Tomatoes are my very favorite crop to grow. I fret over them, baby them, cheer them on, and proudly serve them to friends and family as some sort of jewel in the green. As modern homesteaders on our old farm, we grow nearly all that we eat and store lots in our freezer, root cellar, and pantry to last all year. Tomatoes are a big part of that equation. They are the most rewarding crop I grow every year.
A great crop of tomatoes provides us with countless summer tomato sandwiches, salads, salsas (um, tacos, burritos, alongside oodles and oodles of freshly made tortilla chips, The Situation), and as a star performer in fresh sauces in the summertime. We use frozen and canned tomatoes to last us throughout the year as whole frozen tomatoes and canned sauce for tomato soup, chili, pizza and pasta, and more.
Tomatoes are a gourmet staple that bring flavor and interest to many meals per week in our household, so I grow lots of them.
Below, I talk through some of the highlights and potential pitfalls of growing tomatoes on a larger scale, including ways to save time, ensure a more successful crop, and enjoy your tomatoes all year long.
Check out the series: How to grow food for you and your family to last all year
This post and video on growing tomatoes are a part of a multi-part series on how you can grow enough food to last all year. These posts are intended to build on each other. For example, in the first post and video in this growing food series I talk about important lessons such as knowing your garden zone and mapping the sun zones in your property. In the second post and video I talk about how to approach the age-old question of how much to grow to support you and your family all year.
Tomatoes are sun lovers. They need sun to produce prolific, hearty, healthy fruit. However, cherry tomatoes can grow well in only 4 hours of sun per day. Be sure to read and watch my first post on how to determine your gardening zone and map your property’s sun zones. Then, check out how I determine how much to grow in my second post. Then, dive in here and decide what kinds of beautiful tomatoes you’re going to grow this year.
Video: How to grow tomatoes to feed you and your family for a year
Here’s a candid view into my personal experience growing tomatoes–the good, the bad, and the ugly. I have grown hundreds of tomatoes on a single plant, and I have lost 140 plants to late-stage blight. It’s no joke that these beauties, my favorite crop of all time, are the true highs and lows of a gardener’s life. It says a lot that I am excited to grow tomatoes again this year after the messy charade I went through last year.
Grow paste and cherry tomatoes
While you can decide to grow all kinds of tomatoes, paste tomatoes and cherry tomatoes serve two main roles in a garden: Taste and paste. You’ll want to grow both if you want to tackle making amazing tomato sauce.
Paste tomatoes such as Roma, San Marzano (pictured in the video still, above), Amish Paste, and more, are what you need for your tomato sauce, ketchup, and hearty pastes. They have more heft and flesh than a standard slicer which contains more water. Pound for pound you’ll get more sauce from a paste tomato than you will from a slicer.
Cherry tomatoes are a gold standard for hefty flavor in a tiny fruit, and often are easier to grow than their more hearty counterparts. They need only four hours of sunlight to produce good fruit, so you can grow cherry tomatoes in gardening zones with fewer hours of direct sunlight, and grow plenty of them for fresh salsas and salads, sundried tomatoes for your dehydrator, and to add to your canned sauces and salsas.
Cherry tomatoes tend to be much more resilient and forgiving against blight and seasonal changes and they are packed full of intense flavor that goes a long way in all of your preparations, fresh or preserved.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t grow all kinds of tomato varieties, I’m just saying that these two types, paste and cherry, give you the most volume and taste for your money and effort.
Rotate your crop locations
I have learned the hard way that growing tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers continually in the same areas can subject them to vulnerable growing conditions due to a build-up of possibly frustrating and dangerous bacteria.
No matter how well you test and attempt to amend your soil, it’s easier to rotate your crops and give them, and your soil, a healthy relationship. Plants have a unique ability to fortify the soil they grow in, or to deplete it. That’s why it’s better to rotate your crops regularly to not only protect your plants, but restore your soil.
Grow disease-resistant varieties
Some tomatoes have been curated and bred specifically to be resistant to some common diseases, including tomato blight.
This year, given my trials last year with severe late-stage blight, I will be growing primarily disease resistant varieties. Contrary to what the title may imply, disease-resistant tomatoes can still be heirloom and organic and not genetically modified. To be disease-resistant, they have been specifically curated over time to do better on the vine even in less-than-perfect conditions.
Here are some good resources for you to look into for disease resistant tomatoes. Please note that I am no affiliated nor partnered with these companies; I am simply sharing them as helpful information.
Fruition Seeds is an organic seed company in the Northeast United States. The company was co-founded by Petra Page-Mann, a wise, enthusiastic, and encouraging farmer that I connected with through her Instagram account and continue to be inspired by through her dynamic and thoughtful posts. I know you will be, too.
If you’re new to growing tomatoes or even just looking for some great sage advice, please do read Petra’s blog posts 5 Keys to Preventing Tomato Disease (there is no silver bullet, but #1 is close) and Identifying & Managing Tomato Disease Organically.
It’s truly a gift to find people who share their knowledge openly and willingly with their community, and who build trust through their truthful and hopeful and helpful presence.
I started following Petra last year while my tomatoes died a slow and painful death from late-stage blight. I read her handout on growing disease resistant tomatoes in our organic garden, and have been planning all season to purchase some of her seed varieties for this year’s growing season.
Fruition Seeds offers four tomato varieties resistant to early blight, late blight, and septoria leaf spots. They are Chiapas, Coyote, Brandywise, and Summer Sweetheart. Each type is hyperliked here so you can go directly to their site to purchase them for your 2021 growing season.
Please do give Petra a follow on Instagram so you too can benefit from her growing tips, conversations, videos, and general encouragement.
I originally started buying seeds through Territorial Seed Company when they purchased one of my favorite organic and biodynamic seed companies, Sero Seeds.
I look to Territorial for a wide variety of my organic and biodynamic seed varieties that are highly adaptable to my Pacific Northwest growing region.
Consider growing more determinate rather than indeterminate varieties
There are two main classes of tomato types: Determinate and indeterminate.
As the names suggest, determinate varieties ripen and are available for harvest on a set timeframe, which is useful for driving toward a specific canning and harvesting timeline. They will stop producing blossoms on a fairly set timeframe and will focus their energy on fattening their fruit.
Indeterminate tomatoes continue blossoming and attempting to grow new fruit all year long until winter. This means that they are splitting their energy between fattening existing fruit and producing new potential fruit.
Determinate tomato varieties can be easier to grow because they don’t generally require pruning, whereas indeterminate varieties need constant pruning of new growth to ensure that the plant doesn’t turn into a full-fledged jungle inhibiting airflow and sunlight, both necessary to grow beautiful, ripe tomatoes.
Many gardeners specifically instruct you to not prune determinate tomato plants, as doing so will inhibit their growth and success. This can be a matter of opinion. I personally have found that the less I mess with a tomato plant, the better off it seems to be. Whether this is just my own experience or my year-by-year luck is really a subjective matter.
You can search for determinate and indeterminate tomato types on most online seed stores and within your favorite local gardening store.
Be proactive about pests
Pests can be vectors of bacteria and disease, especially for finicky tomato plants.
Using companion plants such as marigolds, basil, garlic, nasturtium, and parsley can help keep your tomato plants healthier by offering pest-deterrent qualities and even pest-attracting qualities that keep the pests off your star crops.
Use appropriate pest control methods immediately for flea beetles and other pests that threaten the long-term health of your plants.
For especially impactful pests, I learned to finally use diatomaceous earth appropriately and carefully on my tomato plants and surrounding soil to treat the flea beetles that initially threatened to decimate my tomato crop. Unfortunately, I think that their damage was done early on as vectors of blight into my plants.
Always use any pest control measures sparingly, carefully, and thoughtfully, and reach out to experts for advice. Skip anything that is toxic or detrimental to the long-term health of your garden, our earth and its environment. It’s better to sort out a nontoxic solution and keep bee hives alive than to harm your garden and the earth. Diatomaceous earth, for example, can be dangerous to good pests, too, including our bees. The only reason I ended up using it was because I learned that contact with even a bit of diatomaceous earth can unfortunately affects the single insect, but luckily not the entire hive.
Do not apply diatomaceous earth to anything that is flowering or near bees.
Sterilize your pruning tools
Always, always sterilize your pruning tools after pruning a diseased plant or after it has made contact with soil. Do not make the rookie mistake I’ve made of generously clipping away at each plant in an attempt to root out the disease, while single-handedly spreading it to every plant in your garden. You can use rubbing alcohol on your pruners and sheers between clippings.
Use mulch, such as straw, to protect your plants
Use a good top-layer mulch to not only inhibit weeds, but also to keep harmful bacteria away from your tomato plants. I mulch all of my tomato beds with a good thick layer of straw.
Like peppers, tomato plants prefer well-drained soil, and not much of it. If you live in a highly rainy environment, consider erecting a hoop house over your tomatoes to protect them from heavy rains, which can waterlog your plants and lead to rot.
Consider storage options
Consider storing your green tomatoes in a cool dark place, such as your basement, garage, or root cellar, as my friend over at Butterfield Farm does with her greenie tomatoes. Then, like she does, you can pull them out and ripen them on your kitchen windowsill, and enjoy fresh tomatoes all winter long.
Freeze whole tomatoes
Consider freezing your tomatoes whole so that you can easily make farm-fresh sauce all year long by simply harvesting your tomatoes from the freezer. The flavor is peak-of-season and requires zero (zilch) canning efforts.
Can your tomato sauce
Canning tomato sauce at home might be one of the most user-friendly and seriously delicious ways to save your tomatoes all year. Rather than trying to sort through a complicated recipe and safe canning acidity ratios, simply make a basic tomato sauce that you can use as an all-purpose base for soups, sauces, and to amend your favorite recipes (such as a hearty and satisfying pan of Shakshuka, pictured here).
I use tomatoes, lemon juice, sea salt, and sometimes dried basil, in my basic tomato base. Then I amend it on the stove with my favorite puttanesca ingredients–chunky onions, olives, capers, and olive oil with fresh herbs slow-cooked on the stove, or simply atop a simple crust for pizza night.
Rather than posting a recipe here, watch for my canning tutorial on making basic tomato sauce in the coming weeks.
Use a greenhouse, hoop house, or high tunnel
Lastly, consider the benefits of growing your tomatoes in a more controlled and less humid environment. With a greenhouse, hoop house, or high tunnel, you can not only potentially support healthier plants, but you can also extend your growing season well into winter. This requires a heat source and a long-term plan for how you plan to use your own little biosphere, but it might be worth investigating for your own garden and homestead.
As a final note, I want to reassure you that the adventure is worth the journey. Truly. As you learn your garden and your own favorite tomato plants, you’ll soon be well on your way to becoming an expert on what works and what doesn’t in your own garden, home, and pantry.