By Dr. Mercola
Tomatoes are the most popular garden vegetable (technically tomatoes are a fruit, but they're used more like a vegetable) in the U.S., with 95 percent of home gardeners planting them in their backyards.
About 4 of 5 people say that out of all homegrown foods, tomatoes are their favorite.1 Indeed, the flavor and texture of a supermarket tomato can't compare to that of a homegrown variety.
Not to mention, tomatoes are exceptionally healthy, especially when they're grown organically at home, and incredibly easy to grow.
It's possible to successfully grow tomatoes even if you don't have a green thumb — in containers, raised beds or virtually anywhere there's soil — but simple tips can turn otherwise ordinary tomatoes into extraordinary tomatoes.
Step No. 1: Choose the Best Tomato Variety
Supermarket tomatoes are designed with travel readiness and pest resistance in mind. At home, you can choose tomato varieties based on their reputation for flavor and intended use as well as hardiness in your growing region.
Source matters, so choose seed companies wisely. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is one such option, which has a number of the best varieties and guarantees their seeds to have no chemical coatings.2
Mother Earth News conducted an online survey of more than 2,000 mostly organic gardeners to reveal the best tomato varieties by region and for North America overall.3
For North America, the best slicer tomatoes included Brandywine, Early Girl, Better Boy and Beefsteak. Top cherry tomatoes included Super Sweet 100, Sungold, Black Cherry and Sweet Million.
In the category of "really big tomatoes," the winners were Beefsteak, Brandywine and Big Boy, while the top tomatoes for canning or making paste included Roma, Amish Paste, San Marzano and Opalka varieties. Broken down by region, top choices included:4
✓ Midwest: Striped Roman and Jet Star
✓ Mid-Atlantic: Amish Paste and Brandywine
✓ Interior South: Better Boy and Black Cherry
✓ Pacific Northwest: Stupice and Sweet Million
✓ North Central and Rockies: Early Girl and Yellow Pear
✓ Gulf Coast: Arkansas and Creole
✓ Southwest: Sungold and Other Cherry
✓ Northeast: Super Sweet 100 and Juliet
Top Tips for Growing a Tasty Tomato
Once you've chosen your tomato varieties, it's time to start planting. Transplanted tomatoes do best, so either purchase transplants or start seeds indoors six to eight weeks before the last spring frost date. Tomatoes do best in full sun, so choose an area that gets plenty of daily sunlight.
The Old Farmer's Almanac recommends planting seedlings 2 feet apart and pinching off the lower branches prior to planting. "Plant the root ball deep enough so that the remaining lowest leaves are just above the surface of the soil, [then] water well to reduce shock to the roots."5
You'll need to water the plants for the first few days and continue to give them about 2 inches per week throughout the summer (a rain barrel works well for this purpose). There are many other variables that may influence the final outcome of your tomatoes, including most importantly, their taste.
A tomato's flavor is the result of an interplay between sugars, acids and other chemicals that give a tomato its scent.
Researchers from the University of Florida have identified more than 3,000 aroma volatiles involved in tomato flavor, including some that contribute to a tomato's perceived sweetness independent of sugar concentration.6
Growing conditions and much more also contribute to tomato flavor. For instance, as noted by NPR, which spoke with tomato researcher Harry Klee at the University of Florida:7
- The more direct sunlight your tomatoes get, the sweeter they'll taste
- Too much water can dilute tomatoes' flavor; ideally, water two to three times during hot summer months (adjusting for rainfall)
- Experiments suggest that so-called "salt fertilization," or dousing plants with a one-time dose of sea water (or water with natural sea salt) improves tomato flavor (although this must be done carefully, as it may burn foliage)8
- Soil quality matters; in particular, soil with plenty of organic matter or compost is best
How to Amend Soil for Best Tomato Flavor
Adding compost to soil is important for a number of reasons, one of which is that it's a good source of sulfur, a compound that's often missing from soil but is not measured by standard soil fertility tests.
"Sulfur is especially important because this nutrient forms organic compounds in the plant that gives flavor to vegetables," according to Joseph Heckman, Ph.D., extension specialist in soil fertility with the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station.9
When you apply compost and therefore add carbon back into the soil, the carbon feeds mycorrhizal fungi that eventually produce glomalin, which may be even better than humic acid at retaining water. This means you naturally limit your irrigation needs and make your garden more resilient during droughts.
Adding crushed eggshells to your soil is another simple trick. Rich in calcium, adding them as a supplement to the soil around tomato plants helps to provide nutrition and moderate soil acidity.
"Tomatoes that have a handful of eggshell meal worked into the planting site are not likely to develop blossom end rot," notes expert organic gardener Barbara Pleasant.10
By optimizing soil composition and nutrient application, you can — for essentially the same amount of time, effort and energy — increase your yield six to eight times.
John Kempf, an Amish farmer and the founder and CEO of Advancing Eco Agriculture, is one of the leaders in the field of high-performance agriculture. The results you can achieve when you apply the principles he teaches are truly astounding. As Kempf says:
"You have to have different expectations and you have to begin managing your crops differently. For example, when you are expecting to produce 60 to 70 pounds of tomatoes per plant, you no longer plant the plants 12 inches apart.
That doesn't work logistically. You have to begin spacing tomato plants two and a half to three feet apart. But all of a sudden, you only need three tomato plants instead of 36!"
How to Use a Tomato Slice to Grow New Tomatoes
If you happen to be at a loss for tomato seeds or transplants, it's possible to grow new plants from a tomato slice — a little-known but very handy fact. Here's how: In a week or two, you'll see new tomato plants sprouting. Choose the largest seedlings and plant them in another container (about four seedlings to a pot). As they grow bigger, transplant the largest plants into your garden.
- Slice up an overripe tomato about 1/4-inch thick
- Place the slices in a container or garden bed and cover them with a thin layer of soil
- Water occasionally
Planting Tomatoes in Containers
If you're short on space or living in an area with depleted soil, growing your tomatoes in 18-gallon containers makes sense (be sure to put a small hole in the lower side of the container to allow for drainage). In the video above, you can see how to do just that, including replenishing your soil using egg shells.
To start, add organic matter and crushed eggshells to the soil, then add your tomatoes (one indeterminate tomato that will produce fruit all season or two determinate tomatoes, smaller plants that will produce fruit and then die). Plant the tomatoes, covering about one-third of the stem, and add mulch to the top of the soil.
This helps retain moisture as well as reduces soil splashing onto the tomato leaves, which helps prevent disease. At this point, you can add in stakes or tomato cages, which help support the plants as they grow and keep the tomatoes off the ground. If you're really short on space, tomatoes can even be grown in hanging baskets.
Step-by-Step Guide to Tomato Planting and Pruning
The video above shows another take on planting tomatoes in containers, step-by-step. Notably, if you're purchasing a transplant in early spring, choose one that hasn't started flowering. The flowers take a lot of the plant's energy, so it's best to choose one without flowers so it can put its energy toward taking root when you plant it.
If it's later in the season, however, choosing a plant with flowers makes sense, as it will bear fruit sooner. As the plant grows and begins to get unruly, pruning is important to reduce the risk of disease and pests. Identify the main four or five branches and prune off the smaller shoots. You can also use wire covered in Styrofoam, tomato tape or old cut-up tights or t-shirts to tie branches to your tomato cage, offering extra support.
Why Tomatoes Are so Good for You
Flavor is only one reason to home-grow tomatoes; they're also incredibly healthy. Rich in flavonoids and other phytochemicals, tomatoes have anti-carcinogenic and other healthy properties.
They're also an excellent source of lutein, zeaxanthin and vitamin C (which is most concentrated in the jelly-like substance that surrounds the seeds) as well as vitamins A, E and B-complex vitamins, potassium, manganese and phosphorus. Other lesser-known phytonutrients found in tomatoes include:
- Flavonols: rutin, kaempferol and quercetin
- Flavonones: naringenin and chalconaringenin
- Hydroxycinnamic acids: caffeic acid, ferulic acid and coumaric acid
- Glycosides: esculeoside A
- Fatty acid derivatives: 9-oxo-octadecadienoic acid
Lycopene — a carotenoid antioxidant that gives fruits and vegetables like tomatoes and watermelon a pink or red color — is another one of tomatoes' claims to fame. Lycopene's antioxidant activity has long been suggested to be more powerful than other carotenoids such as beta-carotene, and research has revealed it may significantly reduce your stroke risk (while other antioxidants did not) and plays an important role in bone health.
In addition, lycopene from tomatoes (including unsweetened organic tomato sauce) has also been shown to be helpful in treating prostate cancer.
Organic Tomatoes Are Better for You
Using organic growing methods makes sense, as it's better for your health and the environment. Plus, the resulting tomatoes may be more nutritious. One study found growing tomatoes according to organic standards resulted in dramatically elevated phenols content compared to tomatoes grown conventionally, using agricultural chemicals.
The organic tomatoes were found to contain 55 percent more vitamin C and 139 percent more total phenolic content at the stage of commercial maturity compared to the conventionally grown tomatoes.11
The conventional tomatoes were significantly larger; however, while many unaware consumers equate size with quality, this simply isn't the case. At least in the case of organic tomatoes, you get more even though it may be in a smaller "package." Now that you're ready to plant your tomatoes, the next question is what to do with your harvest.
This cold tomato soup recipe is one option that might fit the bill. It's perfect for hot summer days and uses other home-grown garden favorites like cucumber and basil.
Cold Tomato Soup
- 1 long European or Japanese cucumber
- 1 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, quartered
- 2 slices red onion, soaked for 5 minutes in cold water, drained and rinsed
- 2 large garlic cloves, halved, green germs removed
- 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Salt to taste
- 1/4 cup broth from the farro, an ancient, less allergenic form of wheat (optional)
- 2 to 4 ice cubes (optional)
- 1 cup cooked farro or spelt (*see below)
- Slivered fresh basil leaves or very small whole basil leaves and additional olive oil if desired for garnish
1. Cut cucumber into 2 equal pieces. Peel and roughly chop one piece, and cut the other piece into 1/4-inch dice, for garnish.
2. Working in 2 batches, blend roughly chopped cucumber, tomatoes, onion, garlic, vinegar, olive oil, salt, farro broth and ice cubes (if using) in a blender for 2 minutes or longer, until smooth and frothy.
Taste and adjust salt. Transfer to a bowl or container (a metal bowl is the most efficient for chilling) and chill for 1 to 2 hours.
3. Place about 1/4 cup cooked farro (or spelt) in each soup bowl. Ladle in the soup. Garnish with diced cucumber and basil. Drizzle on olive oil if desired and serve.
*To cook farro or spelt, soak 1 part farro with 3 parts water for 1 hour or longer. Bring to a boil, add salt to taste, reduce the heat, cover, and simmer 50 minutes, or until the grains begin to splay. Some brands of farro are softer than others and yield a softer, starchier grain. 1 cup raw farro yields 3 cups cooked.