Sunday, October 12, 2008

Growing Tomatoes: How Many Plants Do You Need? (And What To Do If You End Up with Too Many Tomatoes)

Just Juice Them Using My Homemade Tomato Juice Recipe!

It hasn't been a good year for tomatoes in the garden, partly because I never got around to starting any seeds (for the second embarrassing year in a row), and partly because the mostly boring varieties of purchased plants I had to make due with didn't go into the ground until June (okay, okay, and maybe a few in July). I did end up with about 20 producing plants and a small but fairly tasty harvest.

My favorite variety of the year is a tasty little plum type with a dark reddish green skin and interior. It has a really nice flavor, was a good producer, and didn't have any disease or pest problems. Unfortunately I never wrote the name down and seem to have misplaced the tag that came with the one plant I bought. If I figure it out, I'll definitely let you know. I'm pretty sure it was from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (great seeds, great Missouri company), but the only description I could find that seemed right said the tomatoes were six ounces each, and these are less than one.

I'm still getting a few ripe sweet cherry, Celebrity, and Arkansas Travelers (an always reliable variety in my garden), and the Romas are just coming into their prime, so I've been swaddling the plants in floating row covers and old bedsheets at night to protect them from the 37 degree temperatures we've been having (though now we're headed back up into the 50s at night). Soon I'll get tired of all that covering and uncovering and will turn whatever's left into a big batch of my popular salsa-like green tomato relish (no canning required unless you want to save it for months).

People sometimes ask me why I like to have at least 70 or 80 tomato plants in the garden. "So I can be sure of getting at least a few tomatoes!" is how I always reply. This question is never posed by anyone who has tried to garden in Missouri. While talking tomatoes with my blueberry supplier last summer, he confessed that he usually puts out 200 tomato plants—and that's just for him and his wife.

On the other end of the growth chart, my all-around talented friend Finny picks enough tomatoes to eat her fill all summer and put up several jars of what she swears is the best tomato sauce ever from the two measly plants in her Northern California garden. These plants apparently "grow to gargantuan sizes and impose their overabundance on us with unrelenting ferocity." It's just way too easy to garden in California.

So how many tomato plants should you put in your garden? It obviously depends on where you're located and what you plan to do with your bounty. If you just want some slicers for salads, a couple of plants will probably suffice. But if you're hoping to line your pantry shelves with dozens of jars of tomatoes and sauce, I'd say you'll want at least 10 or 12 of the meaty paste varieties.

Last year my 46 tomato plants gave me less than 46 pounds of tomatoes (a terrible yield), which might sound like a lot until you start preserving them. It takes an amazing number of tomatoes to fill up one little quart-sized container. I also never knew how many fresh tomatoes I was capable of eating until I broke down and bought some from a neighbor last year while waiting for mine to mature. Um, like twenty-five pounds in a couple of weeks. Joe helped of course, but still. Even I had trouble believing it. But indulging like this in summer is of course the only way to survive the rest of the year sans fresh tomatoes. And besides, I really do love them.

When I moved from Northern California to Missouri back in 1994, I was told that the general rule for growing anything was that you need to plant one for the weather, one for the bugs, one to die, and one for yourself. That's about right, though for a lot of things six would be better.

You also never know what's going to do well and what isn't, which is why I like to plant several different varieties of tomatoes (and everything else). And unless I really don't care for the taste of one, I always give each kind at least two summers to prove itself. A total disappointment one year might very well be the star of the season the next—or vice versa. The first year I planted Thai Pink Egg tomatoes they were a delicious success. The compact plants were loaded with little egg-sized fruits that started out white and ended up the most beautiful dark pink—while turning about five gorgeous shades of pink in between. The next year was promising, but as soon as the plants put on all those white eggs they promptly turned brown and died.

I always recommend having at least one cherry tomato plant because not only will your first tomatoes be ripe earlier, but the small size of the fruits means there's less of a chance for things to go wrong. There are dozens of types of easy to grow heirloom cherry tomatoes, and I love to experiment each year (well, except this one) with various colors and sizes. Some of my all-time favorites are red and yellow currant (a pain to pick but so adorable) and yellow pear, which add a touch of tasty elegance to everything.

Sometimes the garden gods smile do down on us, and we end up with a tomato surplus. You can never have too many plum tomatoes around (I'm particularly fond of San Marzanos) because this meaty type is perfect for canning and freezing as well as drying (a food dehydrator is a wonderful thing to have). Some day I may even give in and turn on the oven for hours on a sweltering day so I can make the slow roasted tomatoes my food blogging friends are always raving about.

Regular salad or slicing tomatoes aren't as easy to preserve because they're usually more juice than meat. Two years ago I turned an excess into a dressing/dip that I called Susan's Seven Second Tomato Glut Solution, but now I know better. If I ever have an overabundance of tomatoes again, whatever isn't tossed into my new favorite quick and easy gazpacho will be turned into homemade tomato juice. In fact, I'm so in love with this simple, scrumptious, amazingly good-for-you juice that I'm planning to increase my harvest odds next year by putting at least 100 tomato plants in the garden. I already have something like 45 different kinds of heirloom seeds in my stash. Maybe I'll go ahead and try some of each. Can't hurt. Wish me luck.

So how did your tomatoes grow this year? Any stories or tips you'd like to share? What about your favorite varieties-or, better yet, save us some trouble and tell us which kinds of tomatoes you won't be growing again.

These Mexican Jumping Bean Slaw Tacos Were a Hit Last Year

What else do I do with tomatoes?
How to Freeze Tomatoes the Really Easy Way
Saving the Harvest with No Sugar Green Tomato Relish
Quick and Easy Gazpacho
Fresh Tomato Pizza Sauce
Fiesta Cottage Cheese Veggie Dip (and Factory Tours)
Savory Tomato Pesto Biscuit Crust Pie
Fresh Tomato & Basil Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread
Tomato Pesto Pizza & My Favorite Basil Pesto Recipe
Purple Basil Pesto & White Bean Dip
Three No-Cook Summer Recipes: Mexican Jumping Bean Slaw, Easy Vegetarian Tacos, & High Kickin' Creamy Tomato Dressing
Cream Cheese & Tomato Sandwiches On Italian Black Olive Cheeks
The Easiest Greek Salad Ever
My Seven Second Tomato Glut Solution
Colors Of Summer Salad
Summer In A Bowl

© Copyright 2008, the award-winning blog where despite our whining, there's always something ready to eat in the garden, something delicious on the menu, and something that tells us we'll never give up trying to grow too many tomatoes.


  1. My tomatoes actually did great this year. I only grew 2 varieties, Viva Italia (which is so fantastic roasted) and Lemon Boy. Next year I plan on growing 20-30 plants for canning and growing mainly heirloom.

  2. This was the 1st time I have ever planted tomatoes, I only did the small kind. I planted 5 plants and had way way wway to many of them. And then I bought a big old box of big ones from the local green house a week ago and made 24 pints of some good salsa. So next year, 1 cherry type plant and 4 or 5 big tomatoe type plants.

  3. My garden is in south-central Wisconsin. I grew 4 no-name, one new york, two Amish paste and one Italian heirloom--probably a multi-lobed variety but it only produced two small fruits. The Amish paste are great producers and the 4 noname/salad were average. The new york must not like Wisconsin. I also have to fight for my tomatoes against wild life since I live in the country.

    It has been two years since I've started tomatoes from seed. I blame winter blues and I hope I feel less stressed this coming year to get seeds in. One of my favorite early tomatoes has been Dona.

  4. I planted 2 heirlooms and 2 "regular" tomatoes. My heirlooms didn't ripen but my regular ones gave me tons of really sweet tasting, wonderful tomatoes. In contrast, my friend planted 6 plants and got just 3 or 4 ripe tomatoes (and she lives just blocks away from me). It was a weird year, to be sure.

    I simply cut up my extra tomatoes and put them in the freezer to be used for chili and soups this winter.

  5. I grew about 6 different varieties from the farm in CA you talked about that had hundreds of varieties (I can't remember the name). We had a cool summer in WA, so I didn't have a large harvest. I liked the Paul Robeson, but they cracked easily. I had some Amish paste and a wonderful variety that grew large heart shaped tomatoes that didn't crack (Sunset something). I made sauce, salsa, and just froze chopped. Check out my blog for a picture of our largest one!

  6. It wasn't a great tomato year in Utah, too hot for one thing. I planted 11 tomato plants. The ones I might not grow again are striped zebras, not that flavorful compared to some yellow tomatoes I've tried.

  7. Disclaimer: Very WET, cooler summer (comparatively) here in the mid-west, so that may have influenced the taste of my tomatoes.

    This year we grew, Jersey Giant, bland, but the shape and size of the fruits were impressive. Ten Fingers of Naples, okay tasting but prone to blossom end rot and the first one to show signs of disease. Carbon, good black tomato, perhaps not as tasty as Black Krim, not very productive. Peacevine, heavy bearer of little cherry tomatoes. But the winner out of them all was, again, Sun Gold Select. Sweet, tangy, not your typical tomato, heavy producer, first tomatoes of the season too. Everybody loves this one and I wish that Bakers Creek still sold them because my supply is dangerously low.

    I bought some F1 Sun Gold from Johnny's and will have a grow out and taste test next year to compare it to the OP Sun Gold Select.

  8. Ah, the end of tomato season! Which just means that we have to start getting ready for next year!

    My tomato crop this year was fairly small (we had trouble with squirrels and possoms eating our first fruits!) -- though I got great yields from my Mexican Midgets (sweetest cherry tomato ever!) and an Italian drying tomato (that gave me an amazing amount of tomatoes to dry from just one plant). I LOVE Gold Medal tomatoes for slicing, so I grew 2-3 of those plants. But, now I'm kicking myself for not growing more tomatoes (like Amish Paste) that lend themselves to roasting & freezing.

    We just have a small urban plot, so I usually have to look elsewhere for enough tomatoes to really put them up. But, our little plot here in WI usually provides enough to give us a nice supply through the summer months, and maybe a few quarts for storage.

  9. I was a little late planting the seeds this year, and too poor to buy any already set up, but they were doing well most of the summer, leafing out, growing tall... and then there was a hurricane, which flooded them, tore away their sunshade, then left hot dry weather that finished them off. So no fruit this year. But I'm going to try planting them in big containers earlier this next spring, and then I can pull them to somewhere sheltered if we get more storms!


  10. It was an odd tomato year for us (in SE Michigan). I couldn't get seeds to start, so ended up buying 36 plants, which felt like cheating. Super Sweet 100s did ok, not great. Those get turned into dried tomatoes as well as the slow roasted ones. The Romas did well and I had enough for a couple of batches of ketchup and a small batch of tomato paste (which gets frozen). I got some First Ladies (whatever they are) early in the season, but the skins of many of them ended up splitting. The Brandywines (bought so I could say I had at least one heirloom and that was all they had) were attacked by hornworms, which I could never find. I did have enough for several batches of salsa, but all in all, a disappointing year. {shrug} There is always next year.

  11. This was a freakishly good year for every single thing we grew. We had 25 tomato plants, from which I canned 32 quarts of plain tomatoes, 15 pints of spaghetti sauce (including some of Finny's--yum), 4 pints of soup, 15 pints of salsa, and 1 stupid pint of ketchup. We had 10 Roma plants, plus an heirloom orange variety called Moonglow that I found too bland, a hybrid called Raad Red we got free from the seed company that I didn't really like much, a couple of random plants my mother-in-law bought at the nursery, and several of an heirloom variety called Stupice that were my favorite.

    I LOVE tomatoes, and anticipate many happy hours with the seed catalog picking out the ones I'll try next year. The only ones I'll repeat are the Stupice and the Romas.

  12. We always plant 50 to 60 plants here in northern Arkansas. This year we were late getting them in because we put up an 8' fence to keep deer out. We had lots of tomatoes and canned 72 quarts mixed with onions and sweet banana peppers.

    Lately we've been buying plants, too lazy to plant them from seed I guess. This year they were mostly Beefmaster and Better Boys. We always plant a few cherries. This year several that were supposed to be big tomatoes turned out to be cherries. We gave away lots of tomatoes and lots rotted on the vine after school started and we went back to work.

  13. We planted around 100 tomato plants. About half were Amish Paste which we plant every year because we can a lot. We also planted some Jerry's German Giant, which didn't reach giant size or produce very well (probably because of the weather, Henderson's Windsal (an heirloom planted by my great-great-grandfather - which did great, as usual), and one Cheerokee Purple that we didn't even get one tomato from (they all rotted before they ripened). Hopefully MO will have a better growing season next year.

  14. Mmm...those pictures make me hungry! I grow mostly in a container garden and have had ups & downs this past summer. I'm hoping to branch out into a small plot of earth in our backyard. Keep up the good work!

  15. Up here in New England (western Massachusetts, specifically) we had way too much rain and not enough sun - the tomatoes really suffered. Many of mine (Juliet, Black Cherry, Stupice, Grape) rotted right on the vine. Only my Sun Golds (LOVE) produced fairly well. In contrast, I got 10 times more peppers than usual and my brussell sprout harvest was great!


  16. Thanks for your insights on tomatoes! I have been posting all summer long about my first year of canning! I totally agree about different varieties in different locations. I got the best tomatoes in my area with clay, mixed with mushroom compost, mulch and black top soil ... sun was pretty good in the area, but not the full day. Yes, takes a whole lot to fill a quart. I have frozen some whole too (thanks to your idea in another entry).

  17. Sadly, it was not a good tomatoe year here in the mountain region of the PNW. I purchased only three plants from work (an organic gardener supplies our retail store each year...lucky me!) this year; an Early Girl, a Yellow Pear, and a Sweet 100 cherry tomato variety. Each were bought for sentimental reasons and as I had a "feeling" this year was gonna be bad, I only bought one of each. I didn't even put them in the garden this year but kept them sheltered on the more temperature regulated back deck,in large planters, being covered and all. ;)Anyway, the Early Girl which usually is standard salad size and, well, early.....never ripened. Never. And to capp that off they were just a hair larger than golf balls! UGH! The cherry variety produced a few pale reds (not the deep reds of usual) two weeks ago, the rest stayed green. The yellow pear turned one yellow tomato up at me on the very day I harvested all tomatoes; green, red or yellow. Due to two "early" frosts last week, all went into the food dehydrator to become fodder for future recipies and at least will provide some nutrients.( I hear they're good in bread?) The saddest part was discovering on Monday, after all was dehydrated and packaged away, that I could have taken my tomato plants that were loaded down with green fruit and hung them in my shed to finish ripening! AAARRGGHH! If only I'd known!

    Ah, the lessons learned! So next years plan is at least one cherry mater, one yellow pear, and the rest I do believe will be a paste variety. As early a paste variety as this area will tolerate. I very much want to can my own maters next year. I'm re-thinking my garden and am making more room for the maters to be sure!

    Thank you for maintianing this blog. I know how incredibly busy you are (I work in a feed/farm store around farmers every day.)and how incredibly tired you can be at the end of the day. I frequent this one and your Foodie Farmgirl and have turned many people to both or either depending on their tastes. ;) I'm forever looking at your previous recipes....yes I'm the one hitting the PITA page so many times. One day I'll make them myself! Anyway. I appreciate what you do and the spirit you do it in. Kudos to you and yours!

  18. Hi from MT...first time post, and need to say up front thank you very much for your work on this blog. Growing all this stuff is only the first step in turning it into the outrageously good food that it can be. Keep the recipes coming!
    The challenges gardening in my area can be summed up by two words...wild weather. This year we had -8F on April 21 (no apples this year) and 8" of snow on June 11. OK, enough whining. I had 46 tomato plants this year (I trialed 13 varieties, mostly herilooms), the best were Goldie, Lillian's yellow, Amish Paste, Pruden's Purple, Garden Peach, and Principe Borghese. That last one is a smallish plum-type that sounds like the unidentified variety you describe in your post. I dehydrated a bunch and they also make a nice thick fresh salsa when pulsed in the food processor. Too many tomatoes? Not around here. No shortage of friends and neighbors willing to help with the "problem".

  19. I've had a bumper harvest of tomatoes this year, my best ever.
    I planted 3 heirloom varieties which I grew from seed:

    Big Red (from my own seedstock)
    Giant Beefsteak (heirloom seeds)
    Old Virginia (heirloom seeds)

    I'm still pulling fruit daily. I also have 6 volunteer plants growing and they too are supplying fruit now.

    I've saved a whole load of seeds from the heirloom varieties for next year.


  20. Most of my tomatoes were blighted this year because we had such a wet Summer in England. I am just dazzled by so many new tomato varieties coming onto the market nowadays, so many to choose from.

  21. Wow. I had NO idea you planted so many plants! How did this never come up in convo?

    Yes. I have historically planted 2 plants per season. This year I had a volunteer come up mid season which is currently producing about half dozen a week. Next year I plan to get crazy and plant FOUR BIG PLANTS.

    I only plant Better Boys because that is what Bubba likes, and from what I can tell, they do it all for us: sauce, slicer, salad, sandwich, soup, juice, gazpacho, canning and freezing.

    And I guess you've proven that it IS too easy to garden in NorCal. Sheesh. I really have no excuse for failure now.

    Thanks Susan, now I'm all self-conscious ;)

  22. SUSAN _ hi Clare here the other farmer -designer chick in oregon from Big Table Farm I'm normally just a lurker but I love all you post as always makes me feel like i'm not totally nuts to do what I do cause you're doing int even MORE : ) - so I HAD to sent this to you - I assume you hear the Michael Polland interview on NPR last week about his Farmer and Chief letter?? if not CHECK it out also there's a movement you should know about planting a victory garden on the white house lawn !! I frigging love it here's the site! : ) farmers and gardeners unite !!

  23. Thanks for the rule of 4 about growing anything. It's encouraging to know that real farmers assume they'll lose three out of four living things to the elements and predators. I don't even bother with vegetables, since I'm a lazy suburbanite and I don't fancy feeding the squirrels and rabbits any more strawberries or lettuce like I did that one year.

    And I get my tomatoes from the local supermarket ... amazingly, even in winter, they are not bad.

  24. Too many tomatoes?

    What a wonderful problem to have.

    No matter how many plants and which varieties, we have never had too many.

    You are indeed a great gardener.

  25. In the summer, I planted beefmaster, and grape tomatoes (which is what your posted picture looks exactly like). The beefmaster had great flavor and was fairly plentiful. The grape variety was absolutely on FIRE!!! I couldn't give enough away, I froze a ton, and still lost quite a few to my poor harvesting skills. Towards the end of my plants' life, they were overwhelmed with leaf-footed bugs, and their little red hatchling bugs called "hemipterans". Those bugs kept me on the computer for weeks trying to figure out what they were. Since i live in florida, i had the chance to also plant a fall garden. I have planted 3 types of heirloom, brandywine, big rainbow, and mortgage lifter. no fruit yet, but that is because i started so late getting them in the ground. I am really anxious to see the big rainbow ones. in the spring i plan to continue with the heirloom, but i'm not sure on the varieties yet.

  26. I have to bump up this post! I planted 22 plants this year and was worried it wasn't enough. So i started googling... great blog! It seems we have a lot in common.

    Cheers, Teresa from CT


March 2013 update: My apologies for the inconvenience - I know word verification is a pain - but I've had to turn it on to help stop the ridiculous number of anonymous spam comments I've been getting every day. Thanks for your understanding.

Welcome to! Thanks so much for taking the time to write. While I'm not always able to reply to every comment, I receive and enjoy reading them all.

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I try my best to answer all questions, but sometimes it takes me a few days to get to them. And sometimes, I'm sorry to say, they fall through the cracks, and for that I sincerely apologize.

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