how to grow tomatoes

I recently had a friend ask me for advice on growing her very first tomato plant.  She has a small balcony, and thought she might grow “one tomato, and maybe one other plant?”, and was looking for a recommendation about what to buy.

Few requests could have excited me as much. I dashed off a several-hundred-word response detailing the many options and suggesting several of my favorite varieties from recent years, as well as a wealth of tips for a bountiful harvest, from fertilizer to pests to container size. Needless to say, I completely overwhelmed the poor girl!  So I thought I’d try to do better with this post, starting with one simple principle: If you have at least 6 hours of direct sunlight, anyone can grow a tomato plant, anywhere*.

Here’s the simple version, with one sincere plea, and 3 decisions.

Sincere Plea

If you’ve never tasted a tomato fresh from the garden, please do whatever you can to taste one at least once this summer. I’ve had friends who “don’t like tomatoes” have life-altering experiences picking one out of my garden. The taste is so incredibly different from the bland cardboard-y tomatoes in the grocery store, you’d swear it was a different fruit. [Warning: you may never be able to eat a grocery store tomato again.]

That’s true of the most generic, “boring” tomato – like the Better Bush or Sweet 100s below.


But it’s especially true of the many heirloom varieties you can grow that you can’t get in the store, and that sell for something like $8/lb at farmers markets. This, to me, is the joy of growing your own vegetables. It’s a ridiculously well-kept secret how much variety there is in the vegetable world.


There are more than 7500 varieties of tomatoes grown in the world (guess which country grows the most?), so you’ll have to make some decisions. Three decisions, in fact.

Decision 1: Fruit type

The main fruit types are classified based on size & shape, and generally fall into one of the following categories:

  • Globe: the ordinary type you’d find in the grocery store.
  • Beefsteak: larger, more irregularly shaped,  good for slicing on sandwiches or burgers.
  • Oxheart: similar to beefsteak, shaped like large strawberries.
  • Plum/Pear: less liquid & more flesh, usually oblong, and good for use in sauces & pastes.
  • Cherry/Grape: small, round or oblong, usually sweet.
  • Campari: sweet, juicy, with low acidity, and lack of mealiness. Often sold “on-the-vine” in grocery stores.

Decision 2: Plant type

Determinate: bear fruit all at one time, tend to be more compact

Indeterminate: bear fruit throughout the season, and tend to grow long & sometimes scraggly vines.

Conventional wisdom is that if you are growing tomatoes in containers, you should stick to determinate varieties, since they are smaller and need less staking, etc. However, I actually prefer indeterminate for a few reasons:

  • I’m only one person! There are only so many tomatoes I can give away! Interdeterminate tomatoes win the slow-and-steady race, which is perfect for continuous eating throughout the summer, and for not going broke at the farmer’s market.
  • Most heirloom varieties (see below) are indeterminate
  • I don’t actually find much difference in the support needs of the two types when they’re in containers: I cage both types, and tie up any straggling vines using velcro ties.

Decision 3: Variety!

This is the fun part! Thousands of varieties fall into two categories: heirloom or hybrid. All tomatoes (except the few wild tomatoes in Central & South American) have been bred by humans. The difference between heirloom and hybrid is only how, and how recently, the breeding occurred.

  • Heirloom tomatoes are varieties that have been grown for many years, and seed is collected from growers and passed down over generations. Heirlooms have been bred through the process of selecting seed from plants with the most favorable features. Heirlooms are stable – that is, the seed can be saved and will produce plants identical to the parent. The weird and wonderful purple, pink, white, and green tomatoes you’ve seen are typically all heirlooms, and many argue the flavor is incomparable.
  • Hybrid tomatoes occur when breeders cross-breed two different varieties of tomatoes by pollinating the flowers of one variety with the pollen of a second variety.  Seeds from these plants will not reliably produce the same type of tomato, and hybrid tomatoes are usually re-created each season by cross breeding the same two original plants. Many hybrids are more resistant to diseases and cracking, and more readily available as small plants from your local big box garden center.  But they have often been bred for toughness, rather than flavor, and container gardeners can afford to be fairly unconcerned about disease resistance.

Here are a few of my favorites to get you started (drooling):

sun gold
Sun Gold Cherry

chocolate cherry
Chocolate Cherry

Sweet 100 Cherry

black krim
Black Krim

Pink Brandywine harvested - 1
Pink Brandywine

Purple Cherokee

Each variety has slightly different specifications for how much sun it requires and how long it takes to start producing fruit, so check the labels and consider how long your growing season is. Keep in mind that the larger the container you plant them in, the better your plants will do, and the more tomatoes you will reap. I try to use at least 16″ pots.

Happy tomato growing!

The federal government has sponsored research that has produced a tomato that is perfect in every respect, except that you can’t eat it. We should make every effort to make sure this disease, often referred to as ‘progress’, doesn’t spread.
~ Andy Rooney

4 Comments Add yours

  1. bjstarmans says:

    You’ve convinced me. I’m going to buy a tomato plant when I get home 🙂

    1. yay! that makes me really happy 🙂

  2. Thalia says:

    Thanks 🙂 This combined with the long previous email has me much less overwhelmed 🙂

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