tomatoes in 2016. Forty percent of potato consumption was frozen and 58 percent of tomato consumption was canned, as French fries and pizza sauce contribute to the high consumption of these two vegetables. The third highest vegetable—onions—came in at 8.7 pounds per person.

https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-the-essentials/food-availability-and-consumption

Tomatoes are one of America’s most popular fresh-market vegetable along with potatoes, lettuce, and onions. Fresh-market tomatoes are grown in all 50 states so if you are unable to grow your own, you can at least visit a fresh-market close to you.

Each year on our homestead we grow organic heirloom or non-hybrid varieties, saving the seeds from the best of each variety that we like the most for planting in the next years growing season. With the typical beefsteak type tomatoes for slicing to the cherry, pear and tiny current sizes there are so many to choose from.

Tomatoes come in all kinds of colors of red, stripes, purple, orange, yellow and even black. It’s literally lots of fun deciding what you want to grow. And what a beautiful way to add color to your garden in the process.

It's always a good idea to grow three or four varieties of tomatoes as some are more susceptible to disease than others and you will find you prefer the taste of one variety over another.

Delightful bowl of Gardener's Delight cherry tomatoes

I've found that growing a fabulous cherry tomato called Gardener's Delight is an easy one to grow. It produces literally tons of very tasty, fairly large salad tomatoes. Cherry tomato varieties are some of the best tomato plants to grow if you have a short season like we do but can't grow inside of a greenhouse or hoop house. It's an easy beginner gardener's tomato to try!

Reviews have proclaimed the Gardener's Delight to be one of the best cherry tomatoes with extra sweet taste and packed with flavor. Gardener's Delight (Lucopersicon lycopersicum), is an Indeterminate type with vigorous vines that easily reach 6 feet long. It's name says it all. Also called Sugar Lump, these bite-sized delightfully sweet fruits with fresh tomato flavor are also crack-resistant.

If you are concerned about your growing season where you live, can't grow inside a greenhouse but want to have a larger tomato, you might try a variety like the Black Krim (Solanum lycopersicum) which seems to ripen more quickly outside than other varieties.

The Black Krim is a medium-sized, richly flavored Indeterminate tomato that originated from the Russian Black Sea area. A beefsteak like tomato it is the most reliable and delicious of the "black" tomatoes. We grow the Black Krim tomato and they do seem to ripen before any other medium tomato that we are growing.

Handful of tiny little delicious bright yellow tomatoes

One of my new favorite tomatoes to grow are a small variety called a Red Currant (Solanum pimpinellifolium). It's just a 1/2 inch in diameter sized tangy, sweet, crisp and cute little tomato. It's perfect for tossing into salads or popping into your mouth for a little garden snack. I found it to be a very easy Indeterminate and disease resistant tomato that is a very prolific producer. Such a fun tiny little tomato to grow!

Health Benefits

For years I've heard that tomatoes were beneficial for our health. I wanted to know more so I decided to do some research to find out just what are the many health benefits that come when consuming the tomato. The source of much of my research came from organicfacts.net

I found that tomatoes can improve digestion, stimulate your blood circulation, improve fluid balance, reduce cholesterol levels, protect your kidneys and detoxify the body. They can provide relief from diabetes, skin problems and urinary tract infections too.

Tomatoes can prevent premature aging and reduce inflammation. They can also benefit the health of your eyes and reduce blood pressure. They have a large number of antioxidants that have been proven to fight different forms of cancer. They are a rich source of different vitamins and minerals that can have a protective effect against cardiovascular diseases.

With a wealth of nutrients and vitamins, tomatoes have powerful nutritional content loading them with many, many health benefits. They have an impressive amount of vitamin A, C and vitamin K as well as significant amounts of vitamin B6, folate and thiamin.

They can be found to also be a good source of potassium, manganese, magnesium, phosphorous and copper. They also contain dietary fiber and protein among other things like lycopene that contribute to their health benefits.

Slicing tomatoes for healthy eating enjoyment

To highlight some of their benefits we start with the antioxidant lycopene that is highly effective in scavenging cancer-causing free radicals.

A wonderful benefit is that heat-processed tomato products like ketchup for instance still contains the cancer fighting benefits of lycopene and has been shown to be effective in fighting prostate cancer, cervical cancer, cancer of the stomach and rectum as well as pharynx and esophageal cancers.

It also protects against breast and mouth cancer according to studies published by the Harvard School of Public Health.

Being a rich source of vitamin C, a single tomato can provide about 40% of your daily requirement. The tomato also contains an abundant amount of vitamin A and potassium as well as iron. Potassium is vital in maintaining nerve health, iron is essential for maintaining normal blood circulation. Vitamin K is for blood clotting and controlling bleeding which tomatoes also have in abundance.

A regular consumption of tomatoes has been proven to help decrease the levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood. Lycopene in the tomatoes prevents the serum lipid oxidation therefore exerting a protective effect against cardiovascular diseases.

The vitamin A present in tomatoes aids in improving your vision and preventing night-blindness and macular degeneration. Being a powerful antioxidant, vitamin A can help prevent the negative effects of free radicals that cause a lot of vision problems.

As an aid to digestion, tomatoes help by preventing both constipation and diarrhea. They can also prevent jaundice and remove toxins from the body. By regulating the bowels there's overall improvement to digestive health and helps avoid conditions like colorectal cancer.

Luscious red Roma tomatoes and spring onions

Lowering hypertension (high blood pressure) can be achieved by consuming a tomato daily as it reduces the risk of developing it. Its due to the impressive levels of potassium that's found in tomatoes. As a vasodilator, potassium reduces the tension in the blood vessels and arteries which in turn increases the circulation and lowers the stress on the heart by eliminating hypertension.

In a study, that was conducted by the Journal of the American Medical Association, it showed that a daily consumption of tomatoes reduced the oxidative stress of type 2 diabetes.

Tomatoes can aid in maintaining healthy teeth, bones, hair and skin. Sunburns have been cured by topical applications of tomato juice. Consuming tomatoes daily helps protect the skin against UV-induced erythema. In the preparation of anti-aging products they rank high.

Tomatoes are high in water content which makes them a diuretic which can stimulate urination. This reduces the incidence of urinary tract infections, as well as bladder cancer. They also help increase the elimination of toxins from the body as well as excess water, salts, uric acid, and even some fats also.

To provide relief from gallstones, regularly eat tomatoes. Various studies have proved their efficacy against many chronic diseases and varieties of cancer. Even processed foods like ketchup and purees can provide the antioxidant properties of tomatoes.

Tomatoes are a crop that is highly sprayed with chemical pesticides and insecticides throughout the world. That's a good reason to be growing your own organic tomatoes or finding a fresh market to purchase your tomatoes from. For the produce you are unable to grow there’s always farms around your area that you can go to pick what you need.

Successfully Growing Tomatoes

So knowing that tomatoes are packed full of wonderful health benefits you've decided you would like to grow your own but where do you start.

I can't really remember not ever growing tomatoes. Eating a perfectly ripe sun-warmed homegrown tomato freshly picked off the bush doesn't come close in comparison to the ones you buy in stores.

Young tomato seedling

I like to grow my own tomatoes from seedlings that I have started myself from organic heirloom (always open pollinated) seeds. Starting your garden plants from seeds can save you more money than just about anything else you ever do in your garden. It not only allows you to grow varieties you can't find in your local garden center but you know what went into growing your little plants.

Besides, if you are growing heirloom tomatoes you can save seeds from the tomatoes you really liked to grow, the ones you liked the best, to not only plant the next year but you will have lots to give to others. Certainly a gift that keeps on giving!

Plants even do better when you have grown and saved your own heirloom seeds from year to year as they have learned how best to adapt to the soil and growing conditions for your area. This will make stronger plants than can be gotten from any seed you would purchase.

Growing my own tomato plants from seeds is a much better reason for me than purchasing hybrid tomato plants that were probably grown in systemic pesticide drenched soil that's been known to kill birds, bees and other beneficial insects.

How Do You Grow The Best Tomatoes Ever

For growing the best tomatoes you need to pick the sunniest place in your garden, patio or deck. Tomatoes love warmth and thrive by soaking up sunshine so you need to make sure to give them plenty so they will grow better, at least seven to eight hours a day. You can also grow them in a greenhouse or hoop house as we do if you have one.

Since tomatoes thrive in rich, slightly acidic soil that drains well, building up your soil with organic compost or well-rotted manure will benefit your plants. Feeding the soil with green mulches (cover crops), fall leaves and wood chips gives the many micro-organisms living in the soil something to feed on, thus providing what your plants need to grow healthy.

We find that in our garden beds, by adding amendments such as worm castings, mycorrhizal inoculants (link to read reviews on Amazon), ground egg shells and spent coffee grounds, it really has helped to produce lush healthy tomato plants (actually all our garden plants) for our tomato eating pleasure.

Coffee Grounds And Egg Shells

I had never heard of using coffee grounds in my garden until I ran across some research a couple of years ago that shared what they can do for your soil and plants. Mixing used coffee grounds with wood ash and shredded fall leaves will create a rich compost that's easy for tomatoes to benefit from. We actually add used coffee grounds to all of our garden beds and the plants just love it.

Coffee grounds can be an excellent addition to a compost pile. The grounds are relatively rich in nitrogen, providing bacteria the energy they need to turn organic matter into compost...About 2 percent nitrogen by volume, used coffee grounds can be a safe substitute for nitrogen-rich manure in the compost pile

https://today.oregonstate.edu/archives/2008/jul/coffee-grounds-perk-compost-pile-nitrogen

We have a small flock of chickens which besides giving us rich manure they also give us plenty of egg shells to use in our garden beds. Egg shells add calcium which helps tomato plants regulate moisture intake and also helps prevent blossom end rot. I simply grind them in a coffee grinder for easy application into the soil.

When Should Tomatoes Be Planted

When planting tomatoes, timing is everything and we don't always get it right depending on the weather for that specific gardening year. Finding the best planting dates for your area is a must. Starting tomatoes indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost date helps produce tomatoes in the amount of time you have for your area.

Planting Determinate tomatoes will give you lots of tomatoes that are ready to pick about the same time if you are planning to preserve them by canning or dehydrating. For tomatoes all season long you will want to plant the Indeterminate tomato as they produce all the way up to when the plants freeze.

Black cherry tomatoes hanging on the vine

Making sure your soil temperature is consistently over 60 degrees Fahrenheit before planting tomatoes outside is good practice as they love warmth. You can preheat your planting area by using black or red plastic to cover the soil a couple of weeks before you plan to put your tomato plants in the ground to speed things up.

Warming the soil this way you can expect to have tasty juicy tomatoes earlier. You can remove the plastic before planting if you desire. It's been known though that plants benefit well, increasing tomato yields, by leaving the red plastic down and planting through slits or holes in it. So it might be a good choice to just leave it.

Before you transplant your young seedlings out into the garden you need to harden them off. They have not been accustomed to the outdoor elements such as sunlight, cool nights, wind and rain so we need to introduce them slowly to this new environment of the outdoors.

About 7-10 days before you plan to transplant them outdoors, gradually introduce them to the outside by moving them for a couple of hours or so to a sheltered location on a mild day. Repeat this process each day while increasing the amount of time they are outdoors to successfully harden off the tomato plants.

To produce a stronger more robust healthier plant and larger fruit yields you'll want to plant your tomatoes deep into the soil. Tomato stems have fuzzy hairs on them that when in soil will produce roots. Planting deeper produces stronger root systems which means less water is required of the plant.

Simply dig a deep hole to place the tomato down into or a shallow trench to lay the plant sideways in. It will straighten itself up, growing towards the sun if on its side. Tomatoes should be planted about 30 to 48 inches apart if in rows, spaced about 48 inches apart. Before planting, remove all the lower leaves and branches of the plant by pinching with fingers or using snips, leaving only the top few leaves. Bury all the plant up to the few top leaves.

I like to add Epsom salts and ground egg shells into the hole before dropping my tomato plant into it. I also have found that watering my transplant very well with a solution made of unsulfured molasses and sea salt water helps to greatly reduce the chances of transplant shock.

To make the transplant solution, add to a gallon of water 1 tablespoon of unsulfured molasses (link to read reviews on Amazon) and 1 teaspoon of 100% natural sea salt. We use a Foliar Minerals and Trace Elements Organic Fertilizer for Hydroponics, Soil and Plant Food made by Sea-90 by SeaAgri (link to read reviews on Amazon) and we can really see a difference in our plants.

Using the transplant solution recipe above, I rarely have any problems with transplant shock. Before I started using this solution I would have some of my transplants not make it.

Make sure to transplant on a very mild calm and cloudy day if possible. I try to always do my transplanting in the evening after the sun (if shining) has moved so it's not bearing down on my garden space where these tender plants are being planted and that really helps.

Feeding Tomato Plants

Tomato plants are heavy feeders so we need to keep them happy. One way is by giving them the benefits that come from nutrient-rich compost added to the soil. We use amendments such as worm castings, aged organic chicken manure from our flock, Epsom salt, spent coffee grounds and Sea-90 added to our soil before planting. We amend the soil just before the winter and then again in early spring as soon as the soil can be worked.

Epsom salt is not actually salt but a natural mineral compound often referred to as magnesium-sulfate. By mixing one tablespoon to a gallon of water and applying it to your plants as a foliar spray it will help tomato and other plants grow and produce larger, tastier yields.

We foliar spray about once or twice a month on our plants. Because it works so well, we make sure to have Epsom salt (link to read reviews on Amazon) on hand for use in our garden all the time!

Tomato flower blossoms

About two weeks after planting our tomatoes we start feeding our little tomato plants with FoxFarms Grow Big (link to read reviews on Amazon) which living up to its name, I have found it helps them to grow big and healthy.

But once they start to bloom, its better to switch to a fertilizer with less nitrogen and higher phosphorus like FoxFarms Tiger Bloom (link to read reviews on Amazon) to promote blooms instead of more green growth. I love these fertilizers and have used them for a few years now with great results.

Water Needs And Problems

To grow juicy jumbo tomatoes you will need to water the plants, giving them about an inch or two of water a week. Regular even watering is best to help prevent the tomatoes from splitting and if possible, watering early in the day so the plants will dry before evening will help to reduce disease problems.

Making sure the soil is blanketed with a nice thick layer of mulch will help to keep moisture in the soil for the tomato plant to have access to. We really like to use aged wood chips. It has also helped to prevent possible diseases. Thick layers of newspaper (5 to 10 sheets) covered with dry grass clippings, bark mulch or fall leaves can also be used.

To water tomato plants more efficiently you can try using drip (link to read reviews on Amazon) or soaker hose (link to read reviews on Amazon) irrigation which is really the best way to water. Water that runs away from the plant in the traditional way of watering only wastes your water and takes nutrients away with it. If your tomato plants start to look like they are wilting on a hot dry day, give them a drink.

Watering tomato plants too much or even too little can cause the leaves of the plants to turn yellow. When this happens its okay (and good practice) to remove them by pinching them off with your fingers or using garden snips. They will usually just come off very easily by pulling on them.

I usually remove all leaves and branches from the bottom of the plant up to the first set of flowers as they seem to be ones (being the oldest) that no matter what can develop fungus problems. It also helps to allow air to flow easier through the plant.

Tomato Pests And Prevention

Like pretty much anything we grow in our gardens, tomato plants have their pests too. This is one of the reasons I like to do companion planting and polyculture gardening.

Tomatoes work wonderfully with this type of gardening as they like to be planted with other plants like basil, garlic, onions, dill, nasturtiums and marigolds. Interplanting with these tomato loving plants is an excellent way to help repel many of the unwanted damaging pests like aphids, keeping them away from your tomatoes.

Cutworms

If you have gardened for any length of time you most likely have discovered the scourge of the cutworm. It's so disappointing to have carefully and lovingly nurtured your little plants, put them out into the garden, only to find the next morning that they have disappeared or been cut off, lying limp and dead on the ground having succumbed to the hungry cutworm.

Cutworms are the larvae (caterpillars) of several species of night-flying moths in the family Noctuidae. The larvae are called cutworms because they cut down young plants as they feed on stems at or below the soil surface.
The adults are night-flying moths and do not cause damage.
There are also species of climbing cutworms that move up plants and feed on foliage, buds and shoots.
Cutworms attack a variety of plants like asparagus, bean, cabbage and other crucifers, carrot, celery, corn, lettuce, pea, pepper, potato and tomato.

https://extension.umn.edu/yard-and-garden-insects/cutworms

A really neat simple inexpensive trick to help prevent this is to use the stick trick. After you transplant your little tomato plants (works on other plants too), insert a stick about the size of a small twig into the soil right next to the seedling stem. The cutworm larvae will feel around your plants stem, detect the stick and be tricked into thinking the plant is too tough to chew through, moving on in search of another seedling victim.

Plastic collars made from empty juice bottles placed at the base of your little seedlings will also work. You can also use empty toilet paper rolls cut in half to place around your little seedlings. Make sure to push these collars down into the soil some where the larvae will be.

I like the toilet paper rolls idea as by the time your seedlings are large enough that the cutworms don't want to try devouring the stem, the cardboard paper has usually turned to mush and can easily be removed or just let to decompose.

Hornworms

Voracious pests that trouble vegetable gardeners, ruining your tomato crop in record time, are two types of hornworms - the tomato hornworm and the tobacco hornworm. Meeting one of these 4 to 5 inch long green worms, fat as a finger with curved posterior horns in your tomato patch is probably something you will never forget, easily startling you with their large size.

Tobacco hornworm, recognized by its white stripes with black dots and red tail

Discovering leafless tomato plants in your garden is usually the first clue of a hornworm invasion. These oversized pests, not known to be dainty eaters, can cause extensive damage really fast! They are especially fond of plants like tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and potatoes. They don't just create a few holes like some pests do but devour entire leaves overnight, even feeding on the flowers and fruit as well.

Handpicking these hornworms is an excellent approach to control them if you have the time and patience to do so. These caterpillars are not dangerous and can't hurt you. But if like me, you are squeamish about crushing these very large insects, simply drop them into soapy water to drown them or feed them to the chickens if you have a flock.

Keeping beneficial parasitic wasps in your garden will act as a biological control since they love to feed on hornworms. If you see hornworms with what looks like grains of white rice attached to their backs, these are parasitic wasp larvae. Leave these worms alone as they will soon succumb to their little hitchkikers, the beneficial wasp, to not do anymore damage to your tomato patch.

If you end up with a large hornworm population that's too large to handle you might try using an organic pesticide called Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) (link to read reviews on Amazon), a bacterium that acts as a stomach poison on some insects but doesn't harm other plants or animals. We've used this in our garden with success for controlling an out of control insect invasion.

Ripening Tomatoes

When is the best time to pick the tomatoes growing in your garden? I have seen so many people pick their tomatoes way too soon while they are still a little green, in my opinion. They do prevent blemishes by doing this so I can see why they do it. I like to pick ours when they are ripe on the vine.

Green cherry tomatoes on the vine

Bringing their tomatoes into the house they set them on their windowsill to ripen up for eating. So, can you ripen tomatoes on a sunny windowsill? Well, yes you can but it's a bad idea. Tomatoes don't need light to ripen and the light from the windowsill toughens the tomato skin and also invites rot.

All a tomato needs to turn from green to red (or orange or yellow, etc. depending on the variety), is darkness, warmth and naturally occurring ethylene gas.

One of the ways to accomplish this is to place the green tomatoes into paper bags with an almost ripe banana which contributes ethylene gas. Tomatoes that are already showing signs of color produce their own ethylene gas so don't need the banana.

In a warm kitchen of about 65 to 70 degrees or more, tomatoes already showing signs of color will usually be fully ripe in a week or less in their paper bag.

At the end of our growing season and just before a frost, we will pick all our green tomatoes, bring them in and allow them to continue to ripen.

Related Questions

How do you harden off seedlings in a cold frame? Move your tomato seedlings to the cold frame about 7-10 days before you plan to transplant into the garden. Be sure the temperature in the cold frame isn't going to go much below 50 degrees F or above 80 degrees F. Turn off any heating elements and/or open the cold frame cover gradually for longer periods of time each day.

How cold can tomato seedlings get and still survive? At any age or stage, tomato plants do not tolerate a frost. You generally can move young seedlings outdoors after hardening off when the temperature rises to about 45 degrees F. Be sure to protect the seedling plants if there's a chance for frost by covering them or protecting them with Wall O' Water plant protectors at planting time.

What are the signs of over watering tomato plants? When tomato plants receive more water than they can use, the signs will be cracked fruit and blisters or bumps on the lower leaves of the plant. Bumps and blisters on the leaves turn corky if over watering continues.

How tall should you let tomato plants grow? When the tomato plant grows to the top of it's cage, stake or greenhouse, cut off each top vertical stem with garden shears, removing the stem 1/4" above where a side shoot diverges from the main tomato stem. This allows more of the plant's energy to be directed to growing the fruit as opposed to growing more stems.

About The Author

Linda Brownlee

Living on a Country Homestead with her husband John, two beautiful German Shepherds and a few chickens, she loves to share her passions of Quilting, Gardening, plant-based Cooking and many varied DIY creative things.