“Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.” ~ Miles Kington
Tomatoes are one of my favourite things to grow, probably because they’re fairly easy. As long as the plant gets lots of sunshine and you water it regularly, the plant should do quite well. I like tomato plants for their simplicity and high yield count.
Over the years, I have branched out into growing many varieties of tomatoes after discovering that not all tomatoes are perfectly round and red. Once I learned that grocery stores carry only a small variety of tomatoes I became obsessed with growing and tasting as many types as possible.
I began to explore farmers’ markets more as a way to make note of what types grow well in my region. It’s important to check your garden zone before planning out and planting a vegetable garden, as not every fruit or vegetable can grow everywhere (more on this later).
I began to grow “weird” tomatoes and would proudly boast about them to my family throughout the summer. We had an informal tomato growing competition from year to year, and my grandfather would usually win for the shape, size and red colour of his. My tomatoes definitely challenged the concept of what a good tomato looked like. I suppose we should have had a category for taste because that is exactly what’s so unique about “weird tomatoes.”
The best tomatoes, in my opinion, are heirloom ones. You won’t find heirlooms at most grocery stores. They’re odd shapes, odd colours and odd sizes. But they taste absolutely fantastic. Each variety has its own flavour and sometimes a unique texture. Many varieties are rich in colours, including spectrums of orange, pink, red, purple, green, white, blue, brown and multi-coloured.
Heirloom (or “heritage”) tomatoes are produced from seeds that are passed down from generation to generation and are open-pollinated, meaning they rely on natural pollination, unlike hybrid tomatoes sold in stores. Heirloom tomatoes taught me the importance of saving seeds so that these unconventional tomatoes may be preserved and grown year after year.
Below I will first outline some tomato gardening tips, heirloom varieties to try and types I haven’t tried (grown or eaten) but want to. This information comes from my own experience. If you have some important tips to share, please feel free to do so in the comment section below.
Things to Consider
>> Gardening zones
>> Determinate versus indeterminate
>> Containers, spacing and height
>> Gestation and germination periods
>> Pruning “sucker” branches
>> Patience and persistence
Your geographic region has a huge impact on what you can successfully grow outside. It makes sense that pineapples cannot grow everywhere, right? So it also makes sense that other types of produce thrive in some climates and not in others. Tomatoes can grow in many gardening zones, but it’s a good idea to double check your zone to ensure. If you live in Canada—click here, in the USA—click here, and if you live elsewhere, you should search for your country and region’s gardening zone before planting anything. Once you know your zone, you can research what grows best there.
Determinate vs. Indeterminate
Some tomato plants are better suited to grow in small containers while others thrive outdoors. It’s important to determine exactly where you want to grow your plants before you choose the variety to grow.
Determinate (or “bush”) tomato plants generally grow three to four feet tall and stop growing when the fruit starts to bud.
Indeterminate tomato plants will grow and continue to produce fruit until chopped down or killed by frost. They can become quite tall, sometimes six feet or higher.
Containers, Spacing, and Height
Inside—If you’re really interested in growing some tomatoes and have zero outdoor space but have a sunny window, you may be able to successfully grow tomatoes inside. Consider if your space is better utilized with a hanging basket or a conventional pot. A determinate plant is likely best to grow since they oftentimes don’t require a tomato cage, and stop growing when their branches reach a certain height. Just keep an eye on how much sunlight your plant gets throughout the day and adjust them accordingly if you can.
Balcony—This is usually a good method to use, especially if you do not have a yard to work in. Consider if you want a conventional plant pot to have space to hang your plant.
If you want to use a plant pot, not a hanging basket, you should look up whether your plant is a determinate or indeterminate variety, and plan to cage the plants accordingly. You will also have to pay attention to pruning stems if you grow an indeterminate variety on your balcony.
Hanging baskets are an awesome and easy way to grow tomatoes. The plant will start growing straight up then slowly fold over the edges of the hanging pot. It’s best to use determinate tomato varieties for this kind of method as you don’t want to try growing indeterminate tomatoes because they usually become too tall and heavy for the plant to support without a cage.
If not using a hanging basket, know that most tomato plants need to be supported to grow healthy and strong, so remember you will need a tomato cage or a way to support the plant’s branches and growing tomatoes. You could grow determinate or indeterminate kinds if you have space and cages to support their growth.
Best Types of Tomatoes for Hanging Baskets
>> Floragold Basket
>> Tumbling Tom
>> Whipper Snapper
>> Sophie’s Choice
Garden (box or bed)—This is an ideal way to grow tomatoes as the roots can go as deep as they want and as long as the plants are spaced far enough apart (and have enough sunlight and water), they should flourish. Indeterminate tomatoes are best in a garden, whether a box or in a bed. You might want to look up how far apart your preferred tomato plants need, but a rough guideline is a few feet on each side. When you first plant your tomatoes, it will look and feel like they’re too far apart from each other, but the plants will grow much larger and look totally different after a month or so…
Gestation and Germination Periods
Gestation is how long it takes a seed to sprout into a plant, while germination is how long it takes the plant to produce and ripen food.
Tomato seeds usually need to start before spring, but if you haven’t started any seeds, that’s okay! Many local greenhouses sell a variety of already grown plants, however, you may need to ask for the heirloom ones. Many seeds can also be ordered online, or better yet, attend a seed swap in the early spring to ensure you’re getting heirloom seeds that thrive in your gardening zone.
Some tomato plants take as little as 45 days to grow while others can take up to 75 or more days. It’s a good idea to check the germination period of your desired tomato plants, as many regions cannot support the sunlight requirements of plants with lengthy germination periods. I try to start tomato plants that will germinate in 45-60 days, but that’s totally based on my gardening zone.
Most tomato plants need six or more hours of direct sunlight a day. They need as much heat and sunshine as possible over the course of a few months, so keep that in mind when choosing which type(s) to grow. Consider what else is growing around you and any shadows that might be cast upon your tomatoes throughout the day.
Tomato plants need to be watered almost every day to produce rich, juicy tomatoes. Consider using a rain barrel if you have space outdoors for it, as this is a smart way to capture and utilize rain. It also lessens dependency on a city or town’s water system.
Be sure to water your plants either in the early morning or late afternoon to early evening. Just don’t water mid-day. Late evening is even better than mid-day. Watering when it is most hot outside is ineffective as the water is usually absorbed back into the air and doesn’t go where it’s needed, which is to the root of the plant. Watering midday can also be harmful to a plant since water particles on plants (stem or leaf) may cause burning.
You want to give your tomatoes a good soak but be sure to not waterlog them. Every day or every other day may work. You should also check to see if your city has any watering restrictions. This is when saving water in a barrel or even collecting water while your shower is warming up is a good idea to have on hand.
Pruning “Sucker” Branches
Once your plant has rooted and begins growing multiple branches, it’s wise to prune the “sucker” branches that grow between the stem and a branch. These new branches essentially compete for nutrients and “suck” the energy that could go into the main plant and fruit that has already formed. If left alone, the plant will continue to grow, expending energy to all parts of the plant, and you may notice more fruit blossoms, but they will usually be small in size.
If the sucker branches are pruned, it’ll allow the plant to put energy into the tomatoes themselves versus the tomatoes and multiple branches with little “purpose.” I know many people who don’t prune their plants and tomatoes still grow, there may just be a difference in size and yield when you do prune.
Pruning is especially important when growing indeterminate varieties as it will help the plant focus its energy on the fruit versus more branches.
Patience and Persistence
Like many things in life, patience is absolutely a requirement of gardening. Plants need time to grow before they produce anything worthy of harvesting, so have some patience. Make note each week of how big your plants are getting and maybe even jot down a few notes. You’ll begin to see that your plants are progressing each week and it’ll keep you motivated to keep watering and tending to them.
Lastly, it’s also important to use a tomato cage to ensure your plant grows healthy and strong. You can either put a cage around a small plant or opt to use them when the plants start to grow tall. You definitely need to get a cage on before the flowers turn into tomatoes as it’s often difficult to place a cage around a plant once it starts to produce. I’ve broken off branches when putting a cage on too late in the season, so think about when you need to do it and make it so.
My Favourite Heirloom Tomatoes
Green Zebra: medium in size, rich, sweet and sharp in flavour, green/yellow stripes
Chocolate Cherry: small in size, sweet and bursting with flavour, dark purple/red (might not be considered a full heirloom, as I believe it’s a hybrid plant, but it’s still quite unique!)
Purple Russian: small and long in size, tasty flavour, reddish/purple in colour, and really good for making salsa (low in juice)
Yellow Pear: small in size, mild in flavour, yellow in colour
Rainbow: medium to large in size, sweet in flavour, usually has red stripes through yellow flesh
Brandywine: large in size, sweet in flavour, starts out pink and slowly turns red and/or purple as they ripen
Purple Russian: long plum-like in size, rich in flavour, dark reddish black
Purple Cherokee: large in size, sweet in flavour, pink colour, also considered one of the best heirloom varieties
Note: most grocery stores sell Roma, Beefsteak, and grape tomatoes so try to avoid these types if you truly want an heirloom tomato experience!
About the author:
Meghan Alton is an Elephant Academy Alumni (Summer 2016) and lives in Canada where she spends her time working in school communications. She has a passion for gardening and life. She strives to leave things better than how she found them. Meghan is a peace-maker, an idea-challenger and finds beauty in the simple things life has to offer. She enjoys encouraging others to live to their full potential and is an advocate for the environment, mental health, and equality. Visit her website or find her on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.Browse Front PageShare Your Idea