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Growing and Using Tomatoes

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With the help of our tomato growing best practices and the proper tools and accessories, you’ll have no trouble growing great tomatoes in your home garden. A few plants provide an adequate harvest for most families. The quality of fruit picked in the garden when fully ripe far surpasses anything available on the market, even in season. The tomato plant is a tender, warm-season annual in summer gardens all over the continental United States. Spring and fall freezes limit the outdoor growing season.

Recommended Varieties

Hundreds of varieties of tomatoes are now available for the home gardener. They range widely in size, shape, color, plant type, disease resistance and season of maturity. Evaluate your needs, then choose the varieties best suited to your intended use and method of culture.
Tomato plants fall into one of two types that affect ultimate plant height and cultural requirements. Tomatoes are determinate when they produce one crop usually within a two week period. Plants that are called indeterminate will continue to produce fruit until the first frost. Older varieties are almost all indeterminate.

When to Plant

Buying transplants or starting seeds indoor early, gets tomatoes off to the best start in the garden when warm weather finally arrives and it saves several weeks in growing time. Be prepared to cover early set plants overnight to protect them from frost. For best results with minimal risk, plant when the soil is warm, soon after the frost-free date for your area.

Spacing & Depth

The space required depends upon the growth pattern of the variety and method of culture. Space dwarf plants 12 inches apart in the row, staked plants 15 to 24 inches apart and trellised or ground bed plants 24 to 36 inches apart. For tomato-lovers who are short on space, patios and decks have become a popular spot to grow tomatoes in containers and planter bags.


Apply starter fertilizer when transplanting. Hoe or cultivate shallowly to keep down weeds without damaging roots. Water the plants thoroughly and regularly during prolonged dry periods. Side-dress nitrogen fertilizer after the first tomatoes have grown to the size of golf balls. If the weather is dry following these applications, water the plants thoroughly. Do not get fertilizer on the leaves  Tomato cages may be made from concrete-reinforcing wire, woven-wire stock fencing or various wooden designs. Choose wire or wooden designs that have holes large enough to allow fruit to be picked and removed without bruising. Use cages that match in height the variety to be caged and firmly anchor them to the ground with stakes or steel posts to keep the fruit-laden plants from uprooting themselves in late summer windstorms.


Tomatoes should be firm and fully colored. They are of highest quality when they ripen on healthy vines and daily summer temperatures average about 75°F. During hot summer weather, pick your tomatoes every day or two, harvest the fruits when color has started to develop and ripen them further indoors (at 70 to 75°F). On the day before a killing freeze is expected, harvest all green mature fruit that is desired for later use in the fall. Wrap the tomatoes individually in paper and store at 60 to 65°F. They continue to ripen slowly over the next several weeks. Whole plants may be uprooted and hung in sheltered locations, where fruit continues to ripen.

Common Problems

Tomato hornwormsare large (2 to 3 inch long when fully grown), green caterpillars with white stripes on the body. There are effective products to stop hornworms.
Verticilliumand fusarium wilts are soilborne diseases that cause yellowing of the leaves, wilting and premature death of plants.
Early blightis characterized by dead brown spots that usually start on the lower leaves and spread up the plant. Mulch around the plants to help protect against blight.
Septoria leafspot is characterized by numerous small black spots on the leaves.
Blossom-end rotis a dry, leathery brown rot of the blossom end of the fruit that is common in some seasons on tomatoes. Tomato maker can help in the prevention of this problem.
Poor color and sunscald occur when high temperatures retard the development of full red color