The #1 Key to Growing Tomatoes

When you’re growing tomatoes, achieving Pinterest-perfect specimens isn’t easy—but this key makes it possible.

The Perilous Road to Tomato Eden

When asked about their favorite garden vegetable, gardeners consistently name one that is a total pain in the neck.

And technically speaking, it isn’t even a vegetable. It’s a fruit.

Ah, tomato. How we struggle to grow thee, oh most savory of edibles!

Blossom End Rot and Leaf Spots and Hornworms … Oh My! 

The dreaded tomato hornworm (The Grow Network)

Image by Margaret Martin from Pixabay

During the production of The Grow Network’s film, Tomatoes: From Seeds to Sauce, I had the honor of working with tomato expert Craig LeHoullier, author of Epic Tomatoes and namer of the much-loved Cherokee Purple variety. During our interview, he likened tomatoes to roses because, similarly to the queen of the flower garden, everything attacks them! Insects plague our beloved tomatoes, as do fungi, bacteria, and viruses.

Many beginning gardeners decide to plant tomatoes, assuming they are easy to grow. Those six-packs of little green seedlings look wonderful planted in a new bed and often start out well … and then something happens.

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The stems rot, spots appear on the leaves, insects carve out chunks from the plants—and then, if they get through all that, horrifying horned beasts manifest themselves during the weekend the in-laws are visiting and you’re not looking.

While you’re attempting to be nice to your wife’s parents and dodging questions about your current employment status, the hornworms are munching away—and then when you get back to your Better Boys and Early Girls, you realize with horror that massive monsters the size of Polish sausages have devoured your dear children.

You have failed yet again to realize the Pinterest-perfect, sun-warmed delights promised by all respectable seed catalogs.

Tomatoes Are the Divas of the Garden

Tomatoes are the divas of the garden. (The Grow Network)

Image by Sabine Schäfer from Pixabay

Now I know some of you are thinking, “pish-posh, David the Good! How good can you be? I grow tomatoes every year without fail!”

I tip my battered gardening hat to you, oh successful producer of rotund umami confections! You are the gardening 1 percent. Don’t brag too loudly of your success or the rest of us underprivileged proletarians with our stink-bug ravaged Mortgage Lifters may revolt and overturn your square-foot-garden beds.

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In the right climate and soil, with the right rainfall and the right cultural practices, tomatoes can be grown readily. Many of us, however, must suffer the indignities of gaping cracks inflicted by pounding rains during ripening and of blossom end rot because we didn’t master the proper alchemical ratios of compost and powdered eggshells.

In Florida, where I honed my gardening prowess in a sandy jungle haunted by nematodes and inundated with monsoon rains, I found tomato success only when growing cherry tomatoes. The larger tomatoes were invariably destroyed by rot or insects or—mea culpa—poorly constructed trellises that collapsed under sprawling vines.

… Or You Could Grow Turnips

For a popular vegetable gardening staple, tomatoes are not grower friendly. They are resource hogs, demanding full sun, rich soil, constant attention, and lots of words of affirmation.

Compare them to the humble-but-hardy turnip. One year, I simply scattered turnip seeds on a patch of somewhat improved sand, raked them in, then waited.

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Over the next couple of months they grew thick and green. I thinned out the ones that were too close together, and we ate the greens. A short time later, we started digging up pedestrian white and purple globes … then quickly started wondering why we had grown so many of these watery and slightly bitter roots.

Tomatoes: So Delicious—But So Hard to Get Right!

Why couldn’t we pick baskets of tomatoes as easily as we could dig baskets of turnips?

It’s because the world is an evil and unjust place. I theorize that tomatoes were created specifically to remind us that we live in a world damaged by sin. So delicious—but so hard to get right!

What is the answer? What can bring us back to Eden, where it’s perfectly okay to wander around naked and pick perfect fruit, so long as we avoid talking snakes?

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It’s not impossible to grow tomatoes, of course. There is no curse of Cain that keeps us forever wandering across soil that refuses to yield Italian Romas. Rather, there is a learning curve that we must climb and pests we must battle and nutrients and water we must provide in order to reach our goal of savory sauce, hamburger slices, and perfect salsa.

The #1 Key to Tomato Success

As Lynn Gillespie, expert tomato grower, shared in the interview I conducted with her, the number one key to growing tomatoes is the soil. Wonderful, mineral-rich soil, filled with life, will put you on track to grow healthy tomatoes.

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The second key is to grow tomatoes that work with your climate. Jere Gettle of Baker Creek Seeds shared that he cannot grow really large tomatoes successfully due to his climate. Yet he grows many others just fine.

I found in Florida that the supposedly native Everglades Tomato grows like a weed and produces hundreds of tiny, sweet, explode-in-your-mouth tomatoes with little or no care.

When I gardened in Tennessee, I had success with varieties like Black Krim, Roma, and Early Girl. They loved my sheet-mulched gardens over red clay and gave us piles of tomatoes which my wife canned to make the best tomato sauce I ever tasted.

Press On and Grow

Keep growing tomatoes, despite the challenges. We can help! (The Grow Network)

Image by kie-ker from Pixabay

It can be done—but you have to work for it, not give up, and keep trying until you unlock the combination on the safe marked “delicious sun-warmed goodness.”

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Discover the Master Secrets You Need to Know to Grow Big, Juicy, Delicious Tomatoes Every Time! 

“TGN Talks Tomatoes With Dave Freed, Local Changemaker”

“How to Keep Tomatoes Fresh”

Despite being an expert grower of a wide range of tropical fruits and vegetables, I am still learning to grow great tomatoes—and you can, too. Don’t let disappointment keep you from trying. Press on and grow.

What Do You Think?

What are your experiences with tomato-growing? How do you ensure success? Let us know in the comments below!


This article was originally published on June 10, 2021. The author may not currently be available to respond to comments, however we encourage our Community members to chime in to share their experiences and answer questions!

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This post was written by David The Good


  • tinarock says:

    My current #1 tip to growing tomatoes is, put them outside after Mothers Day. Any earlier here in Zone 6 and you are tempting the frost demons.

    I like to put a cracked raw egg in the hole before I put the tomato transplant into the hole. That gives the tomato the calcium it wants.

    This year I bought a black light flashlight and I plan to go out at night and look for those tomato hornworms. I have never seen one and I suspect it is not a problem here, but maybe this year will be different.

    I am growing Cherokee Purple from saved seed (last year’s crop), and Black cherry tomatoes, and Black tomatoes. The darker the more nutritious.

    I save seed from the previous year’s crop and then I ferment the seed. That’s what I planted for this year. Looking forward to what happens, since I have not previously planted seed that I fermented.

  • baker_eliz says:

    I am still looking for a non-cherry type to grow. I have to garden on raised beds on top of our garage–the only place in our non-flat piece of land that isn’t savaged by deer, rabbits and donkeys. Oh, and gophers. It is windy on top of the garage. Temperatures are cool most of the year and then VERY hot from August-October. Drought conditions in the summer. I have not been successful in growing a TASTY non-cherry tomato. We are located outside Petaluma, CA, which is about 45 mins N of SF, 25 mins inland from the coast. Anyone have any suggestions of species for me to try?

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