More and more people are on the lookout for delicious, flavourful, vine-ripened tomatoes straight from the farm.
There really is nothing better is there?
Sure grocery stores may have red tomatoes, but do they taste like garden-fresh tomatoes? I don’t think so.
There is something to be said about tomatoes that do NOT travel far distances to get to their customers and that can actually be left to ripen on the vine.
Vine-ripened tomatoes may not last as long, but they certainly taste better!
As a bonus for market farmers, tomatoes are the most profitable crop you can grow.
This is because tomatoes are so popular, especially early in the season, that most people are happy to pay extra for garden-tasting tomatoes.
Let’s get into it by learning about the varieties of tomatoes you may want to grow in your garden.
Varieties of Tomatoes
Tomatoes have a range of uses:
- Processing (paste)
Types of Tomatoes
There are two types of tomatoes: determinates and indeterminates.
Determinates are varieties that can only reach a certain height.
The number of flower clusters is part of the genetic makeup of that variety.
The number of leaf nodes between one truss (cluster) and the next decreases by one each time a truss is produced.
When the terminal bud is reached no more leaves of flowers are pollinated, no more leaf growth happens.
Essentially, fruit ripens and the plant starts to die back.
Harvest can be as long as three months from start to finish.
Because they tend to be faster to mature than indeterminates, determinate varieties are often chosen for earlier crops.
Some determinants such as Roma and Celebrity, are quite tall and produce for quite a long season, but for most, you will need to plant in succession in order to have tomatoes all summer.
Indeterminate varieties can continue to grow taller and produce more trusses of fruit as long a the weather is warm enough, and as long as they don’t get struck down by a plague.
The number of leaf nodes between one truss and the next remains the same all the way up the vine.
If you don’t have space to plant a succession of tomatoes and you want to plant once only and get a long harvest season, choose indeterminates.
This only works if your farm is not prone to many tomato diseases.
Yields from most indeterminates are much higher than from most determinates.
Factors To Consider
Factors to consider when selecting varieties include:
- The preference of your market
- Suitability for your climate
- Resistance or tolerance of prevailing diseases
- Suitability for your preferred growing system
Let’s see what our experts grow on their market farms:
Early in the season, Pam chooses fast-maturing determinates such as Glacier and quick maturing indeterminates like Stupice for one row in the hoophouse.
For their second row, they choose their favourite standards (Tropic, Jubilee) mixed with unusual varieties like Green Zebra and Cherokee Purple.
They pull these plants in early August once the outdoor ones are producing well.
Their main crop outdoor varieties include:
- Tropic: a tasty, disease-resistant round red type
- Sun Gold: cherry
- Black Cherry: cherry
- Garden Peach
- Orange Jubilee
- Striped German
They plant a late crop of disease-resistant varieties that don’t take too many days to mature.
They also grow 250-300 Roma paste tomatoes (Virginia Select).
In contrast, JM does not grow tomatoes in the field, instead, they dedicate the entire production of their heated greenhouse to this crop.
Doing so eliminates most diseases commonly found with outdoor operations and extends their growing season by almost two months.
Thus allowing them to harvest as early as mid-June and as late as mid-October.
As well, growing tomatoes in a controlled environment encourage an increase in both the quantity and quality of the fruit.
Above all, by growing indeterminate tomato plants using greenhouse growing techniques, tomato production yields can be increased tenfold.
Note that these tomatoes are still grown in soil, not hydroponically.
Varieties JM grows:
- Macarena: big and tasty
- Trust: reliable
- Red Delight: cocktail
- Favorita: cherry
Curtis went a different route and found a hole in the market which he filled.
He noticed that almost all the farmers producing tomatoes were growing heirloom varieties and very few were actually focusing on a generic salad tomato or slicers.
He found his niche and started growing hybrid saladettes and cherries for restaurants and farmer’s markets.
He does grow some heirloom beefsteak types, but they are all indeterminate varieties.
His favourite varieties to grow are:
- Sungolds: cherry
- Sakura: cherry
- Mountain Magic: saladette
- Golden Rave: saladette
- Oxheart: large heirloom
- Vintage Vine: large Heirloom
- San Marzano: saucing
Soil Fertility and Nutrient Requirements
Tomatoes do best on well-drained, slightly acidic soils (pH 6.0-6.8).
They need moderate amounts of nitrogen, as too much can produce excess foliage and over soft fruit.
Fairly high levels of calcium, phosphorus, and potassium are also needed. Insufficient potassium reduces the quality and quantity of fruit.
Boron, iron, zinc, and molybdenum are also important.
Biologically active soils if given regular inputs of compost and cover crops, can provide most or all of a tomato crop’s nutrient needs.
Unless one of the micronutrients is insufficient, there is no need to add concentrated organic fertilizers.
Temperature and Water Requirements
Tomatoes like daytime temperatures between 62 to 90°F (17 to 32°C) and night temperatures between 55 to 70°F (13 to 21°C).
Frost will kill them, low temperatures will reduce fruit set, and high temperatures will reduce fruit set as well as quality.
Tomatoes use a lot of water, although they can survive dry spells because of their large root systems.
If soil moisture levels vary widely, fruits can split or suffer from blossom end rot.
If too much water is given, flavour deteriorates.
Drip irrigation is a good way to ensure regular watering without risking fungal diseases on the leaves.
Mulch, either plastic or organic, will help conserve soil moisture as well as reduce weeds.
Organic mulches should be applied after the soil has warm to 70 to 75°F (21 to 24°C), so as not to slow down production by keeping the soil cool.
Plastic mulch is required with the use of drip tape, as they exclude rainfall.
Black and brown paper mulch reduces soil temperature, while oiled paper and clear polyethylene may raise the temperatures too much.
Tomatoes provide a high yield from a small area and are labor-intensive, so start small rather than get overwhelmed. Labour estimates are around 350 hours for each staked acre.
Cherry tomatoes are fun, and a few plants go a long way. The bad news is they take a long time to harvest, and some split easily.
Just how early you start your first tomatoes will depend not only on your climate, but what your facilities are for keeping seedlings and young plants warm enough, and whether you will be planting them under cover or outdoors.
Tomatoes struggle with cold winds and are usually grown as transplants, to take advantage of warmer protected conditions for seedlings. Also because many growers like to grow many different varieties rather than long rows of the same kind.
If you do want to direct sow, the usual method for small plantings is to “station sow” up to five seeds at each point where you want to plant, and thin to one plant when the seedlings are a few weeks old.
Direct sown plants can catch up with transplants started a month earlier.
Another lower labour method is to sow in the soil in a cold frame once the temperatures are suitable, and do bare-root transplanting into the field. The yield is just as high.
Sow seeds about half an inch deep 2-3 seeds for cell, or in open flats, aiming for five seeds per inch.
Plan on 6 weeks to transplant and work back to figure out your seeding date.
When the seed leaves spread open and true leaves start to appear either single the seedlings (in the cells), pop them up individually in 3” pots, or spot them into bigger flats, about 2 to 3” apart.
The plants are ready to plant when about 6 to 8” tall, sturdy and dark green.
While starts are in the greenhouse, they may be troubled by aphids. Be sure to deal with these in a timely way.
A foliar spray of insecticidal soap every 5 days works well.
Tomato plants are usually hardened off before transplanting by reducing the watering and exposing the plants to more direct sunlight and breezy air, rather than by exposing them to lower temperatures.
On JM’s farm, they aim to have tomatoes ready by the middle of June when their value is at their peak.
To accomplish this goal of an early harvest, they begin their seedings at the beginning of February and transplant the seedlings by the first week of April.
One of the keys to a successful tomato crop is high-quality transplants, and they do everything to ensure just that.
They heat the plant nursery to the optimal temperature (65°F/ 18°C at night and 77°F/ 25°C during the day) to encourage optimal growth.
The seedlings will be potted up in 6” pots to allow maximum root space and as many nutrients as possible. The plants are ready to plant out when they are 8 to 10” inches tall, sturdy, and dark green.
On Pam’s farm, they space their plants 2 feet apart in the row whether in the hoophouse or outside.
Small determinant varieties can be planted closer together.
Plants more widely spaced can give higher per plant yields.
If you recall, JM grows their tomatoes in a greenhouse so their spacing is just a little different from Pam’s.
They have modified the width of their beds to be narrower than the pathways so they use 24-inch beds and 36-inch pathways.
This layout makes it easier for tomato harvesting and allows them to trellis the vines in a V-shaped manner, with the plants starting from the middle of the bed and growing up and out towards the pathways on each side.
The overall density is about 2 plants per square yard, which comes down to spacing plants every nine inches on the row.
This intensive spacing calls for a sturdy trellis system, as one plant will hold 10 to 12 lb of fruit, and they grow more than 100 plants per bed.
On Curtis’s farm tomatoes are planted in dense spacing, only 10 inches apart in the rows.
They are trellised with bailing twine and twisted up with twine as they grow.
Cultivation and Management
Care of tomatoes involves setting up drip tape or other irrigation; staking, trellising, or caging; mulching, sooner or later; weeding; and likely some training or tucking of wayward branches.
Monitoring and managing pests and diseases also take time.
Tomato plants usually start to flower and grow side branches after they have grown 10 to 13 leaves when the plant is manufacturing more sugar than a single stem can use.
It is often recommended to pinch off all but one of the suckers (sideshoots) below the first fruit truss (cluster), especially if using the stake and weave system.
This helps improve airflow around the plants, reducing the chance of fungal diseases at the price of increasing the risk of sunscald.
Overzealous pruning can result in earlier and larger fruit, but lower total yields.
The amount of pruning you will do reflects your climate and your goals.
Pam does not prune her tomatoes as they live in a climate where tomatoes grow like weeds all summer long.
In contrast, both JM and Curtis prune the sideshoots off of their tomato plants on a weekly basis.
They remove every week so that only small side shoots are removed. This job is planned for sunny days, so that the wounds heal easily, thereby decreasing the likelihood of the plant developing infectious diseases.
In addition, every two weeks JM and team trim the tomato clusters to maximize the size of each fruit and optimize the balance of the plant.
At that time, they also remove old leaves from the lower part of the plant to improve air movement under the plants and to make the growing plants easier to manage.
Most growers use trellises, at least for indeterminate and large determinants.
Although it might not seem like it on planting day, it’s usually easier to put steaks in soon after planting, while the soil is still soft and everyone remembers where the drip tape is.
There are a ton of ways to make tomato trellises, so if you would like more information on this please leave a comment down below and I will write a future article on tomato trellises.
Pests and Diseases
Tomatoes have many insect pests, but few are really serious as the plants grow fast and can tolerate 20% defoliation without their yields suffering.
Farmscaping can help keep pests down by attracting beneficial insects with alyssum, buckwheat, peas, beans, and sunflowers.
Diseases, on the other hand, can be disastrous when not handled properly.
In Sustainable Market Farming by Pam Dawling, she has listed a ton of disease reduction strategies so if you’d like more detail, check out her book.
Also, please let me know in the comments below and I will address them in a future article.
For fresh use, pick tomatoes fully ripe (they can be picked half-ripe and ripen off the vine but the flavour won’t be as good).
Processing varieties can remain on the plant for up to a week once ripe, without deterioration.
Pam harvests two or three times a week.
Similarly, JM harvests their tomatoes every two or three days for much of the season.
Curtis recommends harvesting your tomatoes into shallow bins so they don’t get too stacked, as too much weight on the fruit can cause them to bruise.
Post-Harvest and Storage
Tomatoes can be cooled to 55 to 70°F (12.8 to 21°C) to prolong shelf-life to a week or so. They should not be cooled below the temperature, as the flavour deteriorates.
JM never refrigerates their tomatoes, as this saps them of much of their texture and flavour.
They will stay fresh for one week in ambient air.
I’m not overwhelmed, you are!
Just kidding, I so am!
There is a lot to unpack when learning to grow tomatoes and I think the best way to deal with it all is to just start.
By taking it one step at a time, you can focus on one or two steps, not the next forty steps required for growing awesome tomatoes.
We are growing a couple of varieties of tomatoes this year, and I will be documenting our experience with future articles as well as videos on our youtube channel.
Feel free to check us out and have a laugh at our expense!
If you have any tomato-growing pointers, please leave them in the comments below. Thanks!
Kathy & Jon
your friendly neighbourhood growers