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Growing and Preserving Tomatoes

photo of small yellow tomatoes

Tomatoes are probably the most popular homegrown vegetable. Homegrown tomatoes are so much better than store bought tomatoes and that’s why so many people grow tomatoes. Even people who don’t garden will often plant a tomato or two in containers or sneak them into the back flower bed. For the most part, tomatoes are pretty easy to grow and there are tons of ways to use homegrown tomatoes.

Over the years, we have staked tomatoes, used cages from the store, made our own cages out of fencing and now are using some huge tote cages that hold some kind of square plastic container for a petroleum product. (We don’t use the plastic container, just the cage.) 

The one that worked the worst was the cages from the store, they just are not sturdy enough. The cages we made out of fencing worked great, except that they were expensive to make and really time consuming. Staking works fine, but you have to keep up with it and make sure your stake is tall and sturdy.

The tote cages work great and they were free. I plant four tomato plants in each one and use old t-shirt strips to keep tie the tomato plants to the cage.

If you’re unsure how many tomato plants you should plant to feed your family, you can get some printable worksheets to help you decide how much to plant. Just fill in the form below and they’ll be emailed to you.

photo of large yellow tomato plant in cages

Growing Tomatoes

We like to grow a variety of tomatoes. We grow mostly heirloom tomatoes but also grow a few hybrids. I keep notes on what we grow and how each variety does so I can plant what does well in our area. But I also like to try a couple of new varieties each year just for fun. Here’s where I order my seeds.

  • Tomatoes like heat and need at least six hours of sunlight a day. Do not plant tomatoes outside before your average last frost date.
  • When you plant your transplants, bury them all the way passed the seed leaves (the first tiny set of leaves)  all of the little hairs on the stem will grow into roots. This will give you a sturdier plant.
  • Tomatoes like fertile soil but not too much compost, you’ll wind up with beautiful full plants and no fruit. You want the plant to put its energy into making tomatoes, not a big bushy plant.
  • When you plant the tomatoes, try hanging red Christmas balls on the cages to trick the birds. I’ve heard this works and we hang them. They trick me sometimes so I’m sure it tricks the birds too.
  • Prune of “suckers” – these are the leaves that grow between the stem and the main leaf branches. This will keep the plant from getting too bushy, it also encourages 1 main stem for staking and it reduces shading which helps the fruit to ripen and prevents disease
  • Water the soil and try to keep the water off the plant
  • Keep the plants consistently moist. If you let them dry out and then water you will wind up with a lot of cracked tomatoes. Thickly mulching will help the soil stay consistently moist.
photo of tomato plant tied to cage

Tomato Pests and Problems

  • Tomato Hornworm – this is a huge green Caterpillar. It is the color of the stems so it is kind of hard to see if you are not looking. These caterpillars turn into beautiful moths, so it kind of breaks my heart to squish them, but we love our tomatoes, so we squish the tomato hornworm.
  • Stink bugs – this is a crazy looking bug that is grey and looks like it has a shield on its back. And when you squish it, it stinks… hence, the name. These bugs will suck the juice out of the tomato and the tomato will rot. So go ahead and squish him.
  • Leaf footed bugs – these bugs are super prolific so if you see one, hunt for more. They will suck the juice out of the tomato leaves and the tomatoes. 
  • Blossom end rot – this is when flowers that should turn into fruit, don’t… they just fall off. There could be several reasons for this, soil is deficient in nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium, extended heat wave, too wet or too cool at night (not a problem for us).
  • Beautiful plant but no fruit. Okay this is going to sound crazy, I’m not sure where Carl heard this from, but it works… shake the cage, whack the plant with a tennis racket a few times or whatever it takes to stress the poor plant out a bit. It’ll think the end of the world is coming and get busy making fruit. Really!!
photo of tomatoes growing in cage with red christmas ball

Harvesting and Preserving Tomatoes

  • Harvest when the tomatoes are red or the color they’re supposed to be (although I often pick them a little before they’re fully ripe to keep the birds from pecking them. They ripen just fine on my kitchen counter.)
  • Harvest when they are green for Fried Green Tomatoes (yummmm)
  • We eventually can most of our tomatoes but we don’t want to be canning all summer long, so I…
  • Freeze them. Cut the belly button off (the part the stem is attached to) and then put them in a ziplock bag. When they are thawed out, the skin will just peel off, no need for blanching. This is how we preserve our tomatoes with very little waste.
  • We dehydrate some tomatoes, usually cherry tomatoes, to use as tomato powder (similar to bullion)
photo of tomatoes in baskets
What are you favorite tomatoes to grow?

Thanks for sharing with your friends!

The Schneiders

Monday 6th of June 2011

Thanks, Trish. My husband does some work for a petroleum products company and this is what their plastic totes of "stuff" comes in. So he just brought them home. He said that if you could find a plance that sold burn drums they might have some of these also. Happy Hunting!

Trish

Sunday 5th of June 2011

Love your blog. I really like your veg. cages. Did you have to purchase them, or were they getting rid of the them? I wonder if I can find some around here!