Growing and Using Tomatoes

Mary Martz, UM Extension Master Gardener in Anoka County, January 10, 2015



There is nothing quite like a fresh, homegrown tomato straight off the plant. Almost every gardener will have at least one tomato plant in their garden, even if it’s only a patio tomato in a pot. Tomatoes are perennially a favorite vegetable for people to grow in their gardens. Deciding what tomatoes you want to grow in a given year can be a source of much enjoyment when the garden catalogs come in the winter. A mix of types of tomatoes, heirlooms and hybrids is usually a good idea for your garden.

Pretty much any tomato can be used for anything you want to use for, but there are certain types of tomatoes that work best for every specific use.  For example, there are a lot of paste tomatoes out there, tomatoes with a lot of meat, less juice, and fewer seeds. These work best for cooking if you are trying to make a sauce that needs to be thick enough to stay on your pasta.

If you are looking for a tomato to have a nice thick slice to put on your sandwich you may prefer to have a beefsteak type tomato, these are the big beautiful ones you think of when you want to cut a thick slice for a sandwich. They tend to be juicier than the pasta types, so when cooking with beefsteaks you may need to cook them down longer, or add canned tomato paste to thicken them.

There are cherry tomatoes and saladette tomatoes that you pop in you mouth or put in your salad. The beautiful yellow and orange tomatoes are generally not as acidic and often have a sweeter taste. These may not be as good for canning but are amazing for fresh eating. The black tomatoes also frequently have a sweeter flavor.

Another factor to consider as you are determining what tomatoes to grow is do you want an heirloom or do you want a hybrid. Heirlooms are the types of tomatoes that your grandparents used to grow. They’re the ones with all that tomato flavor and smell that you remember from your childhood, and come in almost any color you can imagine.  Hybrids are the types of tomatoes that are developed by crossing two different tomato varieties in order to get a more a desired outcome.  The hybrids tend to have a better production rate, but they do not have the flavor of the heirlooms. Hybrids are bred to resist some of the tomato diseases which are prevalent in the heirlooms. Like everything in life, there is a trade-off.

You will also need to decide what type of growth pattern you want. Do you want an indeterminate tomato, like most of the heirlooms?  They will keep growing the whole season and require more support and space.  Or do you want a determinant tomato which will stop vining at some point so that the developing fruits can ripen at approximately the same time. This can be great if you are planning to do some canning or freezing, or if you just don’t have as much space as the more vigorous indeterminate, vining plants will take up (and take over). If you are really short of space, or if you only have room for potted plants, you might want to consider one of the Bush type of tomatoes. These generally don’t need as much staking and remain a more compact plant.

You need to keep in mind that tomatoes are heavy feeders and like lots of sun.  Ideally you need to change their location in the garden on a rotating basis from year to year to help avoid spreading the diseases tomatoes are prone to.  For more information, see: