The tomato is actually a fruit, but most people think of it as a vegetable. This misnomer could be because tomatoes are so easy to grow in the vegetable garden or because they are a favorite salad recipe item. In this article, we'll talk about growing tomatoes, tomato types, selecting and serving tomatoes, and the health benefits of tomatoes.

About Tomatoes

Tomatoes are tender perennials that are grown as annuals. They have weak stems and lobed and toothed leaves that have a distinctive odor. The yellow flowers grow in clusters. Most tomatoes have vining growth habits and need a fair amount of space. Some tomatoes are described as bush varieties that will save space, but they'll still sprawl if you let them. You may still have to stake or cage the bush types. Depending on the variety, tomatoes vary by the size and shape of the fruit (cherry, plum, pear, etc.), by their color (red, pink, yellow, orange), and by their use (slicing, canning, juicing).

Tomatoes & Tomato Recipes Image Gallery

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Tomatoes growing on the vine. See more
pictures of tomatoes & tomato recipes.

Tomatoes are divided into two main groups according to growth habits: determinate and indeterminate. On the determinate tomato (bush tomato), the plant stops growing when the end buds set fruit, usually at about 3 feet tall. Determinate tomatoes seldom need staking, but a single stake or short cage will help keep them confined. Determinate varieties produce a crop of tomatoes that will all ripen at one time. This type of tomato is used for canning and processing.

On the indeterminate tomato (vine tomato), the end buds do not set fruit; the plant continues to grow until it's killed by frost. Indeterminate tomatoes will get quite large, so these varieties should be staked or caged. Staked and caged tomatoes provide cleaner fruit and less loss from rot,
pests, or problems that occur in warm, humid areas. In addition, they require less room for each plant.

Common Name: Tomato
Scientific Name: Lycopersicon lycopersicum
Hardiness: Tender (will die at first frost)

In the next section, we'll show you how to grow tomatoes.

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Growing Tomatoes

There is nothing like a fresh, sun-warmed tomato, so growing tomatoes is on everyone's list. There are many kinds of tomatoes to consider, from beefsteak to cherry to heirloom varieties. There are also petite types bred specifically for hanging baskets. Tall and rangy cherry types can be trained up a trellis or over an arch.

Tomatoes grow best when the daytime temperature is between 65 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. They stop growing above 95 degrees Fahrenheit. If nighttime temperatures are above 85 degrees Fahrenheit, the fruit will not turn red. Tomatoes need full sun and warm, well-drained soil.

Staked tomatoes.
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Stake tomatoes to help them grow.

Start tomatoes either by seed planted in the garden on the average date of last frost or from transplants set in the garden about a week after the average date of last frost. If you use transplants, either purchase them from a reputable nursery or garden center or start your own indoors six to eight weeks before the planting date. Plant transplants 18 to 36 inches apart, depending on whether you will stake or cage the plants or let them sprawl.

Set transplants out on a cloudy day or in the late afternoon. If the sun is very hot, protect the plants with a temporary shade of newspapers. Disturb the roots of transplants as little as possible. If the stems are leggy or crooked, set the plants deeply or in a trench. Side roots will develop along the stem, and the top will turn in the right direction.

Harvesting Tomatoes

The time from planting to harvest is 50 to 180 days from transplants, depending on the variety. The color when ripe depends on the variety. Ripe tomatoes should feel firm, neither squashy nor too hard.

Tomato Growing Tips

These tips will help you grow sweet, delicious tomatoes:
  • Prune tomato plants to direct maximum energy into tomato production. Choose your pruning plan based on what you want from your tomatoes. For larger and earlier (but fewer) tomatoes, remove any shoots that emerge on or beside the main stem, and tie the stem to a stake. For more tomatoes later, let plants bush out and support them in tomato cages. Pinch off any flowers that open before July 4.

  • Choose between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes according to the way you prefer to harvest. Determinate tomatoes (such as Celebrity) tend to stay compact and produce most of their tomatoes at about the same time. This is convenient for freezing, canning, and sauce making. Indeterminate tomatoes (such as Big Beef) keep growing and developing new tomatoes as they go. They produce a greater yield but spread it over a longer harvest period.

  • Dozens of different cultivars are in each class; there are plenty to pick from. You might have to check seed catalogs to find out whether a particular tomato is determinate or not.

  • Stake your tomato cages so a bumper crop won't pull them over. Work a tall stake through the wire mesh near the perimeter of the cage, and stab or pound it to 8 inches deep in the ground. This will anchor the cage (and the plant inside) firmly despite the pull of strong winds and branchfuls of ripening tomatoes.

In the next section, we'll talk about all of the different kinds of tomato types.

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Tomato Types

You have many tomato types to choose from when growing tomatoes. We've listed the different tomato varieties below.

Tomato types in a cage.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Train tomatoes with a cage
before harvesting.

Indeterminate tomato types are also known as vining tomatoes. These tomatoes will continue to grow in size throughout the season, until killed by the first frost. Determinate tomato types grow to a fixed size. Cherry tomatoes are smaller than other tomato types, but most people consider them to taste sweeter as well.

Indeterminate Tomato Types:
  • Avalanch F, harvest at 77 days, produces medium-size red fruit.
  • Beefmaster VFN, is large and red and resists cracking.
  • Better Boy VFN, harvest at 72 days, has large, round, red fruit.
  • Better Girl VFN, harvest at 62 days, gives fruit that is early, round, red, and meaty.
  • Champion VFNT, harvest at 62 days, produces an early, large beefsteak-type fruit.
  • Early Girl V matures in 54 days.
  • Whopper VFNT, harvest at 70 days, provides very large, meaty, red fruit.
  • Pink Girl VFT, harvest at 76 days, gives a medium-size fruit with pink skin.
  • Golden Boy, harvest at 80 days, has medium-size, round fruit that is bright yellow.
  • Brandywine, harvest at 80 days, is a popular heirloom with excellent flavor.
Determinate Tomato Types:
  • Celebrity VFNT, harvest at 70 days, produces medium-size, red, round fruit.
  • Floramerica VF, harvest at 70 days, is an All America Selection that provides meaty, red, all-purpose fruit.
  • The Juice VF, harvest at 65 days, has red, juicy fruit and is good for juice making.
Cherry Tomato Types:
  • Golden Gem, harvest at 65 days, is yellow and flavorful.
  • Supersweet 100 VF, harvest at 65 days, is sweet and disease resistant.

Types of Tomatoes
Early: Early Girl, Early Pick, First Lady, Glacier, Oregon Spring

Midseason: Better Boy, Big Beef, Big Boy, Big Girl, Celebrity, Delicious, Floramerica, Heatwave

Late: Homestead, Oxheart, Wonderboy, Supersteak, Beefmaster, Brandywine

In the next section, we'll teach you how to select and serve great-tasting tomatoes.

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Selecting Tomatoes

Red or yellow, tomatoes fall into several groups: cherry, grape, plum, and round slicing tomatoes. Cherry and grape tomatoes are bite-sized. Italian plum tomatoes are oval. Slicing tomatoes are large and round, perfect for sandwich slices. Beefsteaks are a popular variety of slicing tomatoes.

Sliced tomatoes.
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These tomatoes are great slicing tomatoes.

Though available year-round, you may not want to eat what passes for fresh tomatoes in the wintertime. The best-tasting tomatoes are "vine-ripened," that is, they've been allowed to ripen on the vine, so they aren't made to ripen artificially. You may have to shop farmers' markets to find them. Moreover, there is no standard definition for the term "vine-ripened." Know your vendor before you trust the claim.

Look for tomatoes that are firm and well-shaped and have a noticeable fragrance. They should be heavy for their size and yield to slight pressure when gently squeezed, but they should not be overly soft. A common mistake is to store tomatoes in the refrigerator. Cold temperatures ruin the taste and texture of a good tomato. Also, wait until you're just ready to serve them before you slice them; once cut, flavor fades.

Tips for Preparing and Serving Tomatoes

Salads seem more complete with a ripe, red tomato. Sliced tomatoes, served on a bed of radicchio or arugula, drizzled with a flavored vinaigrette or balsamic vinegar, and topped with fresh basil can't be beat. Chopped fresh tomatoes add flavor, color, and nutrition to soups, stews, and casseroles. They're superb on hot pasta.

With a tomato, you get loads of flavor with very few calories. In the next section, we'll talk abut the health benefits of tomatoes.

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Health Benefits of Tomatoes

It seems that tomatoes are at the center of low-calorie living. They naturally lend themselves to health-conscious cooking, being sweet yet low in calories.

Tomato and Caper Crostini Recipe
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Tomatoes are the centerpiece of the
Tomato and Capers Crostini Recipe.

Tomatoes are one of the most frequently consumed "vegetables" in the United States, whether raw, steamed, fried, stewed, crushed, pureed, or reduced to a sauce. Though thought of as a vegetable, tomatoes are botanically classified as fruits. They are also one of our best sources of vitamin C.

Health Benefits of Tomatoes

While not bursting at the seams with vitamins and minerals, tomatoes are indeed rich in vitamin C. This antioxidant plays a key role in maintaining a healthy immune system.

They also contain beta-carotene and several other carotenoids that may have their own disease-preventing properties, particularly against heart disease and cancer. One carotenoid, lycopene, may help reduce the risk of prostate cancer. Tomatoes also offer a good dose of that possible stroke preventer, potassium.

Nutritional Values of Fresh Tomatoes
Serving Size: 1 medium tomato
Calories 24
Fat 0 g
Saturated Fat 0 g
Cholesterol 0 mg
Carbohydrate 5 g
Protein 1 g
Dietary Fiber
1 g
6 mg
Vitamin A 1,025 IU
Vitamin C 15 mg
Potassium 292 mg
Carotenoids 3,992 microgram

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This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.