"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 500+ tomato plants is a real chore and inevitably, the last of the rows just don't get done 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' from the stance that if the pathogen (disease) isn't present then neither the staked nor the sprawling plants are affected. What is for sure, though, is that the sprawling plants will produce smaller fruits than their staked and pruned garden-mates as the plants just do not have enough energy to support the increased vines and foliage to produce larger fruits.

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 3 - 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.

It is very important to mention that my garden floor is completely covered in some type of organic mulch at all times.

What type of organic mulch? And how much, you ask?

I use what I have the most readily available, so for me that means lots of leaves, grass clippings, straw from the chicken coop and wood chips. But you can use cardboard and newspaper, too! I start to get nervous when my mulch layer gets below 2 inches thick being comfortable when it is between 4 - 6 inches.

The important thing to understand 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 to keep my garden very tidy. Staked plants are far easier to weed around and to irrigate.

  Pruning Tomatoes


SUN and lots of it. Plants need at least 4 hours of direct sunlight. They will grow in less, but they will not thrive. If your garden has limited sun, I'd suggest growing 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 the landscape!

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 infrequently. The latter teaches the plant to keep its roots up near the surface, versus digging deep into the subsoil.

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 analogy: Dry (organic) fertilizers are like a steak and potato dinner. Whereas liquid (Miracle Grow) fertilizers are more like an upsized Big Mac meal -you've been fed, but you don't feel so good and you'll be hungry again shortly.

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!

Sometimes being armed with all the right information isn't enough. The truth is that most folks (like myself) don't have perfect lives, and won't have perfect gardens, either.

Having said this, heirloom tomatoes haven't stuck it out for years - even decades - because they're wimpy.

If your garden goes to weeds or you break your leg and end up completely neglecting the garden, all may not be lost. I'll let you in on a little secret - the plants are going to keep doing what they do, whether you participate or not.
All plants are genetically programmed to survive. When conditions are 'less than ideal' the plant will go into survival mode. It will say to itself, "Oh God, I'm not going to make it. I'd better start preparing." And by 'preparing' this means one simple thing to the plant: SAVE MYSELF. It needs to create progeny thus diverting all its energy into making seed.

Unsuspectingly, one day you will walk into your poor neglected 'garden' and pluck a tomato off a straggly 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 is in this moment that you understand why you planted a garden in the first place and you'll promise yourself that next year will be different. Next year you will do better - way better. In this moment, you will come to understand the real definition of a garden... HOPE.

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. However, with good cultural practices and a bit of due diligence on your part, they needn't reach crisis levels.

Simplistically, for
disease to take hold, three elements must occur simultaneously:

1.) Disease (pathogen) presence
2.) moisture
3.) optimal (disease) temperature (heat or cold).

 Should this trifecta occur, the disease will take hold. But it doesn't have to overcome.

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

As the keeper of our garden, there are some simple steps we can take to reduce at least two of the three necessary requirements for disease to take hold (pathogen, moisture, temperature) thus keeping the disease(s) at bay.

Notwithstanding Mother Nature, the simplest of the three to control is moisture. I am referring to excess moisture on the foliage not in the soil.

Pruning excess foliage by removing all leaf branches below the first flower bract, continuous removal of suckers, staking and/or caging and proper spacing are all helpful by improving air circulation around the plants allowing them to dry out easier.

Regarding watering, Do NOT ever water your tomato plants from over head! Not only is this an ineffective method to apply supplemental irrigation, but you are literally inviting disease into your garden.

Outside of a drip irrigation system or soaker hoses, 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.

A little extra muscle...

This product is best used BEFORE disease has really set in but is also effective to keep the plants going long enough towards the end of the season for fruits to ripen.

SerenadeSerenade 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! DO NOT save any unused mixture for later use! I found out the hard way and killed an entire row of tomato plants!)

"STORED" Serenade kill off

  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 chemical 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, combined with good cultural practices should keep most symptoms at acceptable levels.

On occasion, you might need to up the ante', though. In this case, I have had great success with Bull's-Eye Bioinsecticide from 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!
Bullseye Bioinsecticide
(Note: Gardens Alive! 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. I've had the same bottle for three years.)

'Must have'...

Fiskars® Non-stick Softgrip Micro-Tip Pruning Snip

I don't think that I could function in my garden without these anymore. Other companies have caught on and have this type available now, too, but take my advice and buy Fiskars®. I've had the same pair for years and needed to dump other brands after only one or two years.