While Florida tops the list of tomato-producing states in the U.S., Tennessee ranks high. Almost every source put Tennessee in the top 10, and some rank us as high as #6 or even #4.
So we’ve got the volume — but do most Tennesseans have the knowledge to take advantage of all those tomatoes?
To find out, WellTuned spoke with Steve Longmire, owner of Tennessee Homegrown Tomatoes in Grainger County, just northeast of Knoxville.
When are tomatoes best in Tennessee?
Longmire: Tomatoes are in season in Tennessee from June through October, and sometimes even through November in warmer years. Here, we start production in mid-March in the greenhouse. And the tomatoes stay there until spring when we transfer them into the field.
But the true “tomato season” is July to August, when we see the most volume as farmers. Those two months are the best time to use Tennessee tomatoes at home, or to can, preserve or freeze the tomatoes you grow or take home.
Tennessee guide to freezing & preserving
Which tomatoes grow best in Tennessee?
Longmire: Most Tennessee farmers specialize in fresh-market tomatoes. This means they’re meant to be eaten close to home rather than shipped. The fact that Tennessee tomatoes don’t have a very long shelf life is one reason tomato season is so special here. And it’s why you’ll see so many tomato festivals and celebrations during that time.
Any tomato can be a fresh-market tomato. But we typically grow red, yellow, Roma and green tomatoes here at Tennessee Homegrown.
Why do tomatoes grow well in Tennessee?
Longmire: It comes down to soil and skill. Our limestone-based soil breaks down quicker. This helps give the tomato acid and imparts a bright, bold bite. Secondly, Tennessee tomato farmers have been at it a long time. So we understand the chemical reactions, as well as the watering needs of the tomato and the pH of the soil.
What are the most common types of tomatoes?
The most common types of tomatoes are:
- Cherry: round, bite-sized, pop when bitten
- Grape: oblong, less water than cherry tomatoes
- Roma or plum: larger than cherry or grape, not as large as slicer tomatoes
- Beefsteak: big, sturdy, firm enough to slice thin
- Tomatoes on the vine: smaller, sold on the vine to increase shelf life
- Green tomatoes: firm, easy to slice, sour, good for frying or pickling [does not include green heirloom tomatoes]
Heirloom tomatoes vary from yellow to green to dark purple. And the designation means the seeds have been saved and passed down without cross-pollinating with other types of tomatoes. The point of heirloom tomatoes is to zero in on certain qualities that most commercial tomatoes don’t have, such as a soft texture or thinner skin. However, these traits can also make these tomatoes harder to handle (they’re more delicate) and grow (they’re more susceptible to disease).
Longmire: Cherokee Purple and Brandywine are common heirloom varieties in Tennessee. I grow a few varieties of heirloom tomatoes. But in reality, Tennessee’s fresh-market tomatoes are so good and plentiful that many are just as delicious as any heirloom.
Hybrid tomatoes have been cultivated to combine traits from two parents. Hybrids may be desirable because they’re more resistant to disease, or because they have a specific taste, shape, or color. Newer hybrids often retain a firmer texture and avoid decay longer because they’ve been bred to do just that.
What tomatoes are best for home gardeners to grow in Tennessee?
If you want to grow tomatoes at home, consider disease resistance, as well as your preferences in color, size, shape, taste and days to harvest.
The table below gives examples of tomatoes that have done well in our region based on research done at the University of Kentucky.
Tomatoes that grow well in Tennessee
Table courtesy of UT extension
How to buy tomato plants
Look for plants that:
- Have stocky limbs and a strong root system
- Don’t have thin stems or large distances between leaves
- Are grown in-state so you won’t transmit disease
- Have been “hardened off,” aka subjected to outdoor conditions slowly and have the best chance to survive
When to plant tomatoes in Tennessee
Consult our full guide for what to plant when in Tennessee, or use the table below to find the earliest date to plant tomatoes in your region.
Table courtesy of UT extension
How do you know when a tomato is ripe?
Longmire: For most varieties, you’re looking for a good, bright color. Bright colors means the tomato went through a lot of heat, which is what gives them their flavor.
In general, tomatoes that are cherry-red in color will need to be eaten within 2 days, while those that have less give/are still turning will have more time.
6 stages of a ripening tomato
|1||Green||Can be light to dark green all over|
|2||Breaking||Includes a “break” in color from green to yellow, pink or red|
|3||Turning||10-30% of the surface is yellow, pink, red or a combination|
|4||Pink||30-60% of the surface is pink or red|
|5||Light red||60-90% of the surface is pinkish-red or red|
|6||Red||More than 90% of the surface is red|
How should you store tomatoes?
Longmire: When buying tomatoes:
- If you’re taking home tomatoes that are lighter in color and not quite ready to eat, leave those at room temperature.
- If the ones you’ve got are red red, place them in the coolest part of the house and eat them ASAP.
- If you really want to hold them, you can put them in the fridge; however, if they’re not super ripe, that can make them mealy (texture that’s gritty and less pleasant).
For homegrown tomatoes, wait to harvest them until they’re fully ripe, and use them ASAP. Or, if you’re worried about shelf life or damage, harvest them at 60-80% of their full color and let them ripen in your house. And always pick cherry tomatoes right before they’re completely ready to prevent cracking.
What are the nutritional benefits of tomatoes?
Longmire: Tomatoes are high in:
- Vitamin C, which slows damage from free radicals and helps the body absorb iron
- Vitamin A, which is needed for vision, skin and immune-system health
- Lycopene, which reduces the risk of heart disease and cancer
What’s your favorite way to use tomatoes at their peak?
Longmire: Eat them like an apple! Just get that baby and start eating. You know you’re doing it right if the juice runs down your face.
You can also add tomatoes to your salads, sandwiches, pastas or other dishes.
More tomato-related content from WellTuned
- Healthy tomato recipes
- 5 fresh summer salads
- 6 heart-healthy drinks
- Tennessee guide to freezing & preserving
- 7 fruits and vegetables with poisonous parts
- What to plant when in Tennessee
- Everything you need to know about vegetable gardens
BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also use tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the in the Member Wellness Center under the Managing Your Health tab.