Tomato, General

Solanum lycopersicum

What more beautiful sight is there in the home vegetable garden than a large heirloom tomato coming into ripeness and full color, waiting to be harvested, ribbed and contorted in one way or another as the skin tries to contain all of its nutritious deliciousness?

Tomatoes may be the most popular plant species in home gardens worldwide, often taking first place in lists of favorite garden vegetables. Although commonly grown as annuals in home gardens, tomatoes are technically perennials and some varieties may bear for more than one season or more than one year in mild-winter California areas. Yield is generally smaller and may be sporadic or occasional after the first season.

Tomatoes belong to the nightshade family, Solanaceae. They are closely related to potatoes, peppers, and eggplants, as well as many other important commercial crops including tobacco and species grown for pharmacology and medicine. They are also related to poisonous plants, such as deadly nightshade and Daturas; and to many ornamentals such as petunias, flowering nicotanias, and ornamental potato bushes.

For quick, fun facts about tomato history and original native range, see The GardenZeus Quick and Easy History of Tomato Cultivation.

tomato varieties

Over centuries, tomatoes have been bred and hybridized into an incredible diversity of shapes, colors, and varieties. The thousands of available tomato varieties may be categorized or described by shape, size, use, color, length of season to harvest; by disease resistance; as hybrid or heirloom; and as determinate or indeterminate. See The GardenZeus Guide to Four Basic Tomato Categories to understand the main types of tomatoes.

Sun/Shade Needs (5)
Watering Needs once Established (4)
Heat Tolerance (4)
Frost (1)
Price (1)

Recommended Varieties/Cultivars

Tomatoes are sensitive to temperature, humidity, and other environmental conditions and factors. With careful selection of variety, tomatoes and be grown year-round in mild-winter areas of California. Note that unless identified as cherry, paste, or beefsteak, all recommendations below are salad or slicing tomatoes.

For warm-summer areas:

- Heirlooms Black Krim and Brandywine for rich flavor.

Black Krim

- Big Beef and Beefsteak for large red heirloom beefsteak tomatoes with excellent flavor (note that hybrids are also sold under these names, so if you want heirloom seeds, be sure to read descriptions carefully).


- Oregon Spring, a red, determinate, open-pollinated variety for fruit production during both hot summers and cold winters.

- Heirloom and open-pollinated cherry varieties: Sweetie (red), Black Plum, Black Cherry, and Yellow Pear.

Black Cherry
Yellow Pear

- Roma (heirloom with hybrid varieties also available) or Super San Marzano (open pollinated) for heat-tolerant paste tomatoes.


- Tobolsk, a productive yellow heirloom and good choice for those who prefer the sweet taste of yellow tomatoes.

Hybrid tomato varieties are generally much more vigorous and productive than heirlooms, and often produce well in difficult growing conditions that may result in problems or limited yield for heirlooms. If you need high productivity, particularly in a small garden or with limited growing space, or if disease resistance is a concern, consider hybrid tomatoes, such as the reliable red slicer Early Girl or the productive hybrid beefsteak-type, Porterhouse. For hybrid cherry tomatoes, try SuperSweet 100 (red) or Sun Gold (yellow).

SuperSweet 100 tomato
SuperSweet 100
Sun Gold tomato
Sun Gold

The following varieties set fruit at cool-to-cold temperatures, and can be grown in many cool-summer and/or mild-winter areas in California:

- Oregon Spring, a red, determinate, open-pollinated, and parthenocarpic variety, one of the best for producing fruit during cool-to-cold weather.

- San Francisco Fog, bred specifically for the West Coast; tolerates cool, overcast conditions.

- Other open-pollinated slicing tomatoes recommended for cool weather include the reliable and productive Siberian; Siletz, which can produce large, almost beefsteak-sized tomatoes in cool weather; the potato-leaf variety Stupice (which also receives GardenZeus expert Darren Butler’s award for being the most difficult of all vegetable varieties to know how to pronounce); and Glacier, another potato-leaf variety that produces small, flavorful fruit.

- Gigantesque, a large red heirloom beefsteak for cool weather.

Buying/Selection Tips

Chain nurseries may carry the same varieties of tomatoes across large regions of the country, and even small and independent nurseries may not offer seedlings that are ideally suited to local climate and growing conditions. Research and know the exact characteristics of tomato varieties before you grow them, especially if purchasing seedlings more than a few miles from your garden. You may want to prepare a list of varieties that you have vetted for your garden and refer to the list when purchasing seeds or transplants.

When buying tomato seedlings, look for plants with thick, strong stems; leaves and stems of a healthy green color; with immature fruit (blossoms are generally not desirable but are of less concern); no signs of disease or insect infestation; and minimal or no yellowing or discoloring. Avoid buying leggy seedlings.

Rootbound tomato plant
This tomato plant is rootbound; note roots protruding from container

Tomatoes are one of the best vegetables for transplanting; tomato starts are unusual in that they somewhat tolerate being rootbound, and are able to grow to full size and yield well after being slightly rootbound more so than most vegetables; however rootbinding is never desirable. When buying transplants, tap the pots, cells, or containers and slide them partly off to look at roots. Some visible roots or a fine net of roots are acceptable; overgrown, circling, or layered roots at pot edges and bottoms are not desirable.

Buying tomato seeds and starting your own tomato plants is inexpensive and generally easy. See "Planting Method/Tips in the GardenZeus section "Planting and Maintaining" for more information on starting tomato seeds, and "Propagating" in the same section for more information on saving tomato seeds.

Soil Needs/Tip

Tomatoes benefit from loose, rich, fertile soil with moderate-to-high organic matter, good drainage, and sufficient calcium. They prefer a slightly to moderately acidic pH in the range of about 5.8 to 6.8.

Tomatoes are heavy feeders that wear out nutrient levels in soil. Rotate yearly to new beds and avoid growing tomatoes in the same place for more than one season over a period of 3 to 4 years to avoid depleting soil and concentrating pest populations and diseases. Avoid consecutive plantings of tomatoes and their relatives, including eggplants and potatoes.

Tomatoes thrive in biologically active, "living" clay soils but often produce little yield if planted in uncultivated, new garden soils directly in the ground in your zone. In new, infertile, or compacted garden soils, it's generally best to plant tomatoes in raised beds filled with sand, local soil, and nutrient-rich compost or amendments; or in containers with rich soil and good drainage. Without sufficient drainage, tomatoes are more susceptible to disease in the heavy clay soils that are common in your zone. GardenZeus recommends growing tomatoes in containers or raised beds if your soils are heavy or compacted.

You may wish to line raised beds with half-inch hardware cloth to exclude gophers, which seem to prefer many other garden vegetables but will eat tomato roots, particularly when other food is not available.

Suitable Microclimate

The ideal microclimate for tomatoes includes full sun, consistently moist-but-not-wet soil, daytime temperatures of about 75° to 85°F, nighttime temperatures above 55°F, and with no frost. Tomatoes are sensitive to freezing temperatures; they may be damaged by even slight frost and generally are killed by hard frosts. Avoid planting in areas where soils remain excessively moist. Southern or southwestern exposure is ideal in most California areas.

Shadecloth over tomatoes
Shadecloth over tomato plants in summer

Tomatoes benefit from afternoon shade during hot summers in warmer inland valleys. Planting tomatoes to the east or northeast of trellises or shrubs can help to provide shade at the right time of day.

Getting Started

Tomatoes are relatively easy to grow both with transplants and from seeds. In new gardens with uncultivated and poor soils, plant transplants or seeds directly in raised beds using a mixture of sand, soil, and rich organic matter or compost in the beds.

Quality tomato seedlings of varieties known to do well in your area are easiest for beginners. Choice of variety is often limited with seedlings. Growing from seeds provides the widest range of varieties. See "Container Gardening" in the GardenZeus section "Planting and Maintaining" for more information about growing tomatoes in containers.

Seed tomatoes directly outdoors when frost risk is low and daytime temperatures are consistently 65° F and above. Otherwise, start seeds indoors or in warm, protected areas for transplant outdoors in 4 to 8 weeks.

Experienced gardeners who are willing to grow suitable varieties and provide overnight frost protection when necessary in the form of fabric, plastic, or cardboard sheets may succeed with tomatoes from fall through spring and into early summer in some areas with moderate winters. Even the most cold-tolerant tomatoes may grow slowly and yield intermittently during cold weather.

With hundreds of wonderful and reliable tomato varieties that are known to do well, in an astonishing diversity of colors, sizes, shapes and uses, it may take time and research to select varieties that best meet your needs.

Want a simple roadmap to good tomato varieties for your climate zone? Refer to the GardenZeus section "Recommended Varieties/Cultivars," above.

Choosing which tomatoes to grow in your garden can be bewildering, particularly for new and nontechnical gardeners. For help with making your selections, GardenZeus expert Darren Butler offers this introductory tomato selection guide. Try the following 7 steps to help you cut through the complexity:

1) What are your needs and purposes for your tomatoes?
What do you want from your tomatoes? Do you want a variety that's vigorous and disease-resistant? Or is flavor more important than anything else? Look for varieties that match your style of cooking and eating. Some aspects to think about are fresh use versus cooking, how large and consistent a harvest you want, and how many different kinds of tomatoes you want to grow. Salad, slicing, and many heirloom tomatoes are good for general and fresh use, while plum or paste tomatoes are generally preferred for cooking.

2) What are your growing conditions and challenges?
Most gardeners in California will want varieties that do well in low humidity, and varieties that are known to be generally vigorous and productive. Heat-tolerance and cold-tolerance are important depending on location and growing season.

3) Choose the type(s) of tomatoes that you want and think about fruit size.
See the GardenZeus general description or tomato, above, to understand the four main types of tomatoes.

4) Think about indeterminate versus determinate.

Would you like to harvest a tomato here and there for fresh eating, or would it be preferable for you to harvest many tomatoes at once to process for sauce or preserves?

Indeterminate tomato varieties are those that continue growing after flowering, and that set fruits steadily rather than in one large crop. They tend to produce longer vines and sprawling plants, which may be unattractive or difficult to manage for some gardeners, and often need stronger or more elaborate staking. Most of the famous heirloom varieties are indeterminate. It can be more difficult to obtain good yields, especially under challenging soil and environmental conditions, with indeterminate varieties, but they can also produce indefinitely, generally with small and sporadic yields after the first season. Indeterminate varieties are often favored by home gardeners for cooking and fresh eating, and anyone who wants staggered or slow-but-steady harvests of tomatoes.

Determinate tomatoes often produce more-compact plants than indeterminate varieties, that grow until they flower and then set a single heavy crop. They are generally a bit easier to grow successfully to a reasonable harvest and often requiring less-elaborate staking. Determinate varieties are often favored by cooks who want to make one large batch of sauce for catsup or sauce for preserving, and also by commercial farmers and anyone wanting a large harvest of tomatoes all at once.

5) Choose heirloom or hybrid, and think about space and productivity

There isn't exact agreement on what makes a tomato variety an heirloom; generally heirlooms are old varieties (usually in cultivation for at least 40 to 50 years, although purists might require pre-1920 or even older), and are open pollinated, which means that when pollinated by themselves or by other plants of the same variety, they will come true from seed.

Heirloom tomato varieties tend to be less productive per plant and produce a smaller quantity of tomatoes overall for a given planting area than hybrids. Their skins are usually thinner so that they crack and bruise more easily (some heirloom varieties are best not even stacked on top of each other when harvesting). Despite these challenges, GardenZeus considers growing heirloom tomatoes to be one of the greatest joys of gardening and recommends that all tomato lovers give heirlooms a try for their dazzling and rich flavors, variable colors, and other unique and diverse aspects. GardenZeus generally recommends organic, open-pollinated and heirloom seed varieties.

If you want a constant supply of tomatoes throughout the growing season, GardenZeus recommends growing at least few to several (about 5 to 10) individual plants from a few different heirloom varieties per family member or enthusiastic tomato eater. You may also want to grow one or two hybrid plants per person to help ensure a steady supply of tomatoes.

Hybrid tomatoes are varieties that result from the cross of 2 or more known or established varieties, and that generally will only come true in the current generation (seeds saved from hybrid varieties generally produce tomatoes that are different and usually less desirable than the parent plant). Hybrid tomatoes tend to be more vigorous, more productive, and more resistant to diseases than heirloom and open-pollinated varieties. If you have done your best to provide reasonable environmental conditions and soil for open-pollinated tomato plants and still have had disease issues or poor yields, you may wish to try a hybrid variety.

If you have identified disease(s) or pests that are prevalent in your local area or have affected your tomato plants in the past, it's important to select varieties that are resistant to those disease(s) or pests. Some heirlooms are disease resistant, but hybrids are more commonly selected when disease is a concern. Examples of tomato diseases include Fusarium or Verticillium wilts, and an example of a common tomato pest is nematodes. See "Common Diseases" in the GardenZeus section "Common Pests and Diseases" for more information about tomato diseases in your zone.

6) Review the details of your short list of choices, including growth habit, plant size, and fruit color. Don't forget about taste!

Some tomato varieties grow into monster-sized plants, in some cases outgrowing even the largest tomato cages or staking baskets that are commonly available, particularly some hybrid varieties.

Smaller tomatoes, especially cherry and grape tomatoes, are often but not always sweeter than larger-fruited varieties. Generally the lighter the fruit color, the sweeter the tomato, so orange and yellow through to the creamy-colored "white" tomatoes are sweeter, while the dark-red to black tomatoes tend to have a richer, and often more acidic, tart, or complex flavor.

Most gardeners agree that heirloom varieties are generally sweeter or have better flavor than hybrids; this may have to do with the priority on breeding some hybrid tomatoes to withstand bruising and to look perfect on supermarket shelves rather than for flavor. Many hybrid tomato varieties bred for growing in home gardens are flavorful.

7) Plant tried-and-true tomato varieties along with those that are new to your garden to help ensure a consistent harvest.

Refer to the GardenZeus section "Recommended Varieties/Cultivars," above, for an easy road-map to excellent varieties for your zone. See "Container Gardening" in the GardenZeus section "Planting and Maintaining" for tomato varieties for containers. See "Advanced Tip" in the GardenZeus section "Special Care, Needs, and Tips" for variety recommendations for growing from fall through spring.

Regardless of the varieties you choose, home-grown tomatoes are likely to be among the most rewarding and delicious vegetables in your garden.

Watering Tips

Tomato plants benefit from consistent soil moisture with a partial or slight dry-down of soil between waterings to ensure that soil is not consistently wet. The amount of dry-down between waterings should be kept consistent, as irregular moisture swings and dry soil can lead to problems such as blossom end rot and fruit splitting.

As tomato plants mature, water progressively more deeply and less frequently, to the full estimated depth of roots to encourage deeper rooting and reduce competition from weeds. Young plants should be watered to a depth of a few inches, while older plants should be watered slowly and for periods of 10 minutes to an hour or longer to wet the top 8 to 18 inches of soil. Tomatoes in loose, fertile soil may develop roots to a depth of 2 to 3 feet or more. Plants with deep roots will be more tolerant of summer heat, more productive, and less prone to pests and diseases. Avoid overwatering or keeping soil wet, which may encourage disease.

Root depth and water penetration in soil can be evaluated by pressing a long screwdriver or thin metal probe into soil and noticing when soil resistance changes as dry soil is reached. A shovel can also be pressed carefully into the soil outside or at the edge of an established plant's root system to expose the soil profile and gauge depth of roots.

Water tomatoes at soil level. Avoid watering with sprinklers or wetting foliage, which may encourage disease, although it can be helpful to rinse tomato leaves occasionally to clear dust and particle pollutants that may inhibit photosynthesis. Avoid applying strong streams of water that erode soil and expose roots, which may encourage pests and diseases, and reduce yield. The best method for watering tomatoes is generally drip irrigation, which allows for deeper inflitration of water over a longer period of time than most other methods.

Established tomato plants may go 1 to 4 weeks or longer between deep waterings in cool-to-warm weather. Healthy tomato plants with deep root systems may go 3 to 8 days or longer between waterings in hot weather.

Any wilting is undesirable and stressful to plants, but may be difficult to prevent with tomatoes during summer in some warm inland areas. GardenZeus recommends providing shade during hot afternoons if necessary to minimize wilting in tomatoes.

Tomato watered with drip system
A drip system is ideal for watering tomato plants

Planting Method/Tips

Tomato seeds

Tomatoes are easy to germinate. GardenZeus recommends germinating tomato seeds directly in small pots for later transplanting; or on a paper towel kept moist in a covered glass dish, with sprouted seeds then moved into small pots or transplanted directly outdoors as soon as a root emerges.

Germinate tomato seeds a light soil mix; preferably in healthy, biologically active soil; and in an area with ample light. Soil should be kept consistently moist but not wet. Temperatures of 65-85°F degrees are best for germinating tomato seeds, with an ideal temperature of 85°F. GardenZeus recommends starting extra seeds to ensure that you have plenty of strong seedlings and don't need to fill out your planting areas with weak or damaged seedlings. You may wish to start 3 or more seed per small pot and thin out all seedlings but the strongest for later transplanting.

Seeds generally germinate more quickly with bottom heat, such as from an appliance or germination heating mat or pad (do not germinate seeds with heating pads meant for human use, which are not designed to accommodate moisture or use for long periods). If seeding directly in beds outdoors do so when frost risk is low and daytime temperatures are consistently 65° F and above. Pay special attention to maintaining soil moisture when seeding in beds as seedlings may die quickly after germinating if upper soil dries out completely.

Warm season tomato varieties are generally started in late winter for early spring to summer harvests.

Some beginning gardeners may wish to purchase tomato starts. For information regarding purchasing high quality starts, see
Tomatomania's Spring Tomato Seedling Sale Locations 2017.

After germination, seedlings require ample light; generally the more light the better for tomato seedlings. If seedlings do not have access to much sunlight indoors, provide grow lights or as much artificial light as possible help encourage strong growth and healthy seedlings. Under conditions of insufficient light, seedlings become leggy, weak, spindly, and more prone to disease. Leggy seedlings may still fruit productively if planted deeply and given good care.

Young tomato plants
Young tomato starts ready for transplant

Harden off tomato seedlings for about 7 to 14 days (depending upon the harshness of your outdoor conditions, with longer periods during hot and cold weather) before transplanting or exposing to full sunlight all day. If transplants are rootbound, rough up and spread roots to discourage root competition and encourage a spreading root system. Some experts recommend tearing off excess roots at transplanting; at GardenZeus, we prefer to minimize damage to all parts of tomato plants during transplant. Tomatoes will sprout roots along their stems, so it is possible to plant starts several inches deeper than they were originally planted in pots to encourage a deep root system from the start. When possible, plant tomatoes where they will receive afternoon shade during the hottest summer and fall months.

Most tomato varieties will need staking or trellising to keep the plants manageable, maximize growing space and maintain garden tidiness by requiring tomatoes to grow up rather than outward, allow for greater ease and thoroughness with harvesting, prevent vigorous tomato plants from overwhelming other nearby vegetables, and to reduce or prevent disease and pest problems from tomato fruits and foliage resting directly on soil. Support can be provided with premade wire cages, wire or other garden fencing, stakes with string line spaced at intervals of about 6 to 12 inches, or trellises. Tomato stems may grow vigorously in the direction of sunlight. GardenZeus recommends open, airy support that will not block sunlight to any plants or their lower leaves, and that allows fruiting stems to be supported without being shaded. If you are growing tomatoes in rows, try using stakes interwoven with strong jute. Many indeterminate varieties, particularly indeterminate hybrids, will quickly grow too large for wire cages and are most effectively supported using stakes interwoven with strong jute. Vigorous indeterminate varieties may benefit from being staked both vertically and horizontally, in some cases in multiple levels horizontally.

Install support or trellises when germinating seeds or while seedlings are small. This will help prevent later damage to plants that may be caused by driving stakes through their root systems and when untangling or forcing stems to retrain to support. Tomato plants often need be tied to each level of their support as they grow, using loosely tied string, tie tape, strips of cloth, or twist ties. Keeping up your trellising and training is important to help encourage healthy plants, and to avoid the tomato-wow moment of coming back the garden after being away a find that your small, well-behaved tomato seedlings have turning into a sprawling, tangled mess.

Tomatoes in basket
tomato trellis
tomato trellis


Spacing needs for tomatoes varieties vary widely, as much or more so than for any other type of vegetable. 18 to 24 inches is generally sufficient for most tomato plants, and many varieties perform well when spaced a little more closely.

On the other hand, vigorous indeterminate varieties, particularly indeterminate hybrid plants, will generally need to be spaced farther apart, in some cases spaced as far as 4 to 5 feet apart to accommodate the monster, one-plant-jungles that a single seed can surprisingly become.

The size and shape of your garden space may help you decide which type of plant to grow. Determinate tomato type plants generally grow more bushy and compact, whereas indeterminate types can grow extremely tall, with long main and branching stems.

Tomatoes grown in cages or spaced close together can be less likely to sunburn, as the foliage is contained in a smaller area, and plants may help to shade each other during summer heat. On the other hand, in close plantings, tomatoes may also be more prone to pests, which may have an easier time moving from plant to plant, and to diseases, particularly during cool or wet weather, because the close spacing and packed-in leaves tend to create a more humid environment.


3 to 12 days or longer to seed germination. Generally, tomato seeds should germinate within 5 to 7 days if kept moist at temperatures of 70° to 85° F. If more than a week has passed under these conditions, investigate your seeds. Something may have gone wrong or you may need to replant.

If growing multiple seedlings in a single pot, thinning may begin early, within about 10 days after germination when it's obvious that some seedlings are damaged or less vigorous, and is generally completed within about 3 to 4 weeks, because seedling roots compete with each other for soil space.

4 to 8 weeks from germination to transplant. Tomatoes hold better in pots than most vegetables, but it's generally best to transplant tomatoes before they set many blooms.

50 to 130 days from germination to harvest depending upon variety and growing conditions.

Determinate tomato plants are normally removed after one heavy crop is harvested. In fertile soil, with proper care and frequent harvest, indeterminate tomato plants may remain productive indefinitely or for at least 2 years. Yields will generally be small and sporadic after the first season, so GardenZeus generally recommends starting with fresh seedlings each growing season even for indeterminate plants.

Pollination Needs/Tips

Tomatoes produce perfect flowers that are generally self-pollinating, which means that little effort or concern is usually needed from gardeners for tomato pollination. Gently shaking stems with blossoms once or twice per day may increase pollination.

At cool and hot temperatures, most varieties of tomatoes do not pollinate well and may drop blossoms. For most tomato varieties, nighttime temperatures below about 55°F or above 70°F and daytime temperatures below 70°F will reduce or stop fruit set and may cause blossoms to drop. Periods of heat, such as full days above 85° to 90°F, and as little as a few hours above 100°F, may cause a tomato plant to drop most or all of its blossoms. Many varieties have been developed or bred to overcome these limitations.

Refer to "Recommended Varieties/Cultivars," in the GardenZeus section "Getting Started," for an easy road-map to heat-tolerant varieties for your zone. See "Container Gardening" in the GardenZeus section "Planting and Maintaining" for tomato varieties for containers. See "Advanced Tip" in the GardenZeus section "Special Care, Needs, and Tips" for variety recommendations that pollinate or produce fruit well at cold temperatures.

Interplanting/Companion Planting

GardenZeus expert Darren Butler has found tomatoes generally to be unfussy companions for many other garden vegetables. Most varieties don't need insects for pollination, so planting fragrant herbs and flowers to attract pollinators is less important for tomatoes than for other garden vegetables. It is important to consider where tomatoes will be placed in your garden more based on size and habit of the tomato variety, to ensure that individual tomato plants receive plenty of sunlight, and both for beneficial shading of other plants during hot summers in your zone and to avoid shading other plants that need full sun. In small gardens, indeterminate tomatoes are often planted in the back (in the farthest areas from the direction of sunlight) and trained upward for efficient use of space.

Avoid planting tomatoes with or near other Solanums, such as potatoes and eggplants; with other members of the nightshade family, such as peppers; or in soil where tomatoes or relatives have been grown during the past 2 to 3 years.

Traditional companion plants for tomatoes include basil, borage, carrots, chives, marigolds, nasturtiums, and onions.

Nutrient/Amendment/Fertilization Needs/Tips

Tomatoes are heavy feeders, and perform best in rich, living soil with sufficient organic matter and calcium. A soil test is recommended to determine nutrient levels prior to applying fertilizer. Work compost, composted manures, or well-rotted organic matter into soils before planting, and maintain nutrient-rich surface dressings under mulch.

Provide additional nitrogen and nutrients to tomatoes after transplanting and once tomatoes begin to produce fruit. GardenZeus recommends adding nitrogen in the form of diluted urea or a cup of chicken manure diluted in 4 gallons of water (half cup if fresh manure) and mixed thoroughly, applied as a soil drench after transplanting and about once per month thereafter while plants are fruiting. Adding too much nitrogen may result in rapid growth and lush, high-carbohydrate leaves that attract insect infestation; and slowed or reduced yields.

Young tomato with crushed eggshells
Crushed eggshells are scattered at base of young tomato plant

Early in the growing season, crush or grind up eggshells, scatter at the base of each plant, and cover with fine mulch, to provide extra calcium to each tomato plant. Bury plugs of finished compost or worm compost a few inches outside of the driplines of established tomato plants 2 or 3 times per growing season and water thoroughly. Grow tomatoes only once every 2 to 4 years in a given bed or garden area to allow the soil to recover between plantings. Avoid providing excess nitrogen, such as when planting tomatoes near lawns that are fertilized with nitrogen, as this will encourage plants to grow vegetation and produce leaves and stems but not fruit. Too much nitrogen may also result in plants that have excessive foliage, that become extra prone to pests and disease.

Fish emulsion or seaweed extracts applied as drenches or foliar spray may be beneficial in soils that are infertile, alkaline, or lacking micronutrients.


Mulching is important for retaining soil moisture and to reduce frequency of watering, especially during warm-to-hot weather. Use a quarter to half-inch fine mulch for small starts under 4 inches in height; increase to an inch or more of fine to medium mulch after plants are 1 to 2 feet tall.

Young tomato plant
Mulch surrounds this young tomato plant

Pruning/Cutting Back/Pinching/Separating

GardenZeus does not recommend pinching back or removing blossoms from determinate tomato plants under most circumstances; and recommends that determinate tomatoes generally not be pruned. While some sources recommend removing small stems (watersprouts or "suckers") near the base of a plant, GardenZeus expert Darren Butler is concerned about this admitting disease organisms or the pruning injuries unnecessarily attracting pests, and feels that the drawbacks of such pruning may outweigh the benefits. Determinate tomatoes generally fruit abundantly without need of pruning assistance from the gardener.

Indeterminate tomato plants may be pinched back when 6 inches tall to encourage compact, lateral, or spreading growth. Typically the end set of leaves on a stem is pinched or cut back to the next stem or node.

Scissors used to remove blossom
Scissors are used to remove blossoms from young tomato plant
After blossom removal

GardenZeus recommends pinching off blossoms from indeterminate tomatoes until plants are well established with many stems and 16 to 24 inches in height for most varieties. This is done to encourage more vegetative growth and stronger plants. which in turn increases future blooming and fruiting. In your zone, indeterminate tomato plants may continue to grow and produce small harvests for up to 2 years or longer, though harvests tend to be small and sporadic after the first growing season. If actively gardening, planting new tomato seedlings each season or year will generally produce larger yields. Leggy indeterminate tomato plants may be pruned in fall or winter after fruit production has slowed or stopped.

Beginning at about 6 inches in height, indeterminate tomato plants can be pruned to help shape their branch structure. Generally, indeterminate tomatoes should be pruned lightly to chose main laterals (especially for indeterminate tomatoes grown with stakes in a row as opposed to those supported by cages), to maintain a compact or manageable plant structure, and to reduce sprawl and legginess. When growing tomatoes from spring to fall in your zone, it is important to be cautious in removing too many stems to avoid overly thinning the canopy; abundant foliage can help protect stems, minimize sunburn on fruit, and cool soil on hot summer days. Removing branches from the bottom part of a tomato stem can also help improve air circulation, while still maintaining enough upper foliage to prevent sunburn. Removing dead or diseased foliage is recommend to help prevent the spread of disease; however, it's generally best not prune tomatoes in wet conditions, as this can encourage disease, especially blight.

Skilled pruning of indeterminate tomatoes is an art in itself, and can help to improve fruit size and increase overall yield. Goals for skilled tomato pruning often include removal of lower leaves to minimize shaded leaves that may drain energy the plant would otherwise put into producing blooms and fruit, reducing main stems to a few or even one, encouraging an upright growth habit that maximizes photosynthesis for every leaf and total surface area of all leaves (when most or all tomato leaves receive abundant sunlight, plants tend to produce earlier and larger fruits), and increasing air circulation, which helps to reduce disease.


From seed. GardenZeus generally recommends open-pollinated, untreated, organically grown seeds.

See The GardenZeus Guide to Saving Tomato Seeds for more information about saving tomato seeds.

Seeds in bowl

See The GardenZeus Guide to Advanced Tomato Propagation for information about propagating tomatoes through cuttings and grafting.

Young starts propagated

Container Gardening

Most cherry tomato varieties that are otherwise suited to your growing conditions will produce abundantly in containers in your zone. Many larger tomatoes will also do well in sizable pots or containers. For heirloom, indeterminate cherry varieties in containers, try Yellow Pear or Black Plum. For smaller containers try mini and grape determinate varieties such as Micro Tom.

Tomato in container

Tomatoes are heavy feeders. Provide ample compost and nutrients to tomatoes being grown in containers, especially indeterminate varieties that produce larger fruit. See the GardenZeus section "Nutrient/Amendment/Fertilization Needs/Tips," above for tips and information about organic fertilization of tomatoes.

GardenZeus recommends 5-gallon nursery pots with at least 12-inch depth as a minimum size for most tomato varieties, with larger pots generally being better. Many indeterminate plum and slicing tomatoes perform reasonably well in larger containers. Vigorous indeterminate heirloom tomatoes, and most indeterminate hybrids, are best grown in the ground, in raised beds, or in very large containers, such as 24-inch planting boxes or trash-can-equivalent sizes. Note than trash cans and many containers you might consider using as planters for tomatoes, particularly metal containers and cans, may contain toxic metals that can be absorbed by plants so caution is needed when using found or adopted containers, particularly when growing food. See "Recommended Varieties/Cultivars" in the GardenZeus section "Getting Started" for a roadmap to warm season tomato varieties. See "Advanced Tips" in the GardenZeus section "Special Care, Needs, and Tips" for cool season tomato varieties.

Containers allow you to move plants to follow seasonal changes in sun, to shaded areas during hot summers to warmer areas during winter, and to protected areas when necessary in response to winds or other environmental factors.

Container plants are more sensitive to drying soil, especially in warm weather, which can reduce harvest quality and quantity, shorten the harvest period, and encourage problems . Soils may dry rapidly in containers, so monitoring and regular watering vegetables in containers is important. Pay close attention to soil moisture and frequency of irrigation, and be sure to water sufficiently to avoid any signs of wilting.

Tomatoes are susceptible to various problems that result from drying soil or from extreme fluctuation in soil moisture. Fruits may crack or develop blossom end rot easily when tomatoes are grown in containers, especially during warm-to-hot weather, so pay extra attention to irrigation or manual watering when growing tomatoes in containers. If you know you may have difficulty maintaining consistent soil moisture, consider using self-watering containers, which have trays or reservoirs of water under pots, and a wicking mechanism, such as cloth or soil tubes. These can be purchased or made yourself.

GardenZeus recommends a soil mix of at least 2/3 sand and topsoil when growing vegetables in containers, with some organic matter or compost. Potting soils with high proportions of organic matter tend to shrink and collapse over the course of a growing season as soil microbes and macro organisms like insects digest or decompose the organic matter, which results in falling soil levels that may cause stress to plants.

Seasonal Care

Most tomatoes are warm season varieties and require warm to hot summer temperatures to produce fruit; they are generally grown from late winter to early fall. Some tomatoes are cool season varieties and are generally grown from fall to spring in areas with moderate winters.

How to Harvest

When ripe, some varieties snap easily off the vine at a joint on the stem usually a half-inch to an inch-and-a-half above the fruit, with a motion against the joint (away from the narrowest angle of the joint). GardenZeus recommends harvesting with garden scissors or a garden knife to avoid damaging tomato fruits when pulled off stems.

It is easy to damage the relatively thin skin of ripe heirloom tomatoes: take care not to stack or squash your heirloom tomatoes while harvesting and you can enjoy attractive as well as flavorful tomatoes.

Harvesting Tips

One of the great pleasures of vegetable gardening is harvesting and eating vine-ripened tomatoes. Tomatoes are fully ripe when in full color and slightly soft. Tomatoes may be harvested when under-ripe and allowed to ripen, and many varieties will ripen fully if harvested green, but generally will not have the same full flavor or sweetness as vine-ripened tomatoes. You may need to harvest tomatoes early and allow them to ripen indoors to avoid losing them to insect and vertebrate pests.

[It can be more common for heirloom tomatoes to develop splits that heal over with scar tissue. Sometimes it can appear as though the skin were zipped up with a zipper! Though not necessarily the most aesthetically pleasing, these tomatoes with scarring are perfectly edible.]

What Commonly Goes Wrong

Blossom Drop: Tomato blossoms falling from the plant without setting fruit is one of the most common and frustrating problems with tomato plants. It may be caused by temperatures that are too warm or too cold, high or low humidity, lack of pollination, too much or too little water, or too much or too little nitrogen in soil, among other causes. [Shake stems gently once per day to encourage pollination, wait for warmer or cooler weather, and if you're doing a lot of watering or fertilizing, reduce or discontinue. [If shaking plants to encourage pollination, do so in the warmer, drier part of the day, when pollen is less sticky.]

Sunburned fruits: Tomato fruits exposed to sun, especially during hot periods, may develop yellow or yellowish-white scalded spots. Pinch or prune plants to encourage compact growth to shade fruits; protect individual tomatoes with stockings, socks, burlap, or shade cloth; or provide shade to entire plants during hot periods.

Blossom End Rot: A common condition in tomatoes in which the end of immature fruits develops brown spots, turns tough or leathery, or hard, inedible areas may form inside the fruits. This is caused by insufficient or unavailable calcium in soil and/or variable soil moisture (drying out between periods of irrigation). Add compost, eggshells, and be diligent in maintaining even soil moisture. [Mulch will help retain moisture levels and buffer radical swings in moisture level. Plants that have been pruned hard are more likely to have blossom end rot.]

[Cracking: The delicate skin of tomatoes can crack just before reaching maturity]. Cracks in tomatoes are most commonly caused by abundant watering after a period of dryness, and can also result from sun damage. [This can be more of a genetic tendency in some varieties.]

Slow growth, yellowing, lack of vigor, sickliness in plants: These common symptoms may result from overwatering, underwatering, cold weather, compacted soil, alkaline soil, lack of nitrogen, or lack of a key soil nutrient. May also be the result of too much sun, wind, or other environmental and abiotic factors.

Not a Problem

At GardenZeus, we expect some amount of blossom drop, especially with young and establishing tomato plants, and become concerned only if the second round of blossoms fails to set fruit. Oddly shaped, catfaced, or contorted tomatoes may result from cold weather or pollination issues, but these fruits should still be edible. Tomato stems may form whitish knobs or hairlike growths during wet weather or when stems rest on moist ground that are actually roots, not fungus, and are helpful to the plant.

Common Diseases

[Damping off: Tomato sprouts are prone to damping off. Caused by soilborne fungi that may suddenly kill smaller seedlings and starts. Occurs most commonly in cool, damp soils.]

[Tomato leaf roll: A disorder in which older leaves roll inward, decreasing photosynthesis activity, leading to discolored leaves, and possibly sunburned fruit. It is believed that leaf roll is expressed when tomatoes have high levels of soil moisture, or are aggressively pruned in harsh conditions.]

[Tomatoes can be impacted by several viruses which are spread by insect vectors, such as curly top virus and spotted wilt virus. Remove any diseased foliage to help prevent the spread of disease, and provide care for your tomatoes that will foster strong plants resistant to disease].

[Various types of wilts can be a big problem for tomato plants; both Fusarium and Verticillium wilt are types of soil fungus that will cause progressive decline and yellowing of leaves. Many types of tomato varieties are now bred to be resistant to these diseases, look for disease resistance labels when purchasing plants or seeds].

[Tobacco mosaic virus is a unique disease that can be transmitted from the hands of smokers. Yields will be greatly reduced, and leaves will become discolored and distorted. Wash your hands before handling tomatoes if you smoke, and look for "TMV" resistant tomato cultivars].

[Blight: Tomato plants can be decimated by blight, which can quickly cause plants to wither and decline. Blight is a fungal infection, transferred from plant to plant by water, wind, and people. It is most common in wet, warm, and humid conditions. Avoid working in your plants when conditions are wet.]

Common Pests

Common pests of tomatoes in your area include aphids, cutworms, hornworms, snails, slugs, ground squirrels, and rats.

[Also whiteflies, root knot nematodes, gophers].

Special Care

Tomato plants, especially leaves, contain small amounts of toxins that can be harmful to people and animals. While toxin levels in tomato plants are not generally considered dangerous, the issue remains controversial. Some sources claim that human and animal deaths have resulted from ingesting tomato foliage or use of tomato leaves for tea. GardenZeus recommends treating all parts of tomato plants other than ripe fruit as toxic. While unripe tomatoes are generally considered safe in small amounts as pickled or in relishes, out of an abundance of caution, GardenZeus recommends sparing consumption of green or unripe tomatoes regardless of culinary method of preparation.

Special Info

Generally lighter color in tomato fruit corresponds to sweeter flavor, and darker color corresponds to richer tomato flavor with less sweetness (white and yellow tomatoes are sweet, while darker red and black tomatoes are less sweet and more flavorful).

[It has been discovered that high levels of smog can adversely impact tomato yields; it may disrupt fruiting and can result in poor yields. This can be a problem especially during summer months in Southern California.]

[A tomato seed planted directly in the ground can grow a taproot at a rate of one inch per day, up to 22 inches long. Tomatoes that are not transplanted can develop extremely deep and robust root systems. A mature tomato plant can have a root system that may be five feet wide and five feet deep.]

[Some growers recommended blowing an electric fan on tomato plant to promote the development of strong stems. This can help simulate winds, to ensure that plants develop stems with good structure. Generally, hardening off plants in natural conditions if sufficient to develop robust, healthy plants.]

[With recent drought conditions, many people are experimenting with "dry-farmed" tomatoes. After establishing their tomato plants, growers will cut off most or all irrigation to their plants. Roots grow deep into the soil in search of water. While the fruit is smaller overall, tomatoes from these plants can be unbelievably sweet and flavorful. Unfortunately, this may be near to impossible to accomplish in warm summer areas].

[Many gardeners are curious about what defines an heirloom tomato. While an heirloom tomato is always open pollinated, not hybridized, the rest of the defining age qualification on an heirloom is somewhat loose. Heirloom tomatoes are not necessarily organic, they can be grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides just as any other crop. While heirloom tomatoes are always varieties that have been selected and passed down over many generations (plant and human), the exact number of years that defines an heirloom is debated. Some people consider heirloom to be varieties that are at least 50 years old, or some believe 100 years old to be the cut off. Other consider heirlooms to be plants that were developed and selected before seed companies began developing hybrid varieties. Regardless of the age, heirloom varieties typically have great flavor, adaptability, and growing characteristics that have been selected over many years. Because varieties are stable, seed can be saved with extreme genetic variability.]

Sustainable Landscaping Tip

Tomatoes, especially cherry tomatoes, will naturalize, and can be grown using rain only over winter. In good soil, tomato plants may persist on their own for months after the last spring rain, and under these conditions will produce the sweetest, most flavorful fruit you have ever tasted.

To ensure fresh tomatoes over the longest possible season, consider planting several tomato plants of the same variety at different times, or choosing varieties with different maturation lengths.

Advanced Tip

Have you never grown tomatoes over winter? It is relatively easy to enjoy tomato harvests from fall through spring in many areas of California with moderate winters. Choose cold-tolerant, short-season varieties like Oregon Spring, Siberian, Siletz, and Stupice. Be sure to plant tomatoes where they will receive ample sunlight during shorter winter days, or grow in containers so plants can be moved from week to week to follow shifts in sunlight. Keep an eye on low temperatures and cover plants with fabric, plastic, or cardboard sheets or bring container plants indoors during periods of overnight frost. Even the most cold-tolerant tomatoes may grow slowly and yield intermittently during cold weather. You may be able to pleasingly enhance your reputation as both a skilled gardener and an unusual person by offering a friend or family member a bag of garden-fresh tomatoes in December or January!

Preservation, Storage, and Use

Most gardeners and cooks know that tomatoes should not be refrigerated but many may not know why. The ideal storage temperature for fruits and vegetables varies among the many different varieties. Those fruits native to warmer regions are typically injured by temperatures as low as the common house refrigerator. Their cells begin to malfunction and the uncontained enzyme action damages cell walls, develops undesirable flavors, and causes discoloration. It has been well documented that tomatoes deteriorate when stored below temperatures of 50°F for an extended period of time. At GardenZeus, we recommend that you store your tomatoes in a cool, dry indoor location at least 60°F, away from direct sunlight and away from sensitive vegetables, as tomato is an ethylene-producing fruit. Stored in these conditions, the amount of time a freshly-harvested tomato lasts ranges from two days for a cherry tomato to over a week for a larger heirloom. Tomatoes should no longer be eaten once black spots and shriveled skins start to appear.

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