This is a multi-part series on how to grow really nice beefsteak tomatoes in your own backyard or community garden. The series will cover choosing a variety, prepping the soil and the plant itself, fertilizing, pruning, culling and harvesting.

Love the beefsteak tomatoes you find at roadside stands and at farmers’ markets every summer? Ever wished you could grow your own? Getting started is pretty easy.

I started growing backyard beefsteak tomatoes in 2002 and I’ve had good and bad years. Weather is always a gamble, pests vary from year to year, finding the time to properly care for the plants has always been a challenge and pests can be… pests. My arch nemesis used to be a hungry groundhog living under our neighbour’s shed, but in recent years I’ve even seen birds attacking our garden. Even the industrial-grade chicken wire fortress we built around the garden has been compromised. But I’ll save that for a future post in this series.

Important: This series is only guidance from an amateur — I did spend six years working as a farm hand, but I have no formal agricultural training. There are lots of urban and community gardening experts out there with better advice than mine, but if you have no idea where to start, this blog series might help. Over the course of this season and (hopefully) future seasons, you’ll figure out a system that works best for your soil and environment. And every year you’ll learn something new.

Step 1: Choose a variety

But what’s the best variety of beefsteak tomato? That’s a contentious topic. From what I gather, the most popular variety these days is Big Beef. I’ve grown them before and had some great success. They’re large (over a pound if you’re pruning and culling) and they’re fairly disease-resistant. I’ve also had some great Beefmaster and Better Boy harvests.

If you’re starting from seed, you’ll likely have lots of options to choose from. Personally, I usually buy already-germinated seedlings from one of my local greenhouses. This year I’ve opted to start with seedlings again, and I’ve chosen two varieties based on what was available:

Ultra Boy and Big Boy

I’ll grow 3 of each, which should mean that by August-September I’ll be giving them away to friends and neighbours and I’ll be the most popular guy on the block.

If you’ve never grown your own beefsteaks and you’ve just spent the winter eating store-bought tomatoes picked long before they were ripe, then any variety you choose will be a huge improvement. And most beefsteak tomato varieties, including the ones I’ve mentioned above, should grow big enough that one slice will cover your burger or make up the bulk of your toasted tomato sandwich.

Beefsteak tomato sandwiches on Caraway rye bread

I expect each plant will produce 10 to 20 tomatoes. In your case, choosing the number of seedlings to plant will depend on how often you plan to eat tomatoes and how many people you’re feeding. The six I’m planning to grow is definitely too much for my family, but as I mentioned above, I like to give them away.

Step 2: Buy your materials

Visit your local greenhouse or grocery store garden centre and pick up the following:

  1. One or two types of beefsteak tomato plant seedlings
    If they’re available, try the Big Beef variety.
  2. Some compost and/or manure
  3. Organic compost or aged animal manure might work best.

  4. Fertilizer with a high middle number
    I use 15-30-15 to promote blossoms. (Alternatively, you can buy actual tomato plant food.)
  5. A small bag of agricultural lime
    If your soil is acidic (low pH), crushed limestone or bone meal can help prevent blossom-end rot. You can mix some into your soil if you know the pH is low, or you can keep it on hand in case you see calcium deficiencies come up later in the season. Note: Crushed eggshells can work well for this too.

Step 3: Pick a sunny spot for planting

Pick out a small plot in your yard; if you’re planting more than one tomato plant, they’ll need to be 2-3 feet apart. Make sure the spot you pick gets full or near-full sun.

But don’t plant them yet! Just pick the spot. The tips contained in the next part in this series (see below) could make a huge difference in your success rate.

If you don’t have any yard to spare, or if there’s no room to dig a small plot but you have an area available that gets a healthy amount of sun, pick up one of those half barrels and a small load of soil. This should suffice for one 5- to 6-foot plant.

Click here to read “Grow your own beefsteak tomatoes – Part 2: Planting