The Never Ending Tomato Questions

The time is near for tomato season to start.   That means the questions begin, and those of us in the plant industry will answer the question what x91heirloomx92 and x91indeterminatex92 means hundreds or perhaps thousands of times.   So, I thought I would try to answer the more common FAQs  we get every spring, and you know, maybe not have to answer the questions so many times this year.
Once I finished writing this I realized that we get asked a lot of questions, and I managed to write a 2500 word article just for the common ones that get asked many times at the nursery and farmerx92s markets.   I hope this helps answer at least a few of the burning questions you might have this year, but the first question of  2012 has already been askedx85x92When are the tomatoes going to be for sale?x92   March 15th is the answer, but I wouldnx92t plant any in the ground until after the last frost date (April 3rd in Vacaville).
What is determinate vs indeterminate?   Determinate tomatoes put on most of their growth all at once, then a large fruit set over a short period.   These are especially good for gardeners who want to process or can their tomatoes.   Indeterminate tomatoes keep producing new shoots and blossoms even after fruit is set.   Tomatoes in all stages of development may be on the vine at once, and harvest is extended.
What do all those letters after the name of the tomato mean?   The letters V,F, N, T and A   following the tomato name means the variety is resistant or tolerant to some of the most common tomato problems.
V x96 Verticillium wilt
F x96 Fusarium wilt
N x96 Nematodes
T x96 Tobacco Mosaic Virus
A x96 Alternaria
Tomato varieties with any of these letters are generally hybrids.   If you know your soils have problems with disease, look for varieties with these letters.
What is a hybrid? Hybrids occur when two known parents are cross-pollinated to get offspring with known superior traits.   Some of the most common names like x91Better Boyx92, x91Early Girlx92, x91Celebrityx92 and x91Beefmasterx92 are hybrids.   These types of tomatoes tend to be more reliable for production regardless of temperature and disease problems.   Many are red in color, although our most popular cherry tomato, Sun Gold, is also a hybrid.   Because hybrids are exact crosses, saving the seed is not advised, since often these seed does not grow true to its parents.   If you have enough room for several tomatoes in your garden, I suggest having at least one hybrid to assure a good harvest.
What is an heirloom?   Often the question I get is more like, x93I want to get that heirloom tomato I heard about on TVx85x94ok, so then I laugh and wander around the nursery showing them the 50 or more heirloom varieties we grow.   Often that leads to the question x93Whatx92s your favorite?x94 but I canx92t bear the responsibility that I might tell someone my favorite variety only to have the customer come back at the end of the season and tell me it was the worst tomato ever!   An heirloom tomato is a tomato that is open pollinated and has been passed down from generation to generation because of valued traits.   As heirlooms have become more popular, some tomato experts have classified heirlooms into 4 categories:     1.   Commercial heirlooms, which were   produced by open pollination before 1940; 2.   Family heirlooms, with seed handed down from one family member to another to preserve certain traits; 3.   Created heirlooms, where heirlooms, or one heirloom and a hybrid, are crossed and then the resulting crosses are grown out using open pollination for several generations to stabilize the seed; and 4.   Mystery heirlooms, which result from natural cross pollination of heirlooms.     Heirlooms are lots of fun to grow, because the color possibilities are endless x96 green, yellow, orange, purple, pink, black, and every color of stripe possible.   And some of the flavors are amazing- black and purple tend to taste like wine, many of the yellow and stripe varieties have citrus or fruit undertones, and are often lower in acid.   For cooking many of the heirloom varieties add unusual flavor contrasts, and the skin of heirlooms tends to be much thinner.   And of course keeping the genetic diversity in our crop plants is important for their long term survival  and ours as well!
What is a Beefsteak?   A type of tomato that is considered to have x91that old fashionedx92 flavor, usually large and irregularly shaped, with solid flesh and few seeds.   There are both hybrid and heirloom varieties of beefsteak tomatoes available, in all colors.   Common varieties are Beefmaster, Brandywine and Mexico.
What does the number on the tag mean?   This is the number of days to harvest, the number that usually follows   the tomato name on the tag.   Ok, so funny guy asks me what the number means, and I give him the short answer x93 Itx92s the number of days to harvestx94 and he says, x93So, if I buy the plant tomorrow do I subtract a day from that number?x94   Ha, ha, tomato humor.   So, the long answer is that it is the   average number of days to first harvest from the time of transplant.   This average assumes long warm days, warm nights, good pollination and plenty of sun and fairly good treatment by the gardener.
I should plant my tomatoes how???   Whether your planting into a container or into the ground, remove the bottom 2 or 3 sets of leaves and plant the tomato x91up to its neckx92,   planting not just the roots but also the stem.   Donx92t do this with any other vegetable plant, but for tomatoes the stem will produce adventitious roots that will make the plant more drought tolerant and establish the plant more quickly.
How far apart should I plant my tomatoes?   Unless you are growing very small determinate varieties, grow your tomatoes at least 3 feet apart.   If using cages, 4 feet is better.
Should I prune the suckers on my tomatoes?   Never prune suckers on determinate varieties.   Many people will remove the lower branches on tomatoes, up to 1 ft off the ground, to reduce diseases on the lower leaves and fruit touching the ground.   Often in hotter areas pruning is not suggested as the additional leaves will give better cover to reduce sunscald.
How many plants can I put in a wine barrel?   Two tomatoes, tops!
Can I grow my tomatoes in my house?   No.   Well, perhaps yes, if you are all set up anyway with grow lights and heat and good air circulation and such.   Ix92ll say no more.
What about in my greenhouse?   That works, but in the winter supplemental heat and light is usually needed to maintain the plants, and insects and diseases can be a problem, and pollination is a problem (see below).
How do I get my tomatoes to pollinate?   Tomatoes are not good self-pollinators, so it is important for pollen to leave one flower and land on another.   The most common way for this to happen is with bees, but if they are not available, many home gardeners will give their plants a gentle shake, perhaps about 5 seconds or so, a couple of times a week.   This is much easier than going in to each flower with a paint brush, and actually is closer to imitating the action of the bees.   Gentle warm summer breezes also closely imitate the bee pollination (not blustery winds) and believe it or not, there is an electronic bee vibrator which indoor growers sometimes use (look it up online at your own risk!).     Planting flowers which attract bees near your tomatoes is a great idea.   Our favorite is to let a couple of basils go to flower, such as Thai basil or African Blue Basil, which brings in plenty of bees.
Can I plant tomatoes with basil?   In production the answer is no, because the watering requirements are very different, but for the home gardener the results are usually fine, just keep an eye out because basil generally wants to be watered more often than tomatoes.
What is this spot/crack/insect/withered leaf/ dead branch on my tomato plant/fruit, and what do I do about it?  Ok, here I am going to flake out completely, and send you to the website of my alma mater which I use as my primary reference that has great info and beautiful photos of vegetable pests and diseases.   Go to for tons of info on tomatoes, and also info on almost all of the commercial fruit, vegetable and nut crops grown in our great state.   There is also great information there on beneficial insects and managing your garden using least toxic methods for each problem.   Other universities that have excellent reference websites are:,, and   You will become an instant expert!
What is that black spot that developed on the bottom of my fruit?   Ok, this is happens frequently, so I will answer it separately from   my above answer.   It is called blossom end rot, and it due to a calcium deficiency.   So first, you need to fertilize adequately.   Second, if you water the plants unevenly, especially if they are kept to wet or it is too cold, calcium is not easily available to the plant, so it is important to keep your watering on a schedule, but to be aware of the weather, so if we suddenly cool down you arenx92t drowning the plants.   Calcium sprays are available commercially, and you can spray the blossoms and fruit every week or so to overcome the problem also.   Calcium spray is also applied if you are having difficulties getting blossoms to stay on the plant and set.
Are there any tomato plants that are perennial?   No, tomatoes are annuals, they need to be replanted each year.
What tomatoes are best for container growing?   Determinate varieties are easier to maintain in containers, although in larger containers any variety can be grown.
How do those topsy-turvy growers work?     Every year I ask customers to report back to me, but no one ever hasx85.let me know if they work!
How often do I water my tomatoes?   Rarely are tomatoes watered every day, and often they are actually almost x91dry farmedx92.   In the ground established tomatoes should not be watered more often than once every 5 days, and then they should be watered deeply to promote deep root growth.   In containers they may need water every 2 to 3 days, but if you are watering every day to keep the plants from going into a hard wilt, you need a larger container!   Overwatering leads to fruit that cracks, tastes watery, and plants that are weak and more prone to root rot.
How do I water my tomatoes?   Never with overhead watering, which can cause disease problems and fruit split.   Use a bubbler or soaker hose for best results.
How do I fertilize my tomatoes?   So many answersx85more people are using only organic fertilizers on their vegetable gardens, so Ix92ll speak mostly to that.   Organic fertilizer are lower in nutrients than inorganic   fertilizers, so it is more difficult to x91burnx92or overfeed your tomatoes.   Generally , vegetable fertilizers have the numbers 5-5-5, or something close to that.   We use and sell EB Stonex92s vegetable fertilizer, which is 4-5-3.   In extremely simple terms, those numbers represent nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium, or you can think of it as leafy growth-root growth/fruit growth-drought tolerance/fruit growth.   Ok, that is very over-simplified, but it helps to compare the organic fertilizers to the commonly used inorganic fertilizers such as Miracle Gro, which is usually a 15-30-15 formulation.    Inorganic fertilizers, if overapplied, can cause burn on both the roots and the foliage, and fertilizers that are high in nitrogen can cause too much leafy growth at the expense of root and fruit development.   So, if you use a fertilizer high in nitrogen, only do so early in the development of the plant, then be sure to switch over to fertilizers higher in phosphorus and potassium as flowers and fruit begin to form.   Using dry fertilizers are good because they release more slowly into the soil than liquid fertilizers.   Generally tomatoes, both in pots and in the ground, should be fertilized every 3 to 4 weeks.   Slow release fertilizers can be mixed into the soil during planting, then side dressed around the plant after that.   Often gardeners will liquid fertilize in addition to this, with fish emulsion and compost tea being the favorites to use.   Both of these are low in N-P-K, and are good for both foliar feeding and soil irrigation.
This is a definitely an incomplete answer at best, but will give the basic idea.   For more information, go to
Why do I need to plant my tomatoes in different locations from year toyear?   Root diseases such as fusarium and verticillium naturally occur in garden soils, but planting tomatoes in the same location every year creates problems with build up of these pathogens in the soil.   Generally donx92t plant tomatoes in the same location more than 2 years, otherwise you may see a loss of vigor.   Planting legumes is a great choice after a couple of years.
Why were my plants so terrible last year?   Remember those cold windy nights in July?   And all that fog?   And the late spring rains?   And the early fall rains?   None of those are good for fruit set, and we managed to have all of them in 2011.   Although tomatoes like good air circulation, cold windy nights will prevent flowers from setting, even if they do get pollinated, so flowers just wither and die.   And tomatoes arenx92t fond of overhead watering or rain, and they like fairly hot temperatures, which is generally why the Central Valley is such a great location.    But, as with all gardeners, hope springs eternal, so I think 2012 will be a great   year for tomatoes.
And finally, Rose, what is your favorite tomato?   Ha, impossible to answer, there are too many choices!   I will tell you that my favorite cherrys are Black Cherry and Sun Sugar, my favorite reds are Thessaloniki and Enchantment, my favorite stripes are Oaxacan Jewel and Berkeley Tie-Die, and my favorite yellow/orange is Golden Queen.   For big red beefsteaks I llike Mexico and Delicious because they are huge and juicy and productive, and I think Carbon is the most delicious black tomato we grow.   I love OUR San Marzano Redorta (itx92s the heirloom, which is juicy and sweet, not like the drier smaller hybrid version most nurseries sell) and I will stand at at a bush of Juanet Flammee and eat every single ripe one while standing out in the hot sun.