"When I picked the first big, ripe, juicy tomato of the season, I was so proud of what I'd done that I refused to let anyone cut it up until I'd paraded it around the entire neighborhood so that everyone else
 could see."

- Duane G. Newcomb


" Tomatoes and squash never fail to reach maturity. You can spray them with acid, beat them with sticks and burn them; they love it. "

  - S.J. Perelman, Acres and Pains, 1951


Pruden's Purple Tomato
Growing the 'love apple'...

Still found growing wild in modern day Peru, tomatoes are perennial vines that originate from very warm climates. There's a lot of telling information in that sentence.

Let's start with them being vines. This means that given all the necessary heat requirements, they will just keep growing without being staked or pruned or fussed with at all. It makes sense then that these lovelies prefer (like me) to be nice and toasty warm with lots of sunshine.

So what is an HEIRLOOM?

Some people define an “heirloom” by age, such as saying that any plant that originated before 1950 (after which hybridization became popular) is an heirloom.

Simply put: Seeds which have been passed down through family lines - generation to generation - with no discernible divergence; this is the true definition of an heirloom. The seeds are saved because they are revered.

Sometimes, you just don't need to re-invent the wheel. I really like Victory Seeds definition of an heirloom the best.

What does Open pollinated mean?

Open-pollinated plants are simply varieties that will produce seedlings just like the parent plant, year after year.

However, tomato plants can naturally cross pollinate - especially in areas with high sweat bee populations. It is estimated that this occurs between 2-5% of the time. To put this into perspective, if you saved 100 seeds and grew them out the following year, there is the potential that between two and five of those plants will not be the same as the others. Sometimes the seedling will vary slightly. Occasionally you will end up with a plant that looks nothing like the mother. This is often referred to as an out crossing. Examples would be 'Cow's Tit' or 'Great White Beefsteak'.

Don't be disappointed if this happens in your garden. You never know, you may end up with something very interesting!

How Do I Prevent Tomatoes from Cross-pollinating?


Generally, tomato plants are either DETERMINATE or INDETERMINATE.

What's the difference?

  • DETERMINATE - A plant growth habit in which stems stop growing at a certain height terminating in a flower cluster. They tend to be shorter, earlier, have a concentrated fruit set, meaning fruits tend to ripen "all at once". They make good candidates for home processing.

    Once the vine produces its first set of flowers on the main growing stem, it will then produce flowers on every following internode or every second internode until finally terminating the growing stem with a flower truss instead of a continuation of the growing tip. Same holds true for all the side shoots.


  • INDETERMINATE - A plant growth habit in which stems keep growing indefinitely until disease or environmental conditions kill the plant. Indeterminate tomatoes, for example, often continue to grow and produce fruit until they are killed by frost.

    After setting out its first flower truss (usually at the fourth or fifth internode from seed emergence), an indeterminate will continue to put out flower trusses on every third internode of the main growing stem until terminated by frost, disease, etc. Same pattern on the side shoots.


  • DWARF - A misleading and often confusing name for a classification of tomato plants, as height is NOT indicative of the eventual size of the plant. Dwarf plants are characterized foremost by shortened internode spacing, thick stems on bushy plants that usually have rugose foliage, but not always.  Plants can either be determinate or indeterminate, ranging from 12 inches to 4 feet, depending on the variety.

To stake or not to stake?

It's up to you! There are solid arguments for each. I tend to do both - mostly because staking/pruning 200+ tomato plants is a real chore. So, inevitably, the last of the rows tend to be forgotten, and they end up sprawling all over the ground. Do I notice a difference? Yes and no. Disease-wise, I'd have to say no. I can't say that the plants on the ground were more healthy or unhealthy than the ones that got staked. In fact, I might even go so far as to say the opposite. Perhaps it's because the sprawling vines had far more foliage, thus giving the plant the resources (more leaves = more photosynthesis) to outpace the spread of any foliar disease.

It is very important to mention that my garden floor is completely covered in some type of organic mulch. Some years it may be 4-6 inches of leaves, others it may be straw. The important thing is that the plants that I allow to sprawl are NOT IN CONTACT WITH THE SOIL.

What I will say is that aesthetically, I prefer staked plants. I try and keep my garden very tidy. Staked plants are far easier to weed around and to irrigate. Also, by the end of the season, I tend to 'lose' a good amount of fruit on the sprawling plants because I miss them through all the foliage. Even with my 5 foot spacing, the sprawling plants end up entangled with their next door neighbors making even getting to the fruit a challenge. This practice is also a poor choice if you intend to save your seeds. Cross-pollination will increase dramatically. I should mention here that you will get more fruit from plants that are left to their own devices simply because there will be more plant! But the fruits will be smaller, as the plant will have to work harder to get to all the stems.

  Pruning Tomatoes


SUN and lots of it. Plants need at least 4 hours of direct sunlight. They will grow in less, but they will only survive - not thrive. If need be, I suggest growing smaller varieties in pots, so you can place them in the sunniest areas you have available - and this isn't necessarily where you might want them or have a garden. I've grown tomatoes in pots on my driveway! And don't forget about existing 'flower beds'. There's no reason you can't plunk a couple into them!

Consistent WATER. As for the amount of water, that depends much on your soil type (clay vs. sand). It is far, far better to water deep and infrequently, then it is to water shallow and frequently. The latter teaches the plant to keep its roots up near the surface, versus digging deep into the subsoil where they provide a better anchor for the plant itself, and while doing so roots are creating air pockets helping with soil structure, as well as seeking and utilizing the soils natural nutrients.

Nutritional requirements

Tomatoes have more nutrient specific needs than just "more of everything". They thrive with extra potassium and phosphorous but DO NOT need much nitrogen. In fact, too much nitrogen will reward you with large, leafy plants and very little fruit.

To take the guess work out, use a complete (organic) commercial fertilizer designed for vegetables. They are widely available.


I like to use this metaphor: Organic fertilizers are like a steak and potato dinner. Whereas the others are more like an upsized Big Mac meal. You've been fed, but you don't feel so good and you're hungry not long later.

Using Earthworms to Improve Soil Health and Fertility

Other sources for ORGANIC AMENDMENTS

(N) Nitrogen: Compost, Alfalfa meal, Bloodmeal, Cottonseed meal, Fish meal/emulsion, Bat Guano

(P) Phosphorus: Compost, Animal manure, Bloodmeal, rock phosphate

(K) Potassium: Compost, granite powder, Sul-Po-Mag, kelp meal

When Life interrupts, don't worry!

While the PC thing to teach is the optimal requirements for you to be able to harvest the best tomato on the block, the truth is that most folks (like myself) aren't perfect, and won't have perfect gardens.

Having said this, heirloom tomatoes haven't stuck it out for years - sometimes centuries - because they're wimpy. If you don't water your tomatoes on a regular basis, or if you completely neglect them, you may be surprised at the results. You may just end up with the best tasting 'mater you've ever had!

Yep, it's true. What happens is the plant goes into survival mode. It says to itself, "Oh God, I'm not going to make it. I'd better start preparing." And by preparing it means one simple thing to the plant: MAKE SEEDS. And in doing so, it diverts all of its energy into the fruit (where the seeds are).

And this means, unsuspectingly, one day you will walk into your garden and pull some poor neglected tomato off the vine and - BAM! - the flavor hits every sense of your being. You're stopped in your tracks. You think to yourself, "This is the best tasting tomato I've ever eaten!"

It doesn't matter that it isn't perfect looking. Heck, quite honestly, it's probably ugly. But you won't forget... It's this moment that rewards you for all your efforts. It is this moment that solidifies why you plant a garden. In this moment, there is complete understanding.

Days to Maturity

This is a ROUGH GAUGE of the expected range of time from which a plant is set out in the garden to the first ripe fruit. This range is highly variable depending on many factors (temp., rainfall, soil, etc.).

Early: 55-65 days
Midseason: 65 - 80 days
Late: Usually over 80 days


Disease pathogens and pests are ever-present. No garden is ever completely free of either of them. With proper cultural practices, and a bit of due diligence on your part, they shouldn't reach crisis levels.

In order for a disease to manifest, three elements must be present all at the same time:

1.) The disease (pathogen)
2.) moisture and
3.) optimal temperatures (heat or cold).

At any time, should all three be present, the disease will take hold.

Pictorial DISEASE & PEST Guide - with organic solutions (Garden's Alive!)

Now That I Know, What Can I Do?

By eliminating or reducing any of these three necessary requirements for disease to take hold (pathogen, moisture, temperature) the disease(s) can be held at bay.

Mother Nature, notwithstanding, the simplest of the three to control is excess moisture. By this I am referring to elimination of overhead watering and adequate air-circulation. These two steps will help immeasurably in deterring the onset of disease. Pruning to remove excess foliage, getting the plants off the ground by staking, and proper spacing is all helpful.

I feel the need to repeat myself - very loud and very clear - Do NOT water your tomato plants from over head! Not only is this an ineffective method to apply supplemental irrigation, you are literally inviting disease into your garden.

Trust me, I know it's a hassle, but outside of a drip irrigation system, you're going to need to haul your hose (or bucket) to each and every plant and water them from the base, at the soil line - the advantages of doing so are numerous. The first, and least undervalued reason for watering by hand is the opportunity it affords you to look at each and every one of your plants as your standing there slowly watering them. Observation goes a long way in overall health, not only of each plant, but of the entire garden itself. What you don't see, you can't correct.

Increasing the amount of organic matter content in the soil not only improves crop growth and yield, but may also reduce some diseases. Organic amendments such as high quality compost and manures should be considered if available within a practical distance from the farm. Organic amendments are best applied in the fall or early spring to allow leaching of excess salts and destruction of pathogens. Care should be taken with any fertilizer program to avoid excessive nitrogen, which can increase plant susceptibility to disease.

  Disinfecting stakes for disease prevention

  Tomato Leaf Curl: Diagnosis, Prevention and Treatment

  Blossom Drop: Causes and Prevention


 ...are just that - pests. I see no reason - EVER - to use a NON-ORGANIC pesticide in a vegetable garden. Disease and out-of-control pest problems are symptoms of poor cultural practices or unfortunate environmental crisis (extended periods of high/low temperatures, flood/drought). Healthy soil, and even mediocre care and the symptoms will be kept to a minimum.

If You're at your Wits End...

Here are two organic products that I have found to work exceedingly well for me.

Bull's-Eye Bioinsecticide is a pesticide from my favorite company GardensAlive!. I have used it on everything (including my flower gardens) and trust me, it does its job and doesn't seem to take its time doing it, either!

(Note: They can be a bit pricey, but if you order a free catalog or get on their mailing list, there are always BOGO coupons, $$$ - Off or Free Shipping coupons available.)

Bullseye Bioinsecticide
(Click photo)

Serenade Garden Disease Control Biofungicide is a Biological Pathogen Control which protects against many plant diseases, including black spot, powdery mildew, rust, gray mold, leaf blight and scab.

It contains a unique, patented strain (QST 713) of Bacillus subtilis which controls diseases such as Fire Blight, Botrytis, Sour Rot, Rust, Sclerotinia, Powdery Mildew, Bacterial Spot and White Mold. It can be used on vegetables, fruits, flowering plants, trees and shrubs.

(Note: Be sure to follow label directions! And, DO NOT save any unused mixture for later use! I found out the hard way and killed an entire row of tomato plants!)

SerenadeIn 2014, I didn't find this readably available at my local big box stores, but found that all my local hydroponics stores carried it.