Grow your own cherry tomatoes

Story by Darren Sheriff

Nothing beats the taste of a vine-ripened tomato picked right off the plant and eaten out of hand. The joy of a tomato sandwich with mayo and black pepper on a warm summer day is another one of those treats that just can’t be beat. Tomatoes are perhaps the most popular homegrown vegetable, rivaled only by peppers. 

While not exactly the best tomato for making a sandwich, though I have done it, growing cherry tomatoes is a great way to introduce your children to the joys of gardening. They are the perfect size for little hands, they are easy to grow in the ground or in a container, produce an abundant amount of fruit on one plant, and come in an array of colors. 

Train determinate varieties along a fence. Use soft ties to hold the vines in place or drape netting over the fence before the vines grow tall. Keeping vines off the ground helps prevent disease and makes it easier to harvest ripe fruit. Photo by Jennifer Copley.

Most cherry tomatoes are indeterminate, though you can find determinate varieties. Indeterminate cherry tomatoes grow and ripen fruit on and off throughout the summer until the plants are killed by frost. Determinate cherry tomatoes will ripen most of their fruit at once, and then die. Red cherry tomatoes are the most common, but these little tasty treats also come in yellow, orange, green, and multicolor.

Cherry tomato plants are easy to start from seed, which usually offer you a wider selection to choose from than transplants. Start them indoors about six to eight weeks before your average last frost date. If you keep them in a warm environment, say about 70 F, the seeds should germinate in just a few days. Providing your tomato seedlings with 15 hours of bright light each day is the key to keep them from getting too leggy. Some people actually try to produce slightly leggy plants so they can bury more of the stem in the ground. You may need to transplant them into larger pots as they can grow very quickly. Tomatoes are hungry plants and need to be fertilized frequently, starting as seedlings. 

When all danger of frost has passed, set your plants outside, slowly acclimating them to full sun. Depending on the variety, you may want to install a tomato cage or other type of support at the same time you put the plants in the ground.

For the best chance of getting a bumper crop of tomatoes, pick a location that receives at least eight hours of direct sun each day. They grow best in loose, well-drained soil with plenty of organic matter or compost. One of the nice things about cherry tomatoes, even though they can reach 10 feet tall, they can be grown in a container. If it doesn’t already have them, make sure there are adequate holes every few inches around the bottom of the pot. 

When planting, either in ground or a container, dig a small hole in the center of the planting mix. Gently remove the tomato plant from its original pot and place it into the hole, planting it so the entire stem is buried and only the top three or four leaves are showing above the soil line. Roots will sprout all along the stem that you buried. Keep the plant moist, but not wet. Think of it as being about the consistency of a wrung out dish sponge. An application of diluted fertilizer at planting gets the plants off to a good start. Fertilize again with a 10-10-10 fertilizer or any other quality tomato fertilizer when you see the first sets of fruit.

A good tip for growing cherry tomatoes is to pinch off the suckers. These are new growth that appears where the branches meet the stalk – or create a “V.” Those suckers will rob the plant of nutrients. Removing them also keeps the plant “open,” improving airflow through the plant, which helps reduce the chance of disease problems. 

Cherry tomatoes produce small fruits that range in size – from a thumb to a golf ball. Photo by Dwight Sipler (CC BY 2.0).

Watch for telltale signs of ripening, such as turning red, or at least a different color than green when it comes to the more colorful varieties. The riper they are, the easier they are to pull off the plant.

There are a slew of insects that might show up to munch on your tomato plants, and that is probably the last thing you want. The first to watch out for are the aphids. These are tiny insects that you will see on the stems of new growth. While small numbers are not a problem, a large infestation can eventually injure or even kill plants. You can cut off any foliage where aphids are and throw them into the garbage, not on the ground or compost bin. Beneficial insects, such as ladybugs and lacewings, will definitely help. If all else fails, insecticidal soap could be your best friend. 

Another major pest is the hornworm. These caterpillars are big, measuring 3 inches long or more. It is easy to control them by picking them off. The problem is that their pale green color provides excellent camouflage – they look just like a leaf and stem. The nymph and larval stages are much smaller and less obvious. If there are more than just a few, other measures may be called for, particularly Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis). It is an organic treatment that can controls some other problems as well.

Hornworms are hungry threats to your plants and fruit, so keep an eye out and pick off any caterpillars you see. Photo by Shane Darby.

There are a few diseases that you should watch out for. One of the main ones is fusarium wilt. This is a soil-borne fungus that targets plants in the tomato, pepper, potato, and eggplant family. This wilt often causes no symptoms until plants are mature and green fruit begins to reach its full, almost ripe size. When it reaches this stage, the foliage, sometimes only on one side of the plant, turns yellow. If you were to cut a stem in half, it would show a brownish, discolored line running down the center. Your best control is crop rotation. This breaks the cycle of the pathogen. Cool, damp conditions favor infection, so avoid spraying leaves, especially during cooler weather. You should plant resistant varieties if you’ve had problems with this in the past.

A close-up of cherry tomato blossoms, soon to be tomatoes. Photo by Darren Sheriff.

In closing, here are a few key points to remember that will reduce many of the diseases that affect tomatoes:

• Make sure your plants are in good soil and be sure to fertilize and water regularly; a healthy plant is better able to resist diseases and other problems.

• Keep areas inside and outside of your garden free of weeds and debris where insects can hide and diseases can begin.

• Rotate your crops so that soil-borne pathogens never have more than one season to get established.

• Clean your gardening tools and equipment, especially at the end of the season, to ensure that they don’t carry or spread disease. The easiest way to do this is with antibacterial cloths that come in a canister. 

• Remove unhealthy foliage and yank out any unhealthy plants. This will cut down on the spread of problems and break some of the cycles.

• Don’t compost diseased foliage or plants. Put them in your household trash or burn them if possible.

• If you are a smoker or use any other type of tobacco, don’t use it near tomato plants to avoid spreading tobacco mosaic virus. You should also make sure you wash your hands after use.

If you follow these steps, you will be well on your way to being able to enjoy little tasty treats right off the vine.

Happy Growing!

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