From seed to plate. Tomato grower's guide from A to Z

The tomato is a perennial evergreen tropical plant native to South and Central America. They are one of the most popular crops cultivated globally, and it's not hard to understand why! Tomatoes are a versatile crop that is extensively used in cooking. 
Due to their popularity, breeders introduce new varieties and hybrids every single year, which are tastier, more disease-resistant, productive, and better stored.
This article will guide you through everything you need to know about growing tomatoes, and you'll soon realize that even a beginner can handle this task.

First, let's understand what kind of tomatoes there are.

The most important characteristic is the type of the plant. There are two types: determinant and indeterminant.
  • Determinant (low-growing) tomatoes are plants whose growth is limited and ends with an inflorescence. The growth of determinate tomatoes depends on the variety and can vary. You can find tomatoes from 1 foot on the market, which, by the way, can even be grown at home.
  • Indeterminant (high-growing) - these varieties and hybrids continue their growth throughout their lives if their growth is not artificially restricted.
Note: A hybrid is the result of crossing several varieties at once for better characteristics: color, taste, shape, resistance to diseases and pests. It's worth noting that planting seeds from a variety's fruit can yield the same plant the following season, whereas planting seeds from a hybrid's fruit will not produce the same bush. You can typically identify hybrids by the letter "F" on their packaging.

You can also distinguish varieties and hybrids of tomatoes according to the speed of cultivation. There are:
  • Ultra-early ripening tomatoes that grow in 80-85 days
  • Early ripening in 85-110 days
  • Mid-ripening for 110-120 days
  • Late-ripening and 120 days or more.
This is worth considering if you don't live in tropical regions and your growing season is limited. Pay attention to this in order to have time to harvest during the growing season in your area.
Furthermore, tomatoes come in various shapes, sizes, and colors. While these factors aren't necessarily critical, you can select a variety or hybrid based on your personal preferences and intended use.

How to grow a tomato plant

Once you've chosen a variety or hybrid, it's time to figure out when and under what conditions to start growing tomato plants. Keep in mind that tomatoes are heat-loving plants and it is best to start their life with a seedling. 
As a rule, tomato seedlings begin to grow from about the middle of March. 

At first, each seed is planted in separate small cups, and then, as it grows, it is transplanted either into a larger cup, or to a permanent spot in the garden or greenhouse. 
The best temperature for tomato seedlings is 71-75°F (22-24°C) during the day and 60-65°F (16-18°C) at night. If the temperature is too low, tomato growth can slow down and thus affect the timing of the harvest, or it can also affect the overall health of your plant.

We recommend planting seedlings in a permanent place no earlier than 40-60 days after planting the seeds.

Planting seedlings

The seedlings should be kept in a warm and bright place and it is advisable to include additional lighting in cloudy weather. 
After about 50 days, tomatoes should be replanted in a permanent location. This can be open beds, greenhouses or containers that will be outdoors most of the time. 

Note: It is important that the soil temperature be 60°F (15°C) or higher for planting, otherwise your plant may suffer damage that will affect its overall health.

When planting tomatoes, it's essential to keep in mind that they require adequate space. It's recommended to plant your tomatoes at least 1.5 feet (45 cm) apart to avoid overcrowding. The planting hole should be big enough to accommodate the entire root ball and 1-2 inches (3-5 cm) of stem. 

Before planting, generously water both the seedlings and the planting holes with warm water. You may also consider adding a long-lasting fertilizer there.
The plants should be planted up to their lower leaves, and the soil should be compacted before giving them another thorough watering. After planting, mulching the soil can help prevent moisture loss in hot weather and prevent unnecessary weed growth.

Care for tomato plants

After planting, the next watering needs to be every 7 to 10 days. If your tomato is growing in a container, don't forget that drainage holes are a must. Although the tomato likes moisture, remember that stagnant water in the container can cause the root system to rot and kill your plant. To find out exactly how much water your tomato needs, use Watering Calculator
When watering, make sure the soil is very moist because the tomato has a very developed root system and can go deep into the soil.

As time passes, you may wonder how to shape your plant and there are specific guidelines to follow. Typically, indeterminate tomato varieties are trained to grow with 1 stem (occasionally 2), while determinate varieties are trained to have 2-3 stems, and in some cases, even 4 or 5.
When forming a one-stem plant, all new tomato suckers are removed from the plant. On the other hand, when forming a 2 or more stem plant, only the strongest stems are kept, which will produce the main yield of your tomato.

To ensure optimal tomato growth, it's important to carefully inspect your plants. The suckers need to be removed in time as they should not be longer than 2 inches (5 cm). 
When late July rolls around, be sure to pinch the growing points (if the plant is indeterminate) and regularly harvest any ripe fruit. When pinching, aim for above the 8th-10th raceme, and always be sure to leave 1-2 leaves above the flowering brush to promote healthy fruit ripening.

Note: Keep in mind that as your tomato plants grow, they will need to be supported with a garter or stake. Without proper support, the stem may not be able to hold the weight of the plant and could break. 

How to fertilize a tomato plant

Tomatoes need to be fertilized about 7 times per season and are guided by the fertility of the soil and their variety.

As a rule, fertilization scheme for tomatoes are the following:
  • When planting, apply a compound fertilizer that includes potassium, nitrogen, and phosphorus (May)
  • Then, two weeks after planting, apply the same amount of micronutrients to the soil (May-June)
  • Fertilizer rich in nitrogen and phosphorus is applied during the period of active growth. This fertilization is repeated until flowering (May-June)
  • At the time of flowering, the plant does not need nitrogen anymore, so before the fruiting period fertilizer rich in phosphorus and potassium should be applied twice (May, June, July)
  • During the fruiting period, fertilization with phosphorus and potassium continues, but you can also add boron, iodine, and manganese (June, July, August)

Harvesting and storage

For optimal storage, it's best to pick your tomatoes during dry weather, remove the stalks, and place them in rows inside boxes lined with paper. This method can help extend the shelf life of your tomatoes as long as possible. In fact, some varieties can remain fresh for up to two months when stored at low temperatures between 33 and 41°F (1-5°C).
Alternatively, many people choose to freeze their tomatoes for use during the winter months. Smaller tomato varieties work particularly well for pickling or for making sauces.

The tomato is a grateful plant, and if everything is done right, it will thank you with a rich harvest. And as you can see, it is not very difficult to grow, but it is very exciting.
But if you still have questions about growing tomatoes, you can always ask your personal PLNT expert - AI-Assistant
Use the tips in this article, consult your personal AI-Assistant, and cultivate a bountiful harvest that will make others envious!