Many vegetable gardeners, myself included, choose to buy tomato plants from a garden center rather than start them from seed. Doing this is a great way to jump start the tomato production in the garden. Tomato plants are quite adaptive, which makes them a superb candidate for transplanting.

Tomatoes are arguably the most popular vegetable in the home garden. Nearly 24 million tomato plants are sold each year in the U.S., far surpassing any other vegetable. Reasons for the huge demand for home grown tomatoes is the flavorful taste of home grown tomatoes, the availability of so many different cultivars, and the ease of growing tomatoes.

When you visit your local nursery or garden center to buy tomato plants, here are some things you should look for when choosing your tomato plants:

  1. Determinate, Indeterminate, or Heirloom? Decide whether you want determinate, indeterminate, or heirloom tomatoes.
    • Determinate tomato plants grow to a certain height and then stop, producing fruit all at once. These are commonly the cherry tomato, and roma tomato types, which are great for using in salads, sauces, or snacks.
    • Indeterminate tomato plants will keep growing and produce fruit sporadically over a longer period of time. These include beefsteak and better boy varieties that are used for slicing in sandwiches and so forth.
    • Heirloom tomatoes are passed down from generation to generation. These are sometimes more flavorful and colorful, but are more susceptible to diseases.

    Tall Lanky Big Beef Tomato Transplant

  2. Try to choose smaller plants. Personally, I like buying small plants when I buy tomato transplants; the smaller the better. Now I don't mean buy the tiniest thing you can find, but try to buy plants that are about 4 - 8" tall. Make sure the plant is almost as wide as it is tall. You don't want some skinny, scrawny looking plant. The smaller plants are easier to transplant and you don't need to dig as deep a hole as a tomato plant that's already 2 feet tall. Also buying a smaller plant tends to give it a better chance to build a stronger root system and sturdier stem.

    Healthy Tomato Transplants

  3. Examine the leaves of the plant. Take a good look at the leaves of the tomato plant. Make sure the leaves are a nice, even, deep green color. The deepness of the green in the plant can depend on the plant; some tomatoes are naturally darker in color than others. Just make sure it is an even color throughout the plant (for example, if some leaves are lighter than others, it could be a sign of a stressed plant). Check for any yellowing, or spots on the leaves; any wilting or curling. You want to try to avoid any plants that have any of these conditions. Make sure none of the leaves or torn or broken, especially the top couple of leaves. If it is a very small, bottom leaf, it may be alright; use your best judgment.

    Tomato Leaves

  4. Examine the plant's stem. Check the stem of the tomato plant for any signs of brown streaks or general brown tint in the color of the stem. This could be a sign of a weak stem or possible root rot. Make sure the stem is sturdy and that the plant isn't falling over. If the plant is somewhat tall (around 12" or taller) it could be falling over because of the height of the plant, which may be OK. If the plant is only a few inches tall and falling over, that could be bad. Check the stem to ensure it isn't broken or cracked.
  5. Check the soil in the container. Examine the soil of the pot the tomato is planted in. Make sure it isn't dried out. Dab your finger into the soil to check for moisture. Try to avoid tomato plants when the soil appears to be dried out. This is a sign that it hasn't been properly watered, which is all too common at some garden centers. It still may be alright to use the plant if this occurs, but take a better look at the overall health of the plant to make sure.
  6. If you are unsure about a particular plant, ask an employee at the garden center. Most local, small garden centers have very good personnel on board that know what to look for in a tomato plant transplant. If in doubt, ask one of them to assist you in picking out the best plants. Tell them what your tomato goals are and ask for their recommendations. They will most likely be more than happy to oblige.

Following these simple steps before heading to the checkout lane with your tomato plants can help to make sure you have a great crop of tomatoes from your garden. If you have any other tips on picking out tomato plants, please share them in the comments area.

Heirloom Tomato Favorites