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Caring For Heirloom Tomato Plants:

Tips for Growing Heirloom Tomatoes

What is an Heirloom Tomato?

Heirlooms are tomato varieties that have been around a long time. Rediscovered in the recent taste revolution, “heirloom” refers to tomatoes that are not hybrids, and have been in existence at least 50 years—preserved for their superb taste. Heirloom tomatoes often are unusual shapes or colors. Many people have never tasted "real" tomatoes — if you’ve only eaten supermarket or other commercially produced tomatoes, you’re in for a delicious surprise.

Growing Tomatoes Organically

No synthetics or chemicals! Fertilizers and pesticides must come from natural sources to be considered organic. Compost is the best soil conditioner and a great fertilizer as well—if you have it, use it! Other organic fertilizers are also easy to find. Many gardeners grow tomatoes with no pest control other than picking off tomato hornworms by hand.

Tomatoes love sun—put yours in the sunniest place you’ve got (unless you live in Death Valley). Less than six hours of sun per day means a rangy plant with no fruit. No soil in the sunny place? Consider putting your tomato in a container, then you can move it to wherever you want.

Additional information on growing organic tomatoes

Soil and Situation

Use proper potting soil for containers. If your outdoor soil is not rich in nutrients and organic matter, add compost — the best soil improver. Your tomato is a vine that grows up to ten feet tall, but can fit in as little as one to three square feet of ground space. Stake, clip, cage, or twine your tomato around a string, or plant near a chain link fence. See ‘Support’ for tips on tying.

Containers: The Portable Tomato

Find exactly the right spot—and don’t be afraid to change your mind about it later. Containers should hold at least 3 gallons, and must drain well. Clean 5-gallon paint cans or buckets are good as long as you punch drainage holes in them. And of course, you should feel free to decorate them as inspiration trikes.

Moving Day: Planting Your Tomato

Dig a large planting hole to loosen the soil around the root ball and ease the way for questing roots. Ideally, the hole should be big enough to bury a basketball. Prepare the soil by filling the hole with water the day before. Let the water soak in—your tomato will dig it. Fill the hole part way with compost. Add a fistful of fertilizer and/or a few eggshells. Break off all but the top 3 or 4 branches and bury the plant deeply, so the soil covers those former branch sites—they will form roots, giving your tomato an extra solid foundation.

After transplanting, water when the top inch of soil is dry (or cheat—use a moisture meter). Temperature, wind, and the soil type will affect how fast the soil dries out. It’s easy to water too much. We recommend that you don’t think of "regular watering." Do not try to keep the soil moist. Instead, make it your goal to not let the soil dry out completely.

When you see tiny fruit on your tomato, cut way back on water (and fertilizer). This change tells your tomato that it is time to focus on producing fruit. Water the ground around the plant—try not to let water splash up onto the leaves. Water splashing up from the soil can spread disease.

Mix a handful of tomato or vegetable fertilizer — preferably organic—into the soil of the hole or container. Add compost for richer soil. Scratch a handful of organic fertilizer or compost into the surface soil once a month. Do not overfeed! The nitrogen in (the first number on the label) encourages leaf and stem growth. If you want your plant to focus on producing fruit, cut back on nitrogen. When fall is approaching, cut way back on fertilizer and water. If leaf ends start to turn yellow during early or mid-season, you may need more fertilizer. Phase it in gently and see if you notice an improvement.

If you don’t pinch back your plant, you’ll get a tangle of vines, and less fruit.


Go vertical—it increases fruit production and decreases the chance of diseases and pests. For the highest yield, plant 18” apart, grow in single or “Y” shaped vines, and tie them straight up. Support your tomato! Cages, trellises, garden net, or stakes are easy to find. Or plant your tomato against a fence, or knot garden twine on a 6-foot frame and suspend stems by twining them around the string. If you are using cages, prune your suckers so you get 3 or 4 main stems (instead of a long “Y”), then start pinching off their growing tips once they start spilling out and blocking the light of the tomato the next cage over. If you’re tying, tie loosely — the stems will expand with time.

Pests and Problems

Your frequent visits will help you stay in touch with your tomato’s health. Problems are minor when dealt with as soon as they appear. Tomato hornworms eat leaves and fruit, and leave their calling card: black droppings. Pick the hornworms off and smush them — disgusting, but effective! Try using homemade pest repellent/leaf cleaner, especially if you see little white bugs on the underside of the leaves. Tomatoes can crack from uneven moisture, or appear “catfaced,” with scars and holes in the blossom end from cold weather or too much nitrogen. Ugly tomatoes taste great — just cut out any bad parts. Blights, late and early, disfigure both leaves and fruit for those east of the Mississippi and on the West Coast. Wilts can kill tomato plants.

Prevention is the best cure:

  • Moisture control is key to disease control
  • Watering at ground level instead of overhead
  • Don’t tie or prune your plants when they are wet
  • Don’t plant in the same area two years in a row, and make sure you clean up dead plants at the end of the season.

As the Season Wanes

Get every last bit of tomato goodness! When there’s only a month left of warm weather, cut off all growing vine ends, and all small and undeveloped fruit. Cut back on water and fertilizer so the plant focuses on ripening existing fruit.

How to Get Help

Ask a gardening friend or neighbor. Tomato people love to share tips! Try calling your local agricultural extension office (most states have them), or visit your local nursery. Enjoy