In the world of vegetables, tomatoes are the gardening MVP. Versatile and easy to grow, tomatoes come in a variety of colors and sizes-- thick and squatty paste tomatoes, giant beefsteak tomatoes, tiny grape-size tomatoes. They are available in shades of red, yellow, pink and even striped. But not all tomato plants are the same. Understanding how they grow will help inexperienced gardeners decide which variety is best for their needs.
How Tomatoes Grow
Tomatoes are sun-loving plants. Their leaves capture energy from the sun's rays, ultimately converting it to energy and sugar. When planted in the spring after the danger of frost, a tomato plant will spend its first several weeks producing leaves to collect those warm rays. As the number of healthy leaves multiply, more energy is collected and more sugar is created, causing the plant to grow rapidly, creating yet more leaves and more branches. Eventually, a healthy tomato plant will collect so much energy from the sun that it will create excess sugar, signaling to the plant that it's time to make tomatoes.
Like an apple or pear tree, a tomato will channel energy into flower production, and it must flower before producing fruit. The flowers attract beneficial insects, leading to pollination. After pollination occurs, tiny green tomatoes appear where the flowers once bloomed. Provided the plant receives enough water and sunlight, the fruit will continue growing until ripening starts, at which point it will turn color. Once the fruit is uniformly ripe, it is ready to be picked.
Modern varieties of tomatoes have been bred for specific purposes. Plum- and pear-shaped tomatoes are grown primarily for pastes and canning, as they have thick walls and few seeds. Large, baseball-sized tomatoes are also grown for canning, but they are good for slicing on sandwiches, too. Given their small size, cherry tomatoes are rarely grown for canning but are reserved for fresh eating in salads. Heirloom tomatoes are older varieties and can be found in paste, cherry and larger-sized fruit. Regardless of whether they are young or old, tomatoes are either determinate or indeterminate--a factor which dictates their growing habits.
Determinate tomato plants are a good choice for containers or for gardeners with limited space, as their growth is checked by the production of flowers. Once flowers are produced, the plant usually stops growing, and its fruit tends to ripen all at once.
Unlike determinate plants, indeterminate tomatoes will keep growing, even after flowering, and they will continue to make fruit as long as they receive ample light, heat and water. As a result, indeterminate tomatoes need a lot of room to grow and one plant can quickly fill a 4-by-6-foot space in the garden.