Remember the luscious taste of those homegrown tomatoes you harvested this past summer? Wouldn’t it be great if you could enjoy tomatoes that scrumptious all year long? The good news is you can – and you don’t have to live in Florida or Phoenix to raise a bountiful crop for snacking, salads, salsa, sauce or drying to store away on the shelf.

Baby Girl tomatoes

Wouldn’t you love to have tomatoes like these in winter?

Photo Credit: Courtesy of W. Atlee Burpee & Co.

Black pearl tomatoes

Different tomatoes come in different colors.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of W. Atlee Burpee & Co.

Yellow pear tomatoes

Who says tomatoes have to be red?

Photo Credit: Courtesy of W. Atlee Burpee & Co.

The tomato, which well may be our nation’s favorite homegrown food plant, has proved one of the most versatile when it comes to being coaxed into growing under conditions other than what nature meant for it. And that includes growing quite well and prolifically indoors.

Hold on – I know you’re thinking of those scraggly specimens you may have seen growing in someone’s dimly lit apartment in the past, but I’m here to tell you, it doesn’t have to be that way. With the right lighting and temperature, and a little research in selecting the variety that will work best for you, you can be on your way to turning your back on those mush-textured tomato impostors we’re forced to consume from the supermarket in the wintertime. Here’s how:

Lighting

So what constitutes good indoor lighting? A generous-sized, south-facing picture window is ideal – but not all of us have that. Most successful indoor gardeners have to augment their natural lighting with a spot grow-light or fluorescent lighting so that tomato plants receive at least 12 hours of sunlight a day. These lights are a must if you have small or inconveniently placed windows, or if most of your winter is spent socked in under steel-gray skies. You can buy these lights in a garden center or hardware store; what you should choose depends on how many plants you want to grow, and how well your growing space can be adapted to the installation of additional lighting. You may also need to do some tweaking to make sure that the sunlight from western windows is not too intense by providing some kind of filter, such as a sheer curtain (otherwise plants may dry out too quickly).

Selection

The next thing to consider is what type of tomatoes to buy and grow. You can buy seed from one of the many mail-order seed companies now online, or try your local garden center to see if it’s got its current year seeds in yet. You can try any tomato variety indoors, but you should consider how big that plant is likely to get and whether you can accommodate it. You should also consider what kind of tomatoes you want to eat. Romas for cooking? Miniatures for salads? The good news is that tomatoes come in so many varieties these days, most of us will be able to find some type of plant that does well under the indoor conditions we can provide. Best bet is one of the smaller varieties, known as patio tomatoes. (‘Small Fry’, ‘Tiny Tim’ and ‘Toy Boy’ are good ones, among others.) These varieties produce small plants suitable for indoor container gardening, as well as small fruit (thus, less time till harvest).

Planting

Plant your tomato seed in a seed-starter mix (available at your garden center) and in a tray or container, covering with about a ¼ inch of mix. (Anything from a plastic yogurt carton to an old vegetable can will do for starting seed, but if you want to get fancy, you can purchase seed-starting trays from a garden center.) Water so that the mixture is consistently moist, but not sodden. You can cover the tray or container with plastic wrap to keep it from drying out. Providing daytime temperatures of about 75-80 degrees will help the seed germinate in as early as five days.

Once the seedlings sprout, the tray should be moved to a sunny place – preferably a south-facing window. (Here’s where your spot grow-light or fluorescent light comes in if no sunny exposure is available.) Without proper light, the plants will be leggy and weak.

When the seedlings have one set of true leaves or are about 3 inches tall, they’re ready to be transplanted in their own containers. Make sure that the pot you transfer the plant to will be large enough to contain the full-grown tomato plant. (Refer to seed packet for plant size.)

Give your plants a good start in life and fertilize after about two weeks with a complete fertilizer high in phosphorous content (this gives the plant the calcium boost it needs). Fertilize every couple of weeks or so with complete fertilizer as the tomatoes mature. (Complete fertilizer contains the three elements plants need: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, or N-P-K).

Keep the soil moist. Allowing plants to dry out will result in tomatoes with dark, tough bottoms – a condition known as blossom end rot. Turn plants so that all sides get some light.

The pollination of tomato flowers outdoors usually occurs when the wind blows. You can help the process indoors by using a fan, by tapping the main stem or the branches with your finger to spread pollen, or by hand-pollinating with a cotton swab or artist’s brush.

Time to harvest will vary with the cultivar you choose, so be sure to determine this before you buy your seed. Fruit from some cultivars mature in a relatively short span – from 45-60 days – while others may take as long as 80-90 days.

What’s the downside to raising tomatoes indoors? Maybe it’s the realization that store-bought varieties just don’t cut it for you anymore. No problem – you’re already on your way to enjoying the delicious taste of their homegrown kin all year-round. Bon appétit!