Ok, so lets start by defining some common tomato terms:
Determinate tomatoes, or "bush" tomatoes, are varieties that grow to a compact height (generally 3 - 4'). Determinate plants stop growing when fruit sets on the top bud. All the tomatoes from the plant ripen at approximately the same time (usually over period of 1- 2 weeks). They require a limited amount of staking for support and are perfectly suited for container planting. Determinate plants do not need to be pruned either and can be planted closer together, approximately 2 feet per plant.
Indeterminate tomatoes will grow and produce fruit until killed by weather or pests. They can reach heights of up to 20 feet. Indeterminate types will bloom, set new fruit and ripen fruit all at the same time throughout the season. They require substantial staking and pruning for support and management. Most heirloom varieties are indeterminate plants, which can also be referred to as "vining" types.
Heirloom plants come from seed that has been handed down for generations in a particular region or area, hand-selected by gardeners for a special trait. Heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated, which means they’re pollinated by insects or wind without human intervention. How experts define heirlooms can vary, but typically they are at least 50 years old, and are often pre- WWII varieties. In addition, they tend to remain stable in their characteristics from one year to the next. Many gardeners agree that most heirloom varieties boast greater flavor than that found in hybrids, this is because hybrids tend to be bred for characteristics other than taste, like uniform size and low bruising rate.
A hybrid vegetable is created when plant breeders intentionally cross-pollinate two different varieties of a plant, aiming to produce an offspring, or hybrid, that contains the best traits of each of the parents. Cross-pollination is a natural process that occurs within members of the same plant species.In hybridization, pollination is carefully controlled to ensure that the right plants are crossed to achieve the desired combination of characteristics, such as bigger size or better disease resistance. The process of developing a hybrid typically requires many years. In general, hybrids offer some combination of these favorable traits: dependability, less required care, early maturity, better yield, improved flavor, specific plant size, and/or disease resistance. The tomatoes in the supermarket are all hybrids, but hybrid tomatoes aren’t automatically all bad, and hybrid isn’t a bad word, like some people make it out to be. Humans are and have been breeding plants to be more to their liking in many ways, Heirlooms were also selectively bred, just by different people, maybe on a family owned farm instead of on a research farm at a State University. Hybrid plants aren’t genetically modified, in fact our favorite cherry tomato is a hybrid: Sungolds! they are vigorous plants, with very high yield and a delicious tropical fruity sweetness. Also, most determinate plants are hybrids, the small bushy shape and easy to manage nature of the determinate tomato was a choice breeders made.
How to plant your tomatoes
How you plant and space your tomatoes depends on how you have laid out your garden. Determinate plants need less trellising and less space, about 2 square feet per plant. Indeterminate plants need more, about 3 feet per plant, and extensive trellising. Since they will get fairly large and grow vertically its smart to plant them on the north side of your garden, so they don't shade out smaller plants that will be growing near them. If you plant your tomatoes on the north side you can then plant kale south of them, then herbs or lettuces south of them, to take advantage of the sun and space. Keep in mind also, tomatoes need a minimum of 8 hours of sunlight to do well.
When planting your tomato seedling it is common practice to bury it deep in the ground, removing its first few leaves and covering at least 2-5 inches of its stem with soil. If you’ve ever looked closely at a tomato stem and noticed its little furry hairs, they will become roots when buried in moist soil, making the plants root structure much more substantial. Dig a hole large enough to bury some stem, and then sprinkle some of your chosen fertilizer in the hole for the roots to absorb easily. Mulch around your plant and water it regularly. Tomato plants like dry environments, so beware of overwatering. Its normal for a tomato plant to wilt during the heat of the day, that doesn’t mean that it needs more water. Once your plant is about knee high you can start trellising and pruning it with your chosen method. If it flowers before 8 weeks, pinch the flowers off, you want the plant to focus its energy on growing, not making fruit for the first 2 months of life.
Tomato plants are heavy feeders so make sure to fertilize them in some manner. First fertilize them upon planting, and then start a feeding regime, either “side dressing” your plant once every few weeks with either homemade compost or fertigate them with liquid fish emulsion. If your soil is very sandy you may need to feed your plant more heavily than if your soil is more balanced or has lots of compost in it already.
Trellising is important for keeping your plants happy and disease free, and for making harvesting easier. The tomato cages you can buy at home improvement stores are the WORST option for trellising your indeterminate heirloom variety. They are designed for keeping determinate tomatoes upright and organized, which are bushes rather than vines.
The most common way we see tomatoes trellised at other farms isn’t too useful for home gardening or at our farm because they involve hanging strings from the rafters of a greenhouse, which is how most tomatoes are grown in the north (they need the extra warmth of the greenhouse, and they reduce pest pressure) but its still an interesting technique to know about, its principles can be useful. the string is cut to a length longer than the floor to ceiling height, the extra is coiled at the top. the tomato is tied to the string and vigorously pruned to become either one or maximum two leader plants, which are either pinned, tied or wound around the string. Pruning is key for this technique, and for all trellising, NO farms just let their tomatoes run wild! All greenery below the first flowers are pruned off, to prevent disease, and all new suckers are clipped so that the plant can focus its energy on the leaders you have allowed to grow. Professional greenhouse growers like this technique because it allows your tomatoes to grow UP very high, making the most use of valuable space. when the tomatoes have produced their lowest tomatoes, the whole plant on its string is lowered so that it can continue to grow higher than even the roof of the greenhouse!
The “FLORIDA WEAVE” is a very popular method for small farms, giant ones in homestead, and also home gardeners since it doesn’t involve any complicated construction. Materials are simply a spool of thick twine, and poles called “T post” that can be bought at Home Depot. They are made for temporary fencing, and can be driven easily into the ground with a “post driver”. Because the posts are metal, once the initial investment is made then each year they can be removed and reused. As the tomatoes grow, lengths of sisal twine are woven around them, in a simple 8 pattern, being secured by the posts, which are driven into the ground every 3 plants. Aggressive pruning is still recommended to avoid plants becoming monsters. The more bushy your tomato forest is, the easier it will be for bugs and diseases to flourish and evade you. Check out this instructional video for more info on this method.
Another popular home garden method is one where an upside down V shape is made on either side of the tomatoes, as a support, and a metal pole is laid in the crux of the V horizontally. that metal pole becomes the support for strings that you trellis your vining plants up. the V must be very securely put into the ground, and all joints must be reinforced, you would be surprised at how heavy tomato plants can be when mature and full of fruit.
Indeterminate tomatoes also need to be properly pruned in order to produce maximum fruit and stay healthy through the season. Your pruning technique will depend on your trellising one, however for both the V technique and for the florida weave you can follow these basic pruning rules.
Each tomato plant should have two main growing shoots that will become the main stems or “leaders” for all growth. “Side shoots” or “suckers” will grow from in-between the leaf and the stem, and need to be snipped or pinched off the plant when it is small and young. During the tomatoes main growth stage we prune our tomatoes once a week to make sure we remove all suckers before they grow too large. Suckers will also grow from the base of the plant and should be removed. There are tons of gardeners who have made tutorials about this process, heres one video we enjoyed watching.
Common pests and diseases for tomatoes are as follows:
There are also many fungus’, viruses and bacteria that attach
tomatoes, too many to mention here one by one. If your plant is
experiencing one of the following symptoms do some research
online at one of the following sites to see if you can diagnose your plant. Unfortunately its hard to beat a bacterial wilt or an aggressive fungus.
-yellowing of the leaves or parts of them
-brown spots on the leaves
-whole pieces of your plant are inexplicably wilting or turning brown -tiny legions with halos around them appear on leaves
-powdery white residue on leaves
-leaves aren’t filling out/ staying thin and stringy
-leaves are rolling up and growth is stunted
-flowers aren’t bearing fruit/ are dropping off the plant
-fruit has legions of rot or spots
-fruit has brown dusty suede-like surface
Vegetable MD tomato disease identification key
Texas A&M tomato problem solver
Tomato Dirt: How to identify, treat & prevent tomato diseases
While its fun to shop for tomato seeds and see all the fun shapes and sizes of Heirloom tomatoes, certain varieties are much better suited to our climate than others. Hybrids bred by Universities in hot states are always good choices: Florida and Hawaii to be more specific. We also recommend not growing extra large fruits like beefsteaks, the yield is lower and the fruit is more vulnerable to pests while on the plant because its so large and needs longer to ripen. At the farm we grow only cherry tomatoes since years of experience and failures has made us weary of larger sized fruit.