Tomatoes get a lot of attention in the garden, and for good reason—they’re pretty much the crème de la crème of the grow-it-yourself world. Grabbing tomatoes from the store can just never compete with plucking your own sweet, juicy, vine-ripened cluster of fruit from a lush canopy of green growing right in your own backyard.
HOW TOMATOES ARE GROWN IN CENTRAL TEXAS
Tomatoes are sun-lovers, heavy feeders, and deep drinkers. They’re known for being picky, but all you have to do is follow these tips to be rewarded with many delicious fruits.
First, let’s look at the two different types of tomatoes you can grow.
Bush vs. Vining Tomatoes
Tomato plants have two different growth habits: determinate and indeterminate.
This is the bush type. Plants will only grow perhaps a couple feet tall, and they will set fruit all at once and then be done for the season. This type can be grown inside a tomato cage or supported with stakes and twine.
This is the vining type. Indeterminate varieties need a garden trellis or some kind of support structure that they can climb and help them bear heavy fruits. The vines will produce continuous clusters of fruit until the danger of frost means it’s time to remove the plants from your garden.
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OUR FAVORITE TOMATO VARIETIES
The recommendations below are all indeterminate plants that will produce fruit continuously for several weeks, if not months.
I love the heirloom tomato seeds from Renee’s Garden because they have lots of fun options and I always get great germination rates.
Some of my favorite types to grow in this area include:
- Litt’l Bites Cherry Tomatoes – This is the best variety to grow in a large pot or container if you’re gardening on a patio or balcony. Learn more about growing tomatoes in a container.
- Sungold Tomatoes – Sungolds are, you could say, the gold standard of homegrown tomatoes. Plus, you can’t beat cherry tomatoes for deliciousness.
- Brandywine Tomatoes – If you like tomatoes on sandwiches or burgers, you’ve got to grow these globe-shaped beauties that are just bursting with flavor.
- Black Cherry Tomatoes – These fruits turn a rich mahogany-purple color.
- Little Red Pear Cherry Tomatoes – I love the pear shape of these tomatoes—something you might not find at the grocery store. You can also find yellow pear tomato seeds.
WHERE TO GROW TOMATOES
Your top priority is to choose a site that gets full sun. Tomatoes require at least 6 hours of sun but will be much more productive with 8 or more hours a day. Choose a day to track the sunlight hours in your backyard, and either place a deep container or grow bag in the sunniest spot or select the garden bed that receives the most consistent direct sun to grow your tomatoes.
Tomato-growing pro tip:
Tomatoes can burn in the hot afternoon sun from the west, so morning sunlight is ideal. If your plants can receive their 6 to 8 hours earlier in the day, they’ll appreciate a little shade in the last few hours of the day. (If you notice your plants are getting scorched by late afternoon sun, cover them with a shade cloth to filter some of the harsh light.)
Once you’ve got a sunny spot selected, your next consideration is soil. Tomatoes love growing in soil that’s rich in organic matter because they’ll need lots of nutrients to form flowers and then ripen fruit. Good drainage is also important. Raised-bed vegetable gardens are ideal to give the roots of your tomato plants plenty of room to dig down deep for water and nutrients.
If you’re interested in growing tomatoes in containers, make sure to check out these tips to find success.
WHEN TO GROW TOMATOES
Tomatoes thrive in warm weather (when temperatures range from 55 to 85 degrees Farenheit). Our warm climate here in Central Texas gives us two opportunities to grow tomatoes: We have a longer growing season in the spring after our last frost date (from about mid-March to June), and then we have a short growing season again in the fall (from September till our first frost).
Tomatoes have zero frost tolerance. That means you’ll likely have to wait till mid-March to plant tomatoes out for the spring.
When the weather gets boiling hot in the summer, I prefer to remove my tomato plants and use that garden space to grow something that can better handle the heat. If you keep your tomato plants around, they might survive, but they won’t produce any fruit. They’ll most likely feel really stressed out and just attract pests to your garden—you don’t want that!
Planting at just the right time is critical for fall tomatoes, so we’ve got more tips about how to time out your fall growing season here.
HOW TO GROW TOMATOES FROM SEEDS
To give tomato plants the maximum time to enjoy themselves in our gardens while the weather is ideal (not too hot and not too cold), we recommend starting tomatoes by seed indoors. Follow these steps to get a jump start on your tomatoes indoors in January for our spring crop and in late July/August for our fall crop.
Make sure to follow the schedule in our seed starting guide to harden your tomato seedlings off before planting them in your garden. This ensures new transplants to the garden don’t experience “shock”, or basically become stressed out by too many changes at once.
If you’re not interested in starting your own plants by seed indoors, you can always buy young plants from a local nursery when it’s time to plant outside.
HOW TO PLANT TOMATOES
Tomatoes love rich and well-drained soil, so add a fresh 2- to 3-inch layer of compost to the top of your bed before planting. Remember: When you bring home a plant, grab a bag of compost to go with it.
If you’re growing indeterminate tomatoes, make sure to install your support structure before planting. If you wait until later, you’ll risk damaging roots when you press the legs into the soil.
Dig a hole for your tomato plants that’s wider than the width of the plant and deeper than the root ball. Pull off the lower leaves near the bottom of the plant and then bury the tomato plant deeper than its neck (where the stem meets the roots). This will encourage your plant to grow more roots along the buried stem and create a strong root system that will support the plant. After all, these plants will soon have to be able to handle all that heavy fruit.
Space your tomato transplants at least 12 inches apart along the trellis.
If any of your tomato transplants have grown a little too tall, you can take this opportunity to pinch off the top set of leaves. This will encourage your plant to branch out.
Water your tomatoes to welcome them to the garden space.
HOW TO FERTILIZE TOMATOES
Tomatoes are heavy feeders, meaning they need lots of nutrients to produce high yields of fruit. The easiest way to understand what to feed your tomato plants is to think in two stages.
First stage: young tomato plants
You’ll add that layer of compost when you first plant your tomatoes. Then, we like to add an all purpose organic fertilizer such as MicroLife Multi Purpose to encourage the plants to grow strong roots and stems.
Second stage: mature tomato plants
We like to use potassium- and phosphorus-based fertilizers such as MicroLife Maximum Blooms once the plants are flowering, though you can also try an organic, tomato-specific fertilizer if you prefer. Just follow the label’s directions on all products you use in your garden.
HOW OFTEN TO WATER TOMATOES
Tomatoes need deep and consistent watering to produce good-quality fruit. Fluctuations in watering can cause the fruit to split or not properly form, so make a plan to water your tomatoes regularly.
You’ll most likely need to water your tomatoes every day during our warmer, drier months. You can water by hand in the early morning. We recommend using a long watering wand so that you can get right to the base of the plants. Water deeply to encourage the roots to reach down, not stay shallow, to find water.
Another watering method is to install drip irrigation prior to planting, with a timer at your spigot to give your plants a deep drink at regular intervals. Garden in Minutes is a great DIY kit for installing drip irrigation in your garden.
Tomatoes can suffer from diseases, most of which are splashed up from the soil, so watering with drip lines or gently at the base with a wand is important to prevent these diseases.
HOW TO PRUNE TOMATOES
Each week, remove any damaged or yellowed leaves from your plants. As your tomato vines grow up their garden trellis, prune away some of older, lower leaves near the base to increase air circulation in the garden and give the plant more energy to focus on new leaves, flowers, and fruits.
It’s up to your personal preference and harvesting goals whether you prune tomato suckers or leave them be.
While you’re pruning, use some twine to tie vines to your trellis to help the plant feel nice and secure.
HOW TO HANDLE PESTS ON TOMATOES
When I first started gardening, I went outside to check on my plants before a weekend away. I noticed a tiny green caterpillar crawling across the leaf of one of my tomato plants. “He seems pretty harmless,” I thought to my beginner gardener self.
Just two days later when I got back from my trip, that “harmless” bug had eaten every single leaf on my plant and was no longer so tiny. This is how I learned that tobacco and tomato hornworms can devour your plants in days. Days!
Your first warning sign will be large holes in the leaves. Search the undersides of the leaves and along the stems for signs of little green guys and pick them off by hand. Toss any pests you find into soapy water.
Aphids can also be an issue for tomatoes, especially on new plants. Use a soaker hose to spray them off or wipe them off with your hand.
If a larger pest is stealing your fruits before you can harvest them, use little organza bags (the type you might store jewelry in) to create a protective barrier around your tomatoes.
HOW TO HARVEST TOMATOES
Smaller fruits will be green as they form and then blush over time, eventually turning red (or dark purple or orange or yellow). Unless pests are a major issue, leaves your clusters of fruit on the vine until they’re fully ripened.
You can gently pull tomatoes off the truss with your fingers or use a clean pair of pruners to cut the stem just above the fruit.
By giving your tomatoes a strong foundation, you’re setting yourself up to harvest cluster after cluster of delicious fruits right off the vine! Remember, remove tomato plants planted in the spring once the weather climbs over 95 degrees, and pull your fall tomato plants from the garden before we get our first frost.
Let us know what questions you have about growing tomatoes here in Austin, TX. We love helping you set up your own kitchen gardens and become confident gardeners. If you’re ready to set up your garden for the next growing season, now is the perfect time. Click here to start growing with us!
Central Texas Monthly Planting Guide
Take all the guesswork out of your seasonal planting.