The Secret To Growing Perfect Tomatoes: Expert Tips From A Chef-Turned-Gardener

Trained professional chef and gardening expert Bonnie Grant shares her advice on growing a bountiful crop of delicious tomatoes – for your best-ever harvest.

Freshly picked tomatoes of different varieties
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Long before I even thought of becoming a chef, I had a love affair with vegetables. Especially homegrown and freshly picked. I was just a little one when I watched both sets of grandparents prepare their garden beds, sow seeds, water and feed the little plants, and finally harvest all that goodness.

I was not one of those picky children who wouldn’t eat the green things on my plate (except lima beans), but heartily enjoyed any type of produce. Tomatoes, with their natural sweetness, were and still are one of my favorites.

Flash forward many years, and I couldn’t wait to learn how to grow tomatoes. Over the years there have been successes and failures but I have learned quite a bit and can now confidently anticipate bumper crops of gorgeous fruit.

1. Variety Is Everything

San Marzano tomatoes growing on the vine

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As a chef, I love to make my own sauces. The best tomatoes for this are fleshy fruits like plum tomatoes and Roma tomatoes.

San Marzano tomatoes make the most beautiful, tasty sauce and are among the best canning tomatoes. My first San Marzano plant was grown in a patio container. I luckily had plenty of light in the area and used a purchased vegetable soil.

It was that year I learned to can because I had too many fruits for one person. This variety can be hard to find where I live, so I save seeds and start them inside.

Roma tomatoes are another excellent saucing tomato. I even like them fresh on sandwiches or paired with fresh mozzarella and basil. Few things taste as delicious when drizzled with good quality olive oil and freshly cracked black pepper.

Another favorite variety is the "Mortgage Lifter" tomato, which is a truly astounding producer. "Mortgage Lifter" has a funny back story, as the breeder of the tomato sold enough tomatoes in 6 years to pay off his mortgage.

Of course, you need to grow some slicing tomatoes. In my zone, "Early Girl" tomatoes are ideal because we have a rather short summer.

Heirloom tomatoes are also a great choice for cooks who want to experiment with different varieties and flavors.

2. Kitchen Scraps Equal Black Gold

Composting food waste

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I hate waste – I absolutely abhor it. So I have a compost tumbler as well as several heaps for making organic compost. The piles are for garden waste, but my tumbler is the source of much of my soil. It makes quick work turning kitchen scraps into the perfect amendment for my tomatoes.

Over the years, I have planted tomatoes in rather poor soil and got the result one might expect. So I now dig in some of my tumbler compost combined with leaf litter and other additives. The compost enriches the soil and increases percolation, so the tomatoes don’t have wet feet, while retaining moisture.

I have also used manure but I will never get the free stuff from the local rancher again. The manure harbored residue from broadleaf herbicide. This is particularly damaging to nightshade vegetables, such as tomatoes. My tomatoes and peppers that year were stunted, sickly, and didn’t produce any fruit no matter how hard I tried. Source clean, safe manure if you choose to go that route.

3. Focus On Feeding and Watering

Watering tomato plants

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Like any living thing, food and water are crucial to the survival, health, and fruit production of tomato plants. Watering tomato plants is best done daily in the morning, taking care to water only the soil. In triple-digit heat, I’ve had to water twice per day.

Overwatering can cause the fruit to split so I make sure the top surface of the soil is dry before I irrigate.

Fertilizing tomatoes is essential as the fruits are heavy feeders. I garden organically so I do not use synthetic fertilizers. I use bonemeal worked into the soil around young plants about a month after transplant.

During flowering, the plant needs an extra shot of potassium. This is when I use my homemade tomato fertilizer, and the banana peels I dried in the dehydrator are put to good use. I pulse these up in my food processor and mix the powder into the soil.

Once fruits are beginning, I work Epsom salts into my soil. This is controversial but I think it works. I also spread crushed eggshells around the root zone in hopes of avoiding blossom end rot.

4. Harvesting Is All About Timing

Picking perfectly ripe tomatoes off the vine

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

I only start harvesting tomatoes when the fruit is brightly colored and plump. My determinate tomato varieties are mostly used fresh since they produce all summer. Determinate types will ripen almost all at once.

Tomatoes will continue to ripen after picking but the best flavor is from fruits left to ripen to their peak.

I don’t refrigerate my picked tomatoes as this ruins the flavor in my opinion. Leave them on the counter but use them before they begin to get too soft.

I can diced tomatoes and sauce. When I am overrun with fruit, I slice it and dehydrate it. I freeze some tomatoes as sauce and I give a lot of fruit away to the food bank. With a bit of work, I can enjoy my homegrown tomatoes all year.

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Bonnie L. Grant

Bonnie Grant is a professional landscaper with a Certification in Urban Gardening. She has been gardening and writing for 15 years. A former professional chef, she has a passion for edible landscaping.