Sowing Success: How to Choose the Best Tomatoes to Grow in Iowa


Welcome to the vibrant world of tomato gardening in Iowa! Whether you’re a seasoned gardener or a green thumb in training, this guide is your ticket to cultivating some of the best tomatoes in the heartland of America. Dive into our tailored advice, spanning from choice varieties to expert growing tips, ensuring your Iowa garden is a hub of juicy, flavorful tomatoes. Let’s embark on this tomato-growing journey together!

Savor the Flavor: A Variety Showcase

In Iowa, the quest for the perfect tomato variety is akin to finding a hidden culinary treasure. The state’s unique climate makes it a haven for several types of tomatoes. Here are some top picks:

Cherry Tomatoes

Cherry tomatoes are cherished for their small size, burst of sweetness, and versatility in various culinary creations. Iowa offers a selection of cherry tomato varieties, each with its distinct characteristics.

VarietyFlavor DescriptionColor DescriptionIdeal Use
Sun GoldSun Gold tomatoes are celebrated for their sweet and tangy taste, perfect for salads, salsas, or snacking.Vibrant orange hue adds a pop of color to dishes.Ideal for fresh summer salads or as a garnish.
Black CherryBlack Cherry tomatoes offer a rich, complex taste with sweetness and acidity, ideal for salads and pasta.Deep, almost black color when ripe, adding elegance to dishes.Use in caprese salads, bruschettas, or sandwiches.

Heirloom Tomatoes

Heirloom tomatoes are renowned for their unique flavors, textures, and historical significance. Iowa boasts some impressive heirloom varieties.

VarietyFlavor DescriptionSize DescriptionIdeal Use
BrandywineBrandywine tomatoes are renowned for their exceptional taste, described as rich, sweet, and slightly tangy with a melt-in-your-mouth quality.They are large, making them perfect for slicing and adding to sandwiches.Slice for sandwiches or use in homemade tomato sauces.
Iowa BeefsteakIowa Beefsteak tomatoes are a local favorite, known for their meaty flesh and robust, full-bodied flavor, ideal for slicing and grilling.They are generously sized, making them great for burgers, sandwiches, or stuffed tomatoes.Grill them, use in BLTs, or add to tomato-based soups.

Hybrid Tomatoes

Hybrid tomatoes are bred for specific traits, such as disease resistance or early harvest. They offer reliability and consistent quality in Iowa gardens.

VarietyFlavor DescriptionRipening TimeIdeal Use
Early GirlEarly Girl tomatoes have a balanced sweetness and acidity, versatile for fresh consumption and cooking.They ripen early in the season, allowing for an early harvest.Enjoy fresh in salads, or use for early-season sauces and canning.
Better BoyBetter Boy tomatoes are prized for their classic tomato taste and resistance to diseases like blight and wilt.They are known for their disease resistance.Ideal for canning, sauces, or slicing for sandwiches and burgers.

Nurturing Your Tomatoes: Tips and Tricks

Growing the best tomatoes in Iowa requires attention to detail. Here are some tips to help your tomatoes thrive:

Soil Preparation

One of the fundamental factors in tomato cultivation is soil quality. To ensure your tomatoes flourish, follow these steps for soil preparation:

  • Choose the Right Location: Select a sunny spot in your garden that receives at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight daily;
  • Test Your Soil: Conduct a soil test to determine its pH and nutrient levels. Tomatoes thrive in slightly acidic soil with a pH of around 6.0-6.8;
  • Enhance Soil with Organic Matter: Incorporate well-rotted compost or aged manure into your garden bed. This enriches the soil with essential nutrients, improves water retention, and enhances drainage;
  • Properly Tilling the Soil: Use a garden tiller or hand tools to mix in the organic matter evenly. Aim for a depth of at least 12 inches to create a well-aerated root zone;
  • Add Additional Nutrients: Depending on your soil test results, consider adding specific nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to meet your tomatoes’ needs.

Watering Wisely

Proper watering is critical to prevent both under and overwatering, which can lead to various issues. Follow these guidelines for effective watering:

  • Consistent Moisture: Tomatoes need about 1-2 inches of water per week. Monitor the soil moisture level regularly to ensure it stays consistently moist but not waterlogged;
  • Drip Irrigation: Consider installing a drip irrigation system or soaker hoses. These deliver water directly to the root zone, reducing the risk of fungal diseases and water wastage;
  • Watering Schedule: Water your tomatoes in the morning to allow foliage to dry before evening, reducing the risk of fungal diseases. Avoid overhead watering whenever possible.


Tomatoes are sun-loving plants, and ample sunlight is crucial for healthy growth and fruit production:

  • Sun Exposure: Choose a location with a minimum of 6-8 hours of direct sunlight each day. Inadequate sunlight can result in leggy, underproductive plants;
  • Pruning and Thinning: As your tomato plants grow, prune the lower leaves to improve air circulation and ensure sunlight reaches all parts of the plant.

Staking and Support

Providing support for your tomato plants is essential to prevent them from sprawling on the ground, which can lead to disease and fruit rot. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Use Stakes or Cages: Stake your tomato plants individually or use tomato cages to support multiple plants. This helps keep the plants upright and encourages good air circulation;
  • Tying Up Branches: As your tomato plants grow, use soft ties or twine to secure the branches to the stakes or cages gently. Avoid binding too tightly to prevent damage to the stems.

Pest and Disease Management

To protect your tomato plants from pests and diseases while maintaining organic practices, follow these recommendations:

  • Regular Inspection: Inspect your plants frequently for signs of pests or diseases. Early detection is crucial for effective management;
  • Organic Solutions: Use organic methods like neem oil, diatomaceous earth, and beneficial insects to control pests. For fungal diseases, apply copper-based fungicides or use baking soda and water sprays;
  • Crop Rotation: To avoid repeatedly dealing with the same soil-borne pests and illnesses, it is recommended to practice crop rotation.

When to Plant: Timing is Everything

Knowing when to start your seeds indoors and when to transplant them outdoors is essential. Let’s explore the ideal timing for planting tomatoes in Iowa to maximize your harvest.

Indoor Seed Starting

To kickstart your tomato-growing journey, consider starting your seeds indoors. Here’s a step-by-step guide:

  • Seed Selection: Choose high-quality tomato seeds with the specific varieties you wish to grow. Consider factors like size, flavor, and disease resistance;
  • Count Backwards: Calculate the ideal transplant date by counting backward from the last expected frost date in your area. In Iowa, this typically falls between late April and early May;
  • Timing: Start indoor seeding 6-8 weeks before the last frost. This helps seedlings grow strong for transplanting;
  • Sowing Seeds: Plant your tomato seeds in seed trays or pots filled with a seed-starting mix. Sow the seeds at the recommended depth, typically ¼ inch deep;
  • Provide Optimal Conditions: Place the seed trays in a warm location (around 70-75°F or 21-24°C) and ensure they receive adequate light. You can use grow lights or place them near a sunny window;
  • Transplanting: When your tomato seedlings have grown to about 2-3 inches tall and have at least two true leaves, they are ready for transplanting.

Outdoor Transplanting

Once the danger of frost has passed, and soil temperatures have warmed sufficiently, it’s time to transplant your tomato seedlings into your garden. Follow these steps for successful outdoor transplanting:

  • Last Frost Date: Refer to local climate data or gardening resources to determine the last expected frost date for your specific area in Iowa;
  • Soil Temperature: Wait until the soil temperature has reached at least 60°F (15°C) for successful transplanting. Cold soil can shock and stunt tomato plants;
  • Harden Off Seedlings: Before you move your plants outside, let them get used to the weather outside gradually over the course of 7–10 days. This process, called “hardening off,” helps them get used to living outside;
  • Prepare the Planting Site: Pick a spot that gets lots of sun and has dirt that drains well. Adding compost or other organic matter to the soil will make it more fertile and help it drain better;
  • Planting Depth: Dig holes for your tomato seedlings deep enough to bury them up to the first set of true leaves. This encourages strong root development;
  • Spacing: Ensure proper spacing between tomato plants to allow for good air circulation, typically 18-24 inches apart in rows spaced 36-48 inches apart;
  • Watering: After transplanting, water your seedlings thoroughly to help them settle into their new home;
  • Mulch: Apply a layer of organic mulch, like straw or shredded leaves, around the base of the plants to retain moisture and suppress weeds.

Harvesting and Storage: Enjoying the Fruits of Your Labor

Harvesting and storing your tomatoes correctly is crucial to savoring the best flavors and textures from your garden. Let’s explore the optimal methods for harvesting and storing tomatoes in order to maximize their quality and shelf life.

Harvesting Tomatoes

The timing of your tomato harvest can significantly impact their flavor and texture. Here are some key steps to follow:

  • Color and Firmness: Harvest your tomatoes when they have reached full color and are slightly soft to the touch. They should yield gently to pressure without being overly firm or mushy;
  • Uniform Ripeness: Pick tomatoes that are uniformly ripe. Avoid harvesting overly green or underripe fruits, as they may not fully develop their flavor;
  • Use Pruning Shears or Scissors: To avoid damaging the plant, use pruning shears or scissors to snip the tomato stem, leaving a small portion attached to the fruit;
  • Morning Harvest: Early morning is the best time to harvest tomatoes when temperatures are cooler, and the fruits are less stressed by the heat;
  • Handle with Care: Be gentle when handling tomatoes to prevent bruising and damage.

Storage Guidelines

Proper storage is essential to preserve the flavor and quality of your freshly harvested tomatoes. Follow these storage guidelines:

  • Room Temperature: Store ripe tomatoes at room temperature, ideally between 68-75°F (20-24°C). Place them on a countertop or in a single layer in a shallow basket or tray;
  • Keep Them Together: Store tomatoes with their stems up to prevent moisture loss and potential bruising;
  • Avoid Direct Sunlight: Keep them out of direct sunlight, which can cause them to overripen or develop uneven ripening;
  • Check Regularly: Periodically inspect your stored tomatoes for any signs of overripeness or rot. Remove any spoiled fruits to prevent them from affecting others;
  • Do Not Refrigerate: Avoid refrigerating ripe tomatoes. Cold temperatures can diminish their flavor and alter their texture, making them mealy;
  • Use Quickly: Tomatoes are best enjoyed within a few days of harvesting when their flavor is at its peak.

Tomato Storage Chart

Here’s a handy table summarizing tomato storage tips:

Storage MethodTemperatureDuration
Room Temperature68-75°F (20-24°C)Up to a few days
Refrigeration (Not Ideal)45-50°F (7-10°C)A few days, diminished quality
Freezing (for Cooking)Below 32°F (0°C)Up to 6-8 months

Freezing Tomatoes

If you have an abundance of ripe tomatoes and can’t consume them all at once, consider freezing them for later use in cooking. Here’s how:

  • Blanch and Peel: Boil a pot of water and immerse tomatoes for 30 seconds, then transfer them to an ice bath. The skins will easily peel off. Remove cores;
  • Chop or Leave Whole: Depending on your preference, chop the tomatoes or leave them whole;
  • Freeze: Place the prepared tomatoes in airtight containers or freezer bags. Ensure they are sealed well to prevent freezer burn;
  • Label and Date: Label the containers with the date and use within 6-8 months.

Beyond the Garden: Creative Uses for Your Tomatoes

After successfully growing the finest tomatoes in Iowa, you’ll discover a world of culinary possibilities awaiting you. Below are some ways to enjoy your homegrown tomatoes, from fresh and flavorful salads to preserving their goodness through canning and sun-drying.

Fresh Tomato Delights

Tomatoes straight from the garden are bursting with flavor and perfect for a variety of fresh dishes. Here are some ideas:

  • Tomato Salad: Create a refreshing tomato salad by combining sliced tomatoes with fresh basil, mozzarella cheese, and a drizzle of balsamic glaze;
  • Caprese Sandwich: Make a delicious Caprese sandwich with tomato slices, fresh basil leaves, mozzarella, and a drizzle of olive oil on crusty bread;
  • Bruschetta: Whip up a classic bruschetta by topping toasted baguette slices with diced tomatoes, garlic, basil, and a splash of olive oil;
  • Tomato Snacks: For a healthy snack, simply season tomato slices with salt and pepper or dip cherry tomatoes in hummus.

Cooking and Preserving Tomatoes

Tomatoes are versatile in the kitchen, and you can transform them into mouthwatering dishes and preserve their goodness. Here are some ideas:

  • Tomato Sauce: Cook down ripe tomatoes into a rich and flavorful tomato sauce. You can add herbs, garlic, and onions for extra depth of flavor;
  • Homemade Salsa: Create your own salsa by combining diced tomatoes with onions, cilantro, jalapeños, and lime juice. Perfect for dipping or topping grilled dishes;
  • Tomato Soup: Whip up a comforting tomato soup with roasted tomatoes, garlic, and a touch of cream for a velvety texture;
  • Stews and Curries: Use tomatoes as a base for hearty stews and curries. They add a sweet and tangy flavor to these dishes.

Preservation Methods

To make the most of your tomato harvest, consider these preservation methods:

  • Canning: Home canning allows you to enjoy your tomatoes year-round. You can can whole tomatoes, tomato sauce, or even salsa. Follow safe canning procedures to ensure long-term storage;
  • Sun-Drying: Sun-dried tomatoes are a delicious addition to many recipes. Slice your tomatoes, season with herbs and olive oil, then dry them in the sun or a food dehydrator;
  • Freezing: Preserve your tomatoes by freezing them. Blanche and peel them before freezing whole or in portions suitable for your favorite recipes.

Tomato Preservation Chart

Here’s a table summarizing tomato preservation methods:

Preservation MethodBest forDuration
CanningLong-term storageUp to 1 year
Sun-DryingIntense flavorUp to 6 months
FreezingShort-term storage, cookingUp to 8 months


Growing the best tomatoes in Iowa is a rewarding endeavor. With the right variety, proper care, and a bit of patience, you’ll be rewarded with a bountiful harvest of delicious, home-grown tomatoes.


How do I choose the best tomato variety for my garden?

Consider your taste preferences, available space, and whether you prefer heirloom or hybrid varieties.

What are common challenges when growing tomatoes in Iowa?

Iowa gardeners often face issues like blight, blossom-end rot, and unpredictable weather. Select disease-resistant varieties and monitor your plants regularly.

Can I grow tomatoes in containers?

Absolutely! Just ensure your container is large enough (at least 5 gallons) and has proper drainage.

Jerry Miller

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