How to Grow Heirloom Tomatoes?

when to plant tomatoes

Tomatoes are of the nightshade family Solanum lycopersicum waculentium.  The word tomato comes from the Spanish tomate originating in the South American Andes migrating to the prehistoric gardens of the Aztecs and the Mexican Indians who grew tomatl in their maize (corn) patches.  Its use as a food originated in Mexico, and spread throughout the world following the Spanish colonization of the Americas.  Its many varieties are now widely grown.

Allow one plant for each person and plant extras for giving away, and if you home can or freeze tomatoes, plant more.  Freezing is easy—wash with cold water, removing any bad spots including the top where the stem attached, and put in plastic bags in the freezer.  When you want to make chili or vegetable soup, rinse under warm water and the skins will slip off.  They will not keep their firmness when freezing, but have no salt or preservatives as do canned tomatoes from the super markets.  Learn about how to grow tomatoes in pots, below, and the diseases and tricks for successful tomatoes.

Tomatoes are a favorite of gardeners.  What are heirloom tomatoes?  “Heirloom” pertains to plants while “heritage” relates to animals.  Heirloom tomatoes and other plants have their same genetics forever.  Once you have tasted an heirloom tomato, the “hybrids” pale in comparison, especially the super market ones that are genetically manipulated to ship and store, where all the sugars and flavor is gone.  You will become accustomed to the delicate flavor with your first bite and become addicted to these tomatoes.

Where to Grow

Tomatoes will grow almost anywhere and are a warm-weather vegetable highly sensitive to cool and very hot conditions.  Grow in the ground in good soil, plant in terra cotta pots, and even plant in inexpensive Styrofoam coolers, punching a screwdriver through the sides toward the bottom, but not the bottom, for excess water to drain.  Plastic is not recommended because it dries out too quickly whereas clay pots hold the moisture in better.


Average garden soil will support a rewarding tomato harvest.  Well-rotted manure, compost, and high-potash fertilizer mixed in to a depth of 6-inches will assure you of great tomatoes.  Tomatoes are heavy feeders and need bone meal or ground rock phosphate, or a 5-10-10 fertilizer.  Tomatoes suffer from blossom end rot due to a lack of calcium in the soil, or sitting on wet ground.  Lime the soil at a rate of 5 pounds per 100 square feet.  Finely ground-up eggshells also work.  Blossom drop is also caused by cool weather (below 55 degrees; hot weather above 85, or nighttime temperatures above 75).  Extreme heat (over 85 degrees) will burn off the little flowers, as will low soil moisture and excess nitrogen fertilizer.  The garden center has “tomato blossom set,” a pump spray and it works when it starts to get hot.  It is a natural hormone.

When to Plant Outdoors

Plant when day and night temperatures are above 55 degrees.  Temperatures below 55 degrees will prevent fruit set.  If you start heirlooms from seed, plant indoors 6-8 weeks before setting the plants out.  Be sure they are in a sunny location inside or they will become spindly.  That is not a problem, since the lanky seedlings can be planted in a small trench, about 6-inches deep, horizontally with only the leaves showing.  Roots will form along the stem being strong and sturdy underground and strengthen the support for the plant.  Try it with tomato plants from the nursery as well.  Plants should be 6-10 inches tall when planting.  The bigger the better is not true—they just cost more.  With horizontal planting, do not worry; they will right themselves up in a few days.  For a good quick start, use half-rate water-soluble fertilizer.  If the package says one cup, for example, use a half cup.

Determinate and Indeterminate Types

Determinate Plants—Shorter, no staking required, and can sprawl on black plastic or thick straw mulch.  Set plants 4-feet apart.  If space does not allow 4-feet, use stakes or cages.  Staking is ideal for small gardens and planting tomatoes in pots.

Indeterminate Plants—Taller, and heirlooms are later to mature and become taller plants to 5-feet in height requiring staking setting as close to the plants at 2-feet, but 3-feet is better.  Place the stakes (2- x 2-inches x 6-feet tall, pointed at one end) from the garden center before setting out the plant to avoid root damage.

Tub Planting—Requires at least 2 gallons of soil for each plant for good root growth and spreading.  A small trellis or single stake will be good to support the plant.

How Tomato Plants Grow

Tomato is a vigorous plant, a heavy feeder, with attractive foliage, resembling the potato, its cousin.  Heirloom tomato leaves look more like potato leaves, and the yellow blossoms look similar to potato blossoms.  The tomato plant has a distinct fragrance that most people like and it is caused by gland hairs on the stems and leaves, having a strong-scented oil leaving a green stain on your hands.  The tomato is grown on spurs that develop directly from the stem.  The terminal shoot is pruned off when the plants reach the top of the 5- to 6-foot stake to stop their growth.  These plants are also pruned of suckers, the side shoots that make too much vegetative growth on the plant.  Most gardeners prefer to prune their tomato plants into one or two main stems, yet it is not necessary.  Plants must be tied to the stakes—do not use twisty ties because the wires in them will cut into plant growth and kill the stems.  Since tomatoes have no climbing tendrils like peas, use soft twine, rags cut on the bias, or old pantyhose cut into thin strips.


Feed with a starter solution as mentioned above when the plants are first set out and again after the first flowers form.  With well-mulched plants, weeds should not be a problem.  A wet growing season followed by a severe drought will cause blossom end rot, which appears first as a water-soaked mark and develops to a flat, dark leathery spot.  Discourage that with mulch and consistent water levels.  Do not sprinkle the foliage; water deeply at ground level.


Waiting to pick tomatoes from heirloom plants can be disappointing because they ripen late and not all at one time as some hybrids do.  Plant a few hybrids for early eating, such as 4th of July, an early variety.  When the days and nights are getting cooler and a frost is coming, save your tomatoes by covering the total plant with old towels, or old blankets—they will wash.  Do not cover with plastic bags or plastic anything as plastic allows the air inside to be as cold as the outside.  The moisture inside will turn to ice crystals and your tomatoes will be dead in the morning.  When it warms up and the sun comes out, remove the covering.


  • White fly—Be very alert to these pests as they sap the juices from the stems and leaves.  Give a good dose of Sevin that attaches to your hose and it will mix with the water as you put it on.  To avoid white fly, it is best to start your own seeds inside, because nursery stock will have them.
  • Tobacco Mosaic Virus—A virus tomatoes get sometimes.  If you smoke, do not touch the plants; they will get this virus—wash your hands first.  The leaves will wither, turn brown, and papery, eventually falling off.  When removing the leaves, put them in the trash because this virus spreads to other vegetables in the garden.  Tobacco hornworms look similar to tomato hornworms.  Check at Wikipedia for pictures and detail.
  • Wilts, Blights—Rotate tomatoes and do not plant where tomatoes were planted last year.  Since heirloom tomatoes have no disease resistance being non-hybridized, you will have to deal with the pests.
  • Tomato Hornworm—they are the identical color of the tomato plant because they are eating the plant.  They prefer the top tender leaves, so look there first.  If they see you, they will stop moving.  If you do not want to kill or flush them, move them to a place where they will not eat your tomato plants.  They become a beautiful moth that is worthwhile to exist and see.  Hornworms will eat up your dill, eggplants, and bell peppers—the entire tomato, all the dill plant, and all the pepper, including the flowers.  Look at the leaves—hornworms leave the veins.  They are very hard to see and sometimes turn upside down on the side branches between leaves.  They also leave a tell-tell sign—their droppings are black and large and usually in one or two areas on the soil.  You will not miss it.

Harvesting Seed for Next Year

Save the seeds left on your dinner plate.  Put in a sieve and wash the gelatin off with cool water.  Dry them on waxed paper or a non-plastic plate.  Do not use paper towels as the seeds will stick to it and you will never get the seeds off.

After a few days, put them in a container in a cool dry place.  Do not put a lid or top on since this will cause them to mold from the moisture they contain.  Let them air dry for a month, cap, and put in a dark cool place until next spring to start more plants.  Since they are true to their strain, they will produce the same plants.  Hybrids will not do that; they revert to one of their parents.  Hybrid fruits and vegetables are bred from two parents of different varieties.  Heirloom tomatoes can reach up to 1- to -2 pounds and they come in odd, yet beautiful shapes.

Varieties to Buy as Seeds or Plants

There are 600 varieties of the old-fashioned heirloom tomato. Try growing tomatoes in containers.

  • Brandywine, red or pink (up to 2 pounds)
  • Cherokee Purple (maroon color with dark maroon-greenish shoulders when ripe-medium)
  • Black Krim (mahogany color, flat, naturally salty-medium)
  • Mr. Stripey (green and chartreuse vertical strips; ripe when soft-small)
  • Mortgage Lifter (dark red-medium)
  • And many more…
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