How to Grow a “Perennial” Tomato Garden

Growing Perennial Tomato GardensBy definition, tomatoes are not perennial plants. The plant itself dies each year, relying on seeds being planted in order for the strain to survive. However, this year we experimented with the idea of a “perennial” tomato garden that would come back every year without our help. The first year was a success, and we enjoyed a HUGE harvest of tomatoes that grew with little to no assistance. This article will talk about how to set up and grow a “perennial” tomato garden that will grow every year without much assistance.

Fall Start

Last fall we had a boatload of tomatoes from plants we purchased. So many that we quite a few go rotten before we could do anything with them. If you grow tomatoes every year, you know that sometimes a tomato goes bad before it’s even picked, sometimes from bugs or nature, sometimes because it’s just hiding and you don’t find it in time. Last summer and into fall we made use of those “bad” tomatoes by tossing them on the ground under the current plants. We’ve done the same this year to ensure we have a crop next year as well.

The second important factor in creating a “perennial” tomato garden was allowing the vines to die in the winter. There was no “fall clean-up” where we tore out vines and swept up debris. Instead, we just left everything there for the cold winter (I should note here we live in the Midwest, and our growing season is early May to late September for tomatoes). In the spring, our tomato garden looked something like this:

Spring, before clean-up

Spring, before clean-up

 

Prepping in Spring

When spring rolled around, we did light cleanup of the area. We carefully pulled vines and gently brushed the debris into a compost pile.  Some leaves and mulch we left, but didn’t do any hard tilling in the area since we wanted the plants to come up on their own without us having to plant anything. We did have to pull some weeds as the tomatoes came up, just to give them room to grow up nice and healthy, but other than that, little work was required.

Also in the spring as the baby tomato sprouts were just starting to appear, we put in our tomato cages around spots there was several sprouts growing. We thought about thinning the plants, but ultimately decided to just leave them all to see what would grow. We didn’t have a huge area by any means, but figured it was enough room for a hefty harvest. We were right.

Summer Tending

By the time mid-summer rolled around, we had several really nice looking tomato plants. There was even one growing under the swing-set, by a tomato we’d forgotten about that was tossed under and a few others sprouting in places we hadn’t planned for.  No biggie, the more tomatoes the better!

We didn’t use an actual fertilizer or chemicals from the store, but we did throw out coffee grounds in early summer to give them a bit of a boost. This turned out to be a bit excessive, as the plants shot up quickly with leafy vines but with few blooms. There were some, just not as many as there could have been (I didn’t think, anyway… it might have also been the weather conditions or the re-seed themselves that didn’t produce a lot of blooms at first). Regardless, the plants were off to a fabulous start and began giving us a few tomatoes by mid-summer:

Mid-Summer Tomatoes

Mid-Summer Tomatoes

After deciding these tomatoes didn’t need any artificial help, we left them alone once again. This is what we began to see:

Volunteer tomatoes near old swingset.

Volunteer tomatoes near old swing-set.

Fall Harvesting

While the picture above shows the tomato vines growing in the plot we planned for them, we noticed something when September hit. The tomatoes devoured the other plants in front of them (a few jalapeno’s plants we started from seed), spilling out of the plot and into the yard. Obviously we didn’t give them near enough room this year, so will be adjusting accordingly for next year. In other words, all other plants will be moved clear away from the tomatoes for fear they’ll get “swallowed up”!  These plants were so aggressive, they actually knocked over most of the cages as well (the windy storm we had in August didn’t help much, either). Still, they are growing like weeds and cranking out at least a tomato or two PER DAY even into September.

Fall Tomato Garden

Fall Tomato Garden

Now that the weather is getting colder, we’ve put a priority on picking tomatoes long before they are ripe, but just after they start to turn yellow or red. We’ve got a dedicated spot in the kitchen near a window where they are left to ripen, then used as needed (so far we’ve had multiple BLT nights, several batches of salsa, and even made lasagna with our own tomato sauce) While I prefer to allow tomatoes to ripen on the vine, some nights are just flat out too chilly for a tomato to properly thrive. Once the first frost warning hits, I’ll most likely harvest all the remaining tomatoes (yellow, red, and even some green). We’ll probably make a batch of fried green tomatoes just as soon as it’s time to start grabbing what’s left before the frost hits.

When the weather turns too cold to harvest any more, we start the process all over again. Vines will be left, rotten tomatoes tossed back to the ground, and the plot will be ready for next fall. VERY easy, as the most important step is simply leaving the vines to do what they do best – reproduced all by themselves!

Summary

When setting up your perennial tomato garden for the first time, it’s important to remember that you will need a full season of planted tomatoes, either from the store or from seedlings you start inside.  If you’ve already planted tomatoes this year, great! You are well on your way to creating a tomato garden that will come back each year. If you have no tomato plants by the end of fall, you can still start planning for next year. Pick your spot, plant your tomatoes, and do minor prepping next fall to ensure they come back. Remember, tomatoes naturally re-seed, so as long as you let them, you’ll always have tomato plants. 🙂