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15.7.13

When to Plant Tomatoes in Chicago

Often called the "gateway drug" into gardening, there are few plants that pull someone into gardening like tomatoes do. In Chicago, I've noticed that people who would never call themselves gardeners always seem to make room for one or two tomato plants in their yards, decks, porches and patios. The trick with growing tomatoes here is knowing when to plant tomatoes in Chicago.

When to Plant Tomatoes in Chicago



Like many gardeners, I diligently start my tomato plants from seed indoors in February to pamper along until the average last frost date for the Chicago area which is somewhere around May 15th every year. On Mother's Day weekend, public gardens, garden clubs, community gardens and garden centers start selling all manner of plants to kick off spring. The alluring tomato being the most popular at this time.

But even though the threat of frost has passed by this time, May is still too early to plant tomatoes in Chicago. Tomatoes shouldn't be planted in the ground until the soil temperature are consistently between 55-60 degrees. You'll need a soil thermometer to get the best accurate reading. Planting tomatoes when the soil temperatures are still cool will result in sullen tomatoes. They'll sit and do nothing at the least and at worst they may rot if we experience is a cool and wet spring and summer.

tips on growing tomatoes in Chicago

This year we have had one of those wet and cold starts to summer. My tomatoes are finally starting to produce fruit in the middle of July. These tomatoes have been planted in my self-watering planters in the porch garden in full sun since the end of May and the fruits are barely half the size of golf balls.

Earlier in July, I made a run to a garden center in the suburbs of Chicago with a friend who was just getting her garden planted. On a lark I brought back a tomato plant and planted it in a container. That tomato plant is starting to set fruit and outpace the tomatoes I planted at the end of may and I'll get a decent harvest out of that plant judging by the explosion of tomato flowers and little fruits starting to set. This year, the weather here is just starting to hit that "sweet spot" for growing tomatoes. It's annoying for me, because I've had my tomatoes planted for months, but it's a blessing to gardeners who are wondering if July is too late to plant tomatoes in Chicago.

Growing cherry tomatoes in Chicago

Obviously, it is too late to start tomatoes from seed here, but you can still buy tomato plants that have been sitting around a garden center. To account for the shorter growing time by planting late, I recommend picking up indeterminate tomato varieties rather than determinate tomatoes.

Determinate tomato varieties are also known as "bush" tomatoes. These are compact tomatoes and grow too about 4 feet. These tomatoes stop producing fruits when they set fruit on the terminal bugs. Then the tomatoes will all ripen around the same time over about two weeks.

Indeterminate tomatoes are different in regards to determinate tomatoes in that they are vines and will not stop producing tomatoes until they are killed by a freeze. Indeterminate tomatoes are "vining" tomatoes and usually grow between 6-10 feet and will produce tomatoes until the cold comes. Chicago's first freeze usually happens between October 11 and November 6th.

If you're wondering if you can plant tomatoes in July in Chicago, by all means go ahead and plant some bush tomatoes now. Like I said, my bush tomatoes are just barely getting started and the plant I bought a couple of weeks ago is starting to pick up steam. But your best bet if you're looking for a tomato harvest this year is to go with indeterminate varieties.

There's something oddly satisfying about going out into the garden and harvesting a handful--as small as it may be--of some cherry tomatoes in late October.

13 comments:

  1. OMG ! A giant tomato !!!

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  2. Every time I have to buy tomatoes I rue not planting them but fortunately many of my friends get a few too many as the season progresses and I benefit! Great post!

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  3. You would think that Florida is the sweet spot to grow tomatoes, but no, we have problems with bacterial wilt, stink bugs sucking the life out of the fruit, and caterpillars doing the same with the plants. Still, I persevere and plant those 'maters in pots to counter the wilt and pick off the bugs one by one. There is just something about tomatoes. I can't get enough of them, literally!

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  4. I am so glad to read that you too have been struggling with your tomatoes. This year when I planted my tomatoes I fussed about the soil and bought a variety of heirlooms and thought I'd be golden. But instead the plants sat and did hardly anything for months. They are just now starting to show signs of vigor. Now I know the answer was that cool spring and late summer that never wanted to come. However now the heat is here with a vengeance and boy it is hot and sticky… I guess good for the tomatoes but not so good for me.

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  5. Ellen from Georgia9:10 AM

    Wow that is a big tomato, I started early here in Georgia but that didn't help this year. We have had the wettest spring and summer so much rain, the garden has turned into a muddy, mold dieing garden. Thank goodness I planted 65 different tomatoes and 45 different pepper plants, lost all the melons, squash and eggplant too much rain. My tomatoes and peppers about half of them have survived along with a billion weeds, the weeds are a chicken treat. No matter what I still love gardening and when Mother Nature gives us lemons we just carry on and make lemonade aid. Ellen from Georgia

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  6. I didn't know they were called the gateway drug to gardening! That is so cute and SO true!!!

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  7. This is certainly a "better late than never" kind of gardening year. Maybe I'll see if I can find any clearance plants...

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  8. That's such a giant tomato! :)

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  9. Very interesting!! Thanks for sharing!! Those tomatoes were so huge!

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  10. I just found this blog and OMG! I'm in chicago too! :D This is my first year doing gardening a little more seriously and I'm looking for an experienced gardener blogger that lives in Chi-town. Woot! Can't wait to read more :)

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  11. Very appropriately deemed the gateway drug! Tomatoes are what got me hooked and now, 5 years later, I ripped up the entire back lawn and have nothing but garden. Glad I found your blog, I'm looking for suggestions on tomato varieties to try...

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  12. I thought the giant tomato was a green pumpkin when I looked at it as a thumbnail. =) Love the cherry tomatoes, too.

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