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

more spring gardening, and a spring flower festival!

Just a little more gardening today – it was almost unintentional, but I found these great bins for $1 so decided I should plant some more things.  A few holes drilled in the bottoms and they are perfect veggie pots!  (Who knew a cordless drill would be such an essential garden tool?)2013-04-14 00.51.54

I planted some spinach seed in the blue one, and it has the honor of being the first pot out on the “deck extension” – i.e. the roof of the basement apartment entrance. (You can just see it below if you look through the rails.)  I can’t put anything too heavy over there, and it’s a bit awkward to get to, but for the moment there is more sun there than most places, so I’m going to take what I can get.  2013-04-14 01.49.23

I also planted some beet seeds in the taller blue bucket (above) – in retrospect I probably should have used one of the shallower ones, since beets don’t need much depth. Maybe I still will…

And I planted a bit of cheater basil – huge plants from the nursery, but this way I can have basil right now if I want!  I also picked up some railing planters which I’m very excited about, since I need good ways to get the sun-loving plants on the *other* side of the railing.  These will work very well, though I haven’t decided what to plant in them yet.2013-04-14 01.49.09

While I was at it, I re-potted some houseplants that were looking scraggly. I love these shamrocks – the purple one I’ve had for years and it’s really tolerant of my neglect.  The green ones I just found for $2 after St. Patricks day – poor rejected little leprechauns!2013-04-14 02.08.16a

This afternoon was the annual cherry blossom festival in my neighborhood, which has been at least a week too early pretty much every year I’ve been here.  But it was a nice sunny day and I walked around with a friend enjoying the cherry and magnolia buds (the white Star Magnolias are already blooming! And the pink ones are alllmost there…), along with some spring bulbs, some unexpected hellebores, and an awesome steel drum band!

2013-04-14 18.08.55 2013-04-14 18.17.17

I will be the gladdest thing
Under the sun!
I will touch a hundred flowers
And not pick one.
~Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Afternoon on a Hill”

spring planting time

Despite the minimal success of our vegetable pots last year, I am determined to try again and do better this year.  I’ve been reading and planning all winter, and I’m betting on a few main changes to the strategy this year:

1. NO MIRACLE GROW.  I’ve heard nothing but bad things about miracle grow potting mix from everyone I’ve talked to, and all of our veggies were potted in that last year.  So this year I’m going with the Fafard brand recommended by the local nursery.

2. FERTILIZER. I did nothing but water last year.  The book I have swears by the slow-release fertilizer that you add at the time of planting. Sounds easy enough, so that’s strategy number 2.

3. CHEAP POTS. We went all out last year buying huge pots, but I know I’m still going to want to add some more this year.  I’ve been brainstorming all winter about where one can get super cheap, but still giant, containers to be used as pots.  I was inspired by Pamela Crawford’s container gardening book in which she uses big plastic drink tubs for her veggies – they’re only $5 at party supply stores!  I also found some $4 peat baskets to stuff full of flowers and veggies.

So today was planting day, and as usual I was racing against the sun to get it all done.  Hauling those bags of potting soil up four flights of stairs seemed like enough work for the day in itself!  But here’s a first look at the candidates for 2011!

I’m adding some flowers into the mix this year, to help attract pollinators (shh…I am in denial that this means bees…), and to make things pretty.  the yellow pot in front has some cucumbers, red peppers, coleus, and some pink flowers I’ve already forgotten the name of.  In back are some leeks (which I accidentally bought as a present for Alia because she always makes spinach and fennel soup.  How is that relevant, you ask?  Well, it’s not, unless you think fennel and leeks are the same thing), and some dill, chives, and several kinds of lettuce. The silver bucket was just a convenient place to throw the pansies that were inconveniently planted in one of my large pots because I couldn’t wait to play in the dirt until the frost danger passed.  I expect they’ll die, since I didn’t even plant them, but just sort of threw them in there.  In the white pot I planted an unexpected find – edamame!  I’ve never heard of anyone growing it in a container, but I’m always up for trying something new.  And how cool would it be if I managed to grow edamame?!

My favorite part of the process was making these double-tiered hanging baskets. I cut holes into the sides of the basket and planted cherry tomatoes all around the sides, and then added basil, nasturtium, rosemary, and some coleus to the top.  I can’t believe how much I managed to fit into this basket!

In the second one I planted strawberries in the side holes (picked up at a local farm sale), and spinach on top, then added some sweet potato vine and celosia to fill it in.

This summer’s garden also starring (not pictured): green & yellow pole beans, cucumber, green & yellow zucchini, watermelon (!), two tomato plants, a hanging orange cherry tomato, and black beauty eggplant.