The middle of May is a beautiful time in Canada. It’s when the days are filled with sunshine and the time when we can be 95% sure it won’t snow. The May long weekend usually marks the beginning of gardening season when people can finally leave plants outside without the worry of frost which damages and destroys plants. While the date of the May long weekend changes from year to year, it’s usually when people take some time to get their backyards ready for summer. If you plan on doing some gardening, consider growing different types of produce than you’re used to.
Tomatoes are one of my favourite things to grow. And they’re fairly easy to grow too! As long as the plant gets lots of sunshine and you give it water regularly, the plant should do quite well. I like tomato plants for their simplicity and high yield count. Over the years, I have grown many varieties of tomatoes after discovering that not all tomatoes are perfectly round and red. Once I learned that grocery stores only carry a small variety of tomatoes I became obsessed with growing and tasting as many types as possible.
I began to explore Farmers’ Markets more as a way to make note of what types grow well in my region. It’s important to check your garden zone before planning out and planting a vegetable garden, as not every fruit or vegetable can grow everywhere.
I began to grow “weird” tomatoes and would proudly boast them to my family throughout the summer. We had an informal tomato growing competition from year to year, and my Grandpa would usually win for the shape, size and red colour of his. My tomatoes definitely challenged the concept of what a good tomato looked like. I suppose we should have had a category for taste, because that is exactly what’s so unique about “weird tomatoes.”
The best tomatoes, in my opinion, are heirloom ones. They’re the kinds that most grocery stores don’t sell. They’re odd shapes, odd colours, and odd sizes. But they taste absolutely fantastic. Each variety has its own flavour and sometimes a unique texture. Many varieties are rich in colours including orange, pink, red, purple, green, white, blue, brown, green and multi-coloured. Heirloom tomatoes taught me the importance of saving seeds so that these unconventional tomatoes may be preserved and grown year after year.
Below I will first outline some tomato gardening tips, heirloom varieties to try, and types I haven’t tried (grown or eaten) but want to. This information comes from my own experience. If you have some important tips to share, please feel free to do so in the comment section below.
Things to Consider
- Gardening zones
- Containers, spacing and height
- Gestation and germination periods
- Patience and persistence
Your geographic region has a huge impact on what you can successfully grow outside. It makes sense that pineapples cannot grow everywhere, right? So it also makes sense that other types of produce thrive in some climates and not in others. Tomatoes can grow in MANY gardening zones, but it’s a good idea to double check your zone to ensure. If you live in Canada – click here, in the USA – click here, and if elsewhere, that’s really cool you’re reading this! I’m interested to know what country and gardening zone you’re in…
Containers, Spacing, and Height
Inside – If you’re really interested in growing some tomatoes and have zero outdoor space but have a sunny window, you may be able to successfully grow tomatoes inside. Consider if your space is better utilized with a hanging basket or a conventional pot (keep in mind tomato plants can grow to be tall and will need to be secured to keep branches growing tall, and to support the produce on them). Just keep an eye on how much sunlight your plant gets throughout the day and adjust them accordingly if you can.
Balcony – This is usually a good method to use, especially if you do not have a yard to work in. Consider if you want a conventional plant pot or have space to hang your plant.
Hanging baskets are an awesome and easy way to grow tomatoes. The plant will start growing straight up then slowly fold over the edges of the hanging pot. It’s best to use small tomatoes for this kind of method as you don’t want to try growing larger tomatoes because they usually become too heavy for the plant to support.
If not using a hanging basket, know that most tomato plants need to be supported to grow healthy and strong, so remember you will need a tomato cage or a way to support the plant’s branches and growing tomatoes.
Garden (box or bed) – This is an ideal way to grow tomatoes as the roots can go as deep as they want and as long as the plants are spaced far enough apart (and have enough sunlight and water), they should flourish. You might want to look up how far apart your preferred tomato plants need, but a rough guideline is a few feet on each side. When you first plant your tomatoes, it will look and feel like they’re too far apart from each other, but the plants will grow much larger and look totally different after a month or so…
Gestation and Germination Periods
Gestation is how long it takes a seed to sprout into a plant, while germination is how long it takes the plant to produce and ripen food.
Tomato seeds usually need to start before spring, but if you haven’t started any seeds, that’s okay! Many local greenhouses sell a variety of already grown plants, however, you may need to ask for the heirloom ones. Many seeds can also be ordered online, or better yet, attend a seed swap in the early spring to ensure you’re getting heirloom seeds that thrive in your gardening zone.
Some tomato plants take as little as 45 days to grow while others can take up to 75+. It’s a good idea to check the germination period of your desired tomato plants, as many regions cannot support the sunlight requirements of plants with lengthy germination periods. I try to start tomato plants that will germinate in 45-60 days, but that’s totally based on my gardening zone.
Most tomato plants need 6+ hours of direct sunlight a day. They need as much heat/sunshine as possible over the course of a few months, so keep that in mind when choosing which type(s) to grow. Consider what else is growing around you and any shadows that might be cast upon your tomatoes throughout the day.
Tomato plants need to be watered almost every day to produce rich, juicy tomatoes. Consider using a rain barrel if you have the space outdoors for it, as this is a smart way to capture and utilize rain. It also lessens dependency on a city or town’s water system.
Be sure to water your plants either in the early morning or late afternoon to early evening. Just don’t water mid-day. Even late evening is better than mid-day. Watering when it is most hot outside is ineffective as the water is usually absorbed back into the air and doesn’t go where it’s needed, which is to the root of the plant. Watering midday can also be harmful to a plant since water particles on plants (stem or leaf) may cause burning.
You want to give your tomatoes a good soak but be sure to not water-log them. Every day or every other day may work. You should also check to see if your city has any watering restrictions. This is when saving water in a barrel or even collecting water while your shower is warming up is a good idea to have on hand.
Once your plant is strongly rooted and begins growing multiple branches, it’s wise to prune the ones that have zero flowers growing on them. This allows the plant to put energy into the tomatoes themselves versus the tomatoes and multiple branches with little “purpose.” I know many people who don’t prune their plants and tomatoes still grow, there may just be a difference in size and yield when you do prune.
Patience and Persistence
Like many things in life, patience is absolutely a requirement of gardening. Plants need time to grow before they produce anything worthy of harvesting, so have some patience. Make note each week of how big your plants are getting and maybe even jot down a few notes. You’ll begin to see that your plants are progressing each week and it’ll keep you motivated to keep watering and tending to them.
Lastly it’s also important to use a tomato cage to ensure your plant grows healthy and strong. You can either put a cage around a small plant or opt to use them when the plants start to grow tall. You definitely need to get a cage on before the flowers turn into tomatoes as it’s often difficult to place a cage around a plant once it starts to produce. I’ve broken off branches when putting a cage on too late in the season, so think about when you need to do it and make it so.
Collection of Heirloom tomatoes – Photo: AUM Cusine
My Favourite Heirloom Tomatoes
Tomatoes I have grown and/or simply tasted and loved…
- Green Zebra – medium in size, rich, sweet and sharp in flavour, green/yellow stripes
- Chocolate Cherry – small in size, sweet and bursting with flavour, dark purple/red (might not be considered a full heirloom, as I believe it’s a hybrid plant, but it’s still quite unique!)
- Purple Russian – small and long in size, tasty flavour, reddish/purple in colour, and really good for making salsa (low in juice)
- Yellow Pear – small in size, mild in flavour, yellow in colour
- Rainbow – medium to large in size, sweet in flavour, usually has red stripes through yellow flesh
- Brandywine – large in size, sweet in flavour, starts out pink and slowly turns red and/or purple as they ripen
- Purple Russian – long plum-like in size, rich in flavour, dark reddish black
- Purple Cherokee – large in size, sweet in flavour, pink colour (not actually purple), also considered one of the best heirloom varieties
Note: most grocery stores sell Roma, Beefsteak, and red grape tomatoes so try to avoid these types if you truly want an heirloom tomato experience!
Green Zebra Tomatoes – Photo: rareseeds
My Tomato Wish List
Types of tomatoes I want to grow and/or simply taste…
- Black Pineapple
- Dark Galaxy
- Blue Gold Berry
- Cosmic Eclipse
- Indigo Apple
Tye dye green tomato – Photo: rareseeds
Let me know what type of heirloom tomatoes are your favourite in the comment section below. Happy gardening!