The best tomato guide for growing, harvesting, and storing tomatoes along with LOTS of the best tomato recipes for canning, freezing, drying, and fresh tomato cooking recipes.
I've read that home-grown tomatoes are so popular that they are sometimes the only thing people plant if they don't have room or time to grow any other food items.
It seems everyone likes that vine-ripened flavor so much that lack of time, space, or energy rarely gets in the way of our tomato love.
I certainly know that I would count myself among that group if I suddenly didn't have room for a garden - I'd find some way to grow at least one pot of some type of tomato, just to be able to experience that sun warmed, juicy goodness at least once in the year.
What types of tomatoes are there and what do I grow?
Let's start this tomato guide by talking about the types of tomatoes you can grow and the varieties I recommend.
Since tomatoes are so very popular, there are huge numbers of tomato varieties, all varying in size, color, and flavor.
It's beyond the scope of this guide to go into detail about all the varieties, though if you want to explore further, this catalog is a good starting point for an overview and lots of information about varieties.
What are the differences between heirloom tomatoes, hybrid tomatoes, and GMO seeds?
I do want to take a minute to talk about the difference between heirloom varieties, hybrids, and genetically modified (GMO) seeds, because ALL tomato varieties are the result of cross-breeding over the thousands of years that the tomato has been used as a food crop (1500s in Europe, earlier in South America).
This cross-breeding sometimes happened in home gardens and sometimes in labs. I think there is a lot of confusion over these terms lately.
Here are the differences between these tomato types:
- Heirlooms are considered to be tomatoes who's seeds have reliably produced the same tomato for at least 40 years, they usually (though not always) have superb flavor and come in lots of varieties and colors. They have two drawbacks, though: they are very susceptible to blights and other diseases and they aren't usually prolific producers.
- Modern Hybrids have also been around for many years (dating back to the 1800s), having been commercially cross-bred for specific traits like disease resistance, uniformity, smoothness, and productivity. The "parent" plants are other tomato varieties - sometimes even heirlooms. Their seed must be purchased new each year, since their seed may revert back to one of the parents when saved.
- Genetically Modified ("GMO's") is a term used to describe a seed that has had it's DNA changed by injecting something totally foreign into it, like fish DNA or pesticide or something equally weird. Sometimes it may only be thought to enhance the nutrition or something to make it 'good' for us - but in my mind a food should only be crossed with itself and anything else will never be good for us. (Um, I guess there's no question where I stand on the issue, is there?) At this point in time there are no tomatoes available that have been genetically modified (there was one, but it hasn't been available since 1997: source).
I grow both heirloom varieties and hybrids every year, so that I have some plants for the flavor we love and others for the longevity and to make sure that if my garden is hit by blight, I won't lose all the plants.
The favorites we grow every year (though we always add new ones to try) are:
- Brandywine - heirloom with fantastic flavor, can grow huge and quite ugly but worth it.
- Cherokee Purple - heirloom with reddish-purple coloring and wonderful flavor, smaller than Brandywine and not as prolific.
- Pineapple - heirloom with a beautiful yellow color blushed with pink (the inside is so pretty!) and a flavor to match, good producer.
- Early girl - old hybrid variety that reliably produces nicely flavored fruits for the whole season.
- Glacier - an ultra-early hybrid because I'm always in pursuit of the earliest tomato!
- Roma VF - actually a sort-of heirloom/hybrid cross: it's open pollinated, but has been improved over the years to be resistant to diseases. I've grown a lot of paste tomatoes and many seem particularly prone to blossom-end rot, but Romas are the most consistent for me in both productivity and disease resistance, plus they are long-lasting on the vine and when picked (important when you've got buckets of tomatoes you're trying to process!).
- Black Cherry - heirloom cherry tomato with amazing flavor, though a bit prone to splitting.
Tomato Guide: How to Plant & Grow
- Start your tomatoes from seed to get the best variety choice (they're very easy to grow) or buy from a nursery.
- Go here to get step-by-step tips on planting and growing tomatoes so that they thrive.
- Stake & prune as they grow according to your desire: you can plant closer together, tying the tomato's main stem to a stake but you'll need to prune a lot OR you can set a cage over your tomatoes and prune just a little (guess which I do?). You will need to prune out the bottom of the plant to allow air to flow through which helps with blight (see this post for more information) when they are about 3-4-feet tall.
- Water deeply at the roots (overhead watering encourages disease) every 5-7 days, depending on how hot it is, and taper off watering as the tomatoes ripen (I water only 8-9 days when the plants are producing a lot), as too much water makes the tomatoes less flavorful.
How to Harvest Tomatoes
You can pick tomatoes fully ripened on the vine, or pick any partially-colored fruit and leave on the counter in a bowl and they will continue to ripen.
Any tomato, in fact, that has even a hint of pink will eventually ripen inside though it's only to ripen tomatoes at the end of the season that I bring in barely colored fruit - doing this will get you another month (and sometimes more) of fresh tomatoes when you use this trick!
Copycat "Rotel" Canned Tomatoes & Peppers
Addictive Tomato Chutney - original & less sugar version
Favorite Thick Salsa Canning Tutorial
How to Peel Tomatoes The Easy Way
Canned Tomato Bruschetta Topping
Dried Tomatoes Stored in Olive Oil - article, update, and video
Amazing & easy Roasted Tomato Sauce (freezer sauce)
Step-by-Step Guide to Can Tomatoes @ Frugal Living NW
How to Freeze Tomatoes @ Southern Plate
Make Tomato Powder @ Fresh Bites Daily
Make & Can Tomato Juice @ Little House Living
How to Make Tomato Paste @ The Kitchn
Fire Roasted Chopped Canned Tomatoes @ Local Kitchen
(recipes where the main ingredient is tomatoes or uses our preserved tomatoes)
Homemade Tomato Soup (You’ll Never Go Back To Canned)
Homemade Ketchup With Honey (& Original Homemade Ketchup)
Garden Fresh Salsa Cruda & Pico de Gallo
Cheesy Baked Pasta (using Roasted Tomato Sauce)
Summer Pasta Salad with Tomatoes and Green Beans
Baked Parmesan Tomatoes @ Eating Well
Garlic Roasted Cherry Tomatoes @ The Novice Chef Blog
Tomato Bacon Pie @ The Country Cook
Tomato Basil Chicken Stew @ Gimme Some Oven
Spinach & Tomato Quesadilla with Pesto @ The Garden Grazer
Roasted Tomato Salsa @ Closet Cooking
Corn & Tomato Salad @ Green Valley Kitchen
Caprese Flatbread with Balsamic Reduction @ Joyful Healthy Eats
Fried Green Tomatoes @ Farm Flavor
Caprese Salad with Garlic-Balsamic Dressing @ Lauren's Latest
Chicken Bacon Ranch Tomato Bites @ What's Cooking Love
Italian Pasta Sauce @ Wellness Mama
Mick (Deer Is, OR) says
OOOOH! Thank you for all the work and info on tomatoes. I'm with you on the NO GMO foods. My take is they are modifying these foods so they are herbicides resistant. Meaning they are able "to withstand direct application of herbicide and or produce and insecticide." while not increasing productivity, nutrition nor drought tolerance. I could go on, but the internet is great on info.
The blanket charachteriation of heirlooms as disease-prone, and not productive, is an extreme generalization, and thus inaccurate. Some fit that description, but a lot (most?>) don't. Don't be afraid to try 'em , people. 😉
Wow, I'm so sorry that my words came across that way to you, Mike, as I was not dissing heirlooms at all - in fact you can see that my favorites include many more heirlooms than hybrids. My point in discussing this at all is that I've heard many new gardeners assume that hybrid=GMO and they will only grow heirloom tomatoes because of that. I wanted to define the terms a bit because every year that I've grown heirlooms, I lose them early to blight and their production, while fine, is not nearly what the hybrids produce. In my experience, if you're trying to get enough tomatoes to can, make sauce, and such, it's best to include both types in your garden, but I love my heirlooms as much as the next tomato lover! 🙂
For me, I love going thru Baker Creek's catalog (rareseeds.com), not affiliated in any way! But their catalog is filled w/ beautiful pictures & descriptions...it always comes @ the perfect time too, in the middle of gloomy winter. I always go w/ tried & true favs, & then add on a few "new to us" varieties, to see if we can find a new fav. For paste tomatoes my favorite, by far, is the Orange Icicle. Each climate is different, heck it's different each year in the same garden...which is one of the things I love about gardening! Expect the unexpected! But the O.I. makes a beautiful & tasty; salsa, pizza sauce, spaghetti sauce, & dried tomatoes. It is bright orange but if you don't mind not seeing the traditional red, then it's phenomenal!
Wow, I'm so glad to have a new paste tomato to try, Sarah - I've never even heard of Orange Icicle! That's going on my list for next year. 🙂
'N;ack Icicle is good too. 'Nineveh' has very good flavor. ( Both from Baker Creek) My favorite, though' is ' San Marano Lampadina', from Pinetree Garden Seeds.
* Black* Icicle
Thanks - I love these recommendations, and will definitely look into them next year as I always try to add new varieties to my tried-and-true.
Awesome! Let me know if you end up liking them.
Sue Mosier says
I lose my heirloom tomato plants to blight every year. Which varieties have you found the best for early blight resistance? I use most of my tomatoes for sauce. Thank you.
The Roma's do best for me of the paste tomatoes, Sue. This year I also grew 2 Striped Romas, which are heirlooms and are more like Amish Paste than a typical Roma and one got early blight and died before producing and the other hung on, not looking very good, but producing some for me. Once I pruned the regular Romas and removed all the blight-damaged leaves in early July, they've done really well and look healthy. I had a bad start to the summer with blight and lost whole plants, which I haven't in the past and most of them were paste tomatoes (the San Marzanos were both toast). Since the Romas have done well, I feel good about recommending them to you. 🙂
We had an abundance of the striped Roma this year. I did not care for them, they had a mushy/mealy texture. Course everyone's experience is different.
My San Marzano’s did produce but little then died. Tried only 2019 thinking Roma’s work best for us.
Yep, I'll focus on Roma's in 2020 too - I could only find San Marzano plants last year (I don't have a seed-starting place set up yet) and while they produced and didn't succumb to blight, the production was less with many tomatoes producing small and thin. Roma's are still the best for me for production and size in paste tomatoes.
Linda Thomson says
We got back into gardening this year. We grew tomato plants from the nursery. They weren't organic but we gardened organically. They were absolutely DEVINE! I have never tasted such good tomatoes. I pinned your post for reference. Its all information that I need. Thanks!
I'm pretty sure that's why we all like to grow at least a few plants, Linda - the flavor of homegrown is amazing. 🙂
Yvonne Elsom says
Hello again Jami,
The information on tomatoes is really helpful - thank you. I have Black Cherry this year, and mine slit when fully ripened. I ended up picking them before they ripened too much and put them in a paper bag to fully ripen.
I'm looking for some information on bulb feed. Yesterday, I purchased some garlic to plant when it gets cooler. The nursery lady said I should use bulb feed for the garlic and also other bulbs including lillies The box of bulb feed was quite expensive and I didn't purchase it.
I learn so much from reading your site and I was wondering if you use bulb feed or something else? Or, could you suggest something economical, in other words cheap. I use fish fertilizer for most of my container plants except the bulbs.
Thanking you again.
Picking early & "ripening" in a paper bag? Not necessary, & a waste of good (potential( flavor. Even watering will alleviate most of the splitting. If it's going to rain, water them a litle. & the occasional splits? A small price to pay for that wonderful flavor of a fully ripe 'Black Cherry'. 🙂 just have to eat them. 😉 You could always put those into sauce or jame.
Hey Mike, I appreciate the knowledgeable comments! I wasn't promoting picking tomatoes early, though, just giving an option for the end of the season when frost is ready to kill all the vines and any tomatoes left. That's when I like to pick and ripen in a bag. Of course the flavor isn't as good as fully ripened on the vine, but still way better than store-bought, wouldn't you agree? 🙂