My winter seed order usually includes a collection of tomato varieties different from, and more wondrous than, any I’ve grown in the past in my small vegetable patch. I’m counting down the days to summer’s first luscious tomato even as they’re still in seed packets. The dedication to homegrown tomatoes seems to fascinate all cultures. The sweet-sour, tangy flavor, and melting texture of vine-ripened, sun-warmed tomatoes are unequaled.

I grew up feasting on my grandmother’s tried-and-true ‘Rutgers’ tomatoes. But in my vitamin garden, I embrace a carpe diem philosophy and explore new tomato frontiers. They adapt so quickly to hybridizing techniques that seed catalogs can only list a small fraction of the hundreds of different colors, shapes, sizes, and plant characteristics.

An early fascination with large fruit introduces me to the super-sized producers such as ‘Mortgage Lifter’ and ‘Ultra Magnum’ (two pounds or larger), ‘Bragger’ (up to 3 pounds), and ‘T & T Monster’ (four-plus pounds). Not only is the fruit enormous, but the plants need two by four lumber to hold them upright after planting and caring for big tomatoes. I was happy to plant more manageable sized tomatoes such as ‘Big Beef,’ ‘Red Sun,’ ‘Celebrity,’ and ‘Ultra Boy.’ Each fruit (up to one pound) is enough to fill my hand but doesn’t require special equipment to lift.

As a lover of Italian food, it was, of course, essential to include a sampling of plum-shaped tomatoes, grown for their minimal seeds and meaty interiors. These tomatoes make thick sauces. They are also an excellent option for preserving for winter use. Authentic Italian ‘San Marzano’ seed produced delicate, sprawling vines with slender fruit. Their elongated shape was perfect for packing tightly in jars. But North American-bred ‘Plum Dandy’ and ‘Viva Italia’ produced thick, husky vines with chunky, plum-shaped tomatoes of incredible uniformity.

Another year I planted cluster and small cherry tomatoes, running them up railings, fences, and draping them from a wire grape trellis. ‘Early Cascade’ produced generous groups of two inches (five-centimeter), larger than cherry-sized fruit over a long season. ‘Red Currant’ and ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’ were nearly true to wild form, scrambling vines with small, intense, berry-like tomatoes to eat immediately or throw into salads. ‘Tami-G’ was in an entirely different class-an rich hybrid princess, purchased for the breathtaking price of $2 a seed. Her regal and elegant demeanor reflected years of hybridizing, and the investment paid off in grand, dripping clusters of grape-like red orbs. As though by divine matchmaking, a century-old ‘Yellow Pear’ heirloom tomato mingled its dangling luminescent yellow fruits with the ultra-modern ‘Tami-G,’ and I almost felt as if I shouldn’t be looking.

Cherry tomatoes

Gardeners Delight’ and ‘Sweet Chelsea’ were my staple cherry tomatoes for several years, never disappointing and always ready to provide at least a pint or two of round, red fruit to pop into the mouth. However, my cherry-sized favorite is ‘Sungold’ (F, T), a vine of manageable height and girth that produces round, tangerine-orange fruit with an intensely sweet, rich taste hints of apricot. The dwarf, 45-centimetre-tall’ Orange Pixie’, also has these qualities and can be grown in a container. ‘Sungold’ has 11 to 14 Brix units (sugar Brix units measure sweetness in fruits and vegetables) in each fruit. Most sweet cherry-type tomatoes measure 8 to 10 Brix, keeping them slightly ahead of full-sized tomatoes, ranging from 6 to 8.

Plant the rainbow

It’s no wonder tomatoes were grown as ornamental plants long before their fruits were considered edible. Well-tended tomato plants are beautiful specimens in a mixed border and can surprise you with unpredictable colors in the ripening season. Standard market tomatoes have yellow skin over red flesh, making a deep shade of scarlet comparable to fire engines. Heirloom varieties offer a rainbow of colors, such as the pastel pink’ Watermelon Beefsteak’ and ‘Arkansas Traveler,’ the result of clear skin over red flesh. When yellow-skinned, red-fleshed tomatoes retain green pigment, the ripe fruit takes on maroon-purple and brown tones, as seen in ‘Black Krim’ and ‘Cherokee Purple.’ Garden visitors find it hard to ignore ‘Taxi’ (C), a striking, caution-sign yellow, and striped beauties such as tangy ‘Green Zebra’ (green streaked with yellow) tropical-flavored ‘Mr. Stripey’ (red streaked with yellow). Next summer, I might try some of the white tomatoes-‘White Wonder’ (with fruit weighing up to one kilogram), ‘Great White’ (with pineapple, melon, and guava flavors), and the adorable cherry types, ‘Snow White’ and ‘Ghost Cherry.’

How to care for your tomato plants?

You have only to slice into a ripe tomato to understand its dependence on abundant soil moisture. Tomatoes are water storehouses, relying on moisture to manufacture their unique balance of acid and sugar. (Inadequate moisture stunts vine growth and makes the fruit dry and flavorless.) Tomatoes grow best in sandy loam with a pH between 6 and 6.8. Their most important requirement is the liberal addition of organic material (such as peat moss and shredded leaves), with coarse sand mixed in for efficient drainage. Mulch is necessary to prevent water evaporation. Shredded bark is an excellent choice for tomatoes (applied two inches to three inches deep over the roots (five to eight centimeters). Still, production increases dramatically in short, northern growing seasons with plastic film over the soil. If you can tolerate agricultural plastic intrusion in your garden, black or dark green film boosts fruit production by up to 40 percent. Red plastic (sold as SRM-Red) induces early fruiting by reflecting infrared rays into the plants.

Tomatoes need at least six hours of sun daily; while we think of them as heat-loving plants, they’re more comfortable in moderate temperatures. They grow and blossom best at daytime temperatures between 21 and 24°C and nights between 10 and 13°C. The ideal “tomato summer” is found on the Russian Riviera of the Crimean peninsula (ancestral home of ‘Black Krim’ and other excellent cultivars), where the high of 24°C occurs July. I would be very comfortable there myself. Perhaps there’s a little tomato patch on the Black Sea in my future.

Tomato Growing Tips

Soak seeds overnight to remove any germination inhibitors. The gel surrounding tomato seeds contains potent chemicals that prevent seeds from sprouting inside the fruit.

Start seeds indoors five to six weeks before setting them out in the garden after all frost’s danger has passed. Small plants adapt better to windy spring conditions outdoors, growing roots while the air is cold and producing strong growth when it warms up.

Remove the first set of branches from each plant; bury the plants on a horizontal slant if they’re tall, all the way up to the top flush of leaves. The buried stem will grow additional roots to strengthen the plant all season.

If cutworms severe young plants at soil level, salvage the cut stems and put them in a water jar. They’ll sprout roots and be ready for transplanting in two weeks.

For more robust root and leaf development, redirect energy into early growth by removing the first sets of flowers until plants are 12 inches tall (30 centimeters).

Tomato Tips

In cold regions with fewer growing days, select early varieties of tomatoes that mature in 50 to 65 days from planting, such as ‘Early Girl,’ ‘Early Pick,’ ‘Moskvich,’ ‘Daybreak,’ ‘Oregon Spring’ and ‘First Lady.’

Tomatoes hate competition. Give each plant enough space to extend its leaves without touching another plant.

Always irrigate tomatoes from below. If frequent late-summer rain causes cracking of fruit, grow split-resistant varieties: ‘Basket Vee’, ‘Bellestar’, ‘Duchess’, ‘Heinz 1350’, ‘Juliet’ or ‘Juliet Hybrid’, ‘Marion’, ‘Park’s Whopper’, ‘Pilgrim’, ‘Spitfire’, ‘Summer Sweet’, ‘Sunbrite’, ‘Sunmaster Hybrid’, ‘Sweet Million’, ‘Sweet Gold’ and ‘Sweet Orange’.

Mix homemade garden compost or composted manure in the soil and supplement with liquid fish or kelp emulsion every third week. Avoid high amounts of nitrogen, as it will encourage leaf growth at the expense of flowers and fruit.

How to plant tomatoes in containers?

Provide a container at least 12 inches to 24 inches wide (30 to 60 centimeters), depending on your plant’s potential size.

Select a dwarf variety, with heights from 18 inches to 30 inches (45 to 75 centimeters); determine types that stop growing when they reach a specified height of 35 inches to 40 inches (90 to 100 centimeters) and do well in containers.

Use a growing medium composed of two parts soilless mix, one part garden compost or composted manure, and one part coarse builder’s sand.

Kids and Tomatoes

What would pizza, pasta, and tossed salad be without tomatoes? Most Canadians eat raw or cooked tomatoes almost every day. Even fussy youngsters eat this vegetable packed with vitamin C and A—botanically a fruit because they contain seeds—without complaint. Since tomatoes are easy to grow in containers, they’re great for kids to nurture in patio pots, window boxes, and even hanging baskets.

Tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum) are indigenous to South America. Yellow and red varieties grow wild in the Andes valleys, where the Incas of Peru domesticated them as early as 700 AD. During the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors took them home to southern Europe, adding a delicious new taste to Italian and Spanish cuisine. But most of the English-speaking world was slower to recognize a good thing, believing until the 19th century that tomatoes, related to deadly nightshade, were poisonous.

Choose from a rainbow of varieties.

Today, cultivated varieties may be pink, orange, and even striped and red or yellow. They range in size from small enough to pop in your mouth (cherry varieties) to large enough to carry with two hands (‘Beefsteak’). Shapes vary, also. Most tomato varieties produce round fruit, but ‘Zapotec Pleated’ is fluted or rippled, ‘Yellow Stuffer’ resembles peppers—hollow with rigid walls—and ‘Amish Paste’ is pear-shaped.

Planting Tomatoes

Tomatoes grow successfully in just about any sturdy container filled with rich, well-drained soil, but large containers (five gallons or more – 20 liters) yield healthier plants and more fruit. Some cherry tomatoes perform well in hanging baskets, and many patio types (dwarfs) can be grown in 12 inches (30-centimeter) terra-cotta pots.

When the frost’s danger is passed, purchase healthy plants with straight, sturdy stems (about as thick as a pencil) and four to six young leaves (no blossoms or fruit). Plant each tomato seedling deeper than growing in its nursery pot or cell pack—up to its first true leaves, encouraging it to develop roots along its buried stem. Place the container where it’ll receive at least six hours of sun every day. Unless the plant is a dwarf variety or growing in a hanging pot, stake it or place a cage around it to keep fruit and leaves off the ground.

How to fertilize your tomato plants?

Tomato plants are heavy feeders; add fertilizer high in potassium, such as 5-10-10, 5-20-20, or 8-16-16. Too much nitrogen encourages vigorous vine growth but produces little fruit.

Tomato Plant Care

Keep the soil damp. Pull any weeds by hand. Once the tomato plants are established, apply mulch to conserve moisture, and suppress weeds. Soil that dries out can cause blossom-end rot. Over-watering may cause ripening fruit to split.

Extreme temperatures also affect tomatoes. In spring, blossom drop can occur when daytime temperatures are warm, but night temperatures fall below 13°C. Plants can also suffer from blossom drop in summer when days and nights are more than 32°C.

How to harvest your tomatoes?

Harvest tomatoes when they are ripe but still firm. To speed up the ripening process, you can place a few tomatoes in a brown paper bag. For best flavor, store them at room temperature; refrigerate only if fully ripe, and then only for a few days.

Topsy-turvy Hanging Tomatoes

Here’s a conversation piece that sounds crazy but yields an abundance of cherry tomatoes. (You can also try this with plants that produce medium-sized fruit.) The plant grows upside down, a feat that will amaze your kids and their friends.

Cut a hole slightly larger than the diameter of the main stem of the plant at the bottom of a five-gallon (20-liter) plastic bucket. Carefully wrap the top of the plant in a cylinder made of newspaper and insert through the bucket’s hole, pointing the leaves toward the ground. Unwrap the newspaper, hang the bucket by its handle. Add approximately three centimeters of gravel to help anchor the roots and fill the bucket with potting soil. As the tomato plant grows, its leaves will curl up toward the sun, but the stems will hang straight down once it’s loaded with fruit.

Fried Green (or Slightly Pink) Tomatoes

Here’s a juicy, delicious way for you and your kids to enjoy an over-abundance of unripe tomatoes at the end of the growing season. Wash the tomatoes and pat them dry. Cut them into three-millimeter-thick slices, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Dip each slice in cornmeal and place on waxed paper. Heat some vegetable oil and fry the slices until golden brown. Drain them on paper towels and serve hot.

Family Secret Tomato Sauce

How do you not let one juicy fruit go to waste and preserve your tomato harvest? If you are willing to put the time into canning and preserving, you can turn your bounty into jellies, rich sauces, or relishes. Here is a delicious recipe from Suzanne Taylor that might just make you want to double your crop next year.

The advantage of this recipe is to make a large amount at one time when tomatoes are in season. If you’re canning your tomatoes, stick closely to the recipe; adding additional fresh vegetables will alter the pH, making it unsafe for water-bath canning. If you’re freezing it, then it’s OK to throw in peppers, mushrooms, fresh garlic, whatever you want. This recipe makes 6-7 quarts*—you can use a combination of pint and quart canning jars or freezer boxes.

  • 10 quarts tomato puree (about 30 pounds tomatoes)
  • 3 tablespoons garlic powder (or more, to taste)
  • 2 tablespoons dried parsley
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • 3 large onions, chopped
  • 1 cup dried basil
  • ½ cup honey
  • 1 teaspoons cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon nutmeg
  • 3 tablespoons dried oregano
  • 3 tablespoons salt
  • 1 tablespoon ground dried lemon peel
  • 2 tablespoons thyme

Soften onions in a heavy 3-gallon kettle—add a little bit of water if necessary but no oil if you are canning. Add all seasonings and pureed tomatoes, bring to a boil. Simmer on low heat for two to three hours until your sauce has thickened to your liking. To avoid burning, stir the sauce frequently, especially toward the end. Simultaneously, heat water in canner bath, sterilize jars in boiling water or dishwasher, and pour boiling water over jar lids.

Bottled lemon juice or citric acid—NOT optional!

Add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice OR ½ teaspoon citric acid to each quart jar (half that much to pint jars). This guarantees that the sauce will be safely acidic. When the sauce is finished, ladle it into the jars, leaving ½-inch headspace. Cap jars, lower gently into the canner, and boil for 35 minutes.

Remove, cool, check all seals, label, and store for winter.

*1 quart = 4 cups