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!
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)
Cheesy Baked Pasta (using Roasted Tomato Sauce)
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