The Culture of Food and Drink

Home / Agriculture  / Tomatoes for Amateurs

Tomatoes for Amateurs

Get Saucy


First in a three-part series on making tomato sauce from scratch.

The best tomato sauce is the one you make from scratch. You start with seedlings. In this series, we’ll walk you through making tomato sauce from beginning to end, from seedling to sauce, in this step-by-step guide for non-gardeners.

You don’t have to be a master gardener to produce enough fresh tomatoes to make your own tomato sauce. I’m an amateur, and my limited green-thumb experience didn’t hold me back.

Your first task is to pick a spot in your garden or a container that gets at least six hours of sunlight, and preferably more than that. Next you will have to prepare a tomato patch.

If you are living in the Northern Hemisphere, try to choose a southern exposure on land that drains away. For success, you only really need soil, sun and water. You can grow tomatoes in a pot with just a little extra care.

The best soil has lots of nutrients that can be found in natural organic material, the best being manure or compost. When I had a full-fledged garden, I used several hundred pounds of compost for the entire garden where I grew more than just tomatoes. It was a mixture of horse and cow manure and ground crab shells, among other things. The mixture was very rich, so it didn’t smell. I piled the compost to one side and dug my vegetable garden. I dug down 6 inches and removed that earth to a tarpaulin. Then I turned the next 6 inches using a pitchfork and shovel, and mixed in a 3-inch layer of compost then mixed the rest of the compost with the dug earth and layered that back into the hole that was to be the garden.

Making a workout out of it

This all sounded so easy but once I started I realized what a big job it was. I decided to work furiously and nonstop as frenetically as possible. This is a work style that I believe is discouraged by real gardeners. I picture gardeners working in a languid style, not like construction workers pouring concrete. But I wanted to think of this as a workout. It was, too. I finished in five hours and felt great. Your more modest and realistic tomato patch should take about one and a half hours at a rapid clip.

Tomatoes in a pot require about a hundredth of this time. Buy a large bag of potting soil and dump it in the pot. The pot should be large, at least 16 inches diameter at the rim.

Turning the earth was exciting. I felt like a knowledgeable farmer. Every time I saw an earthworm I was thrilled. Mixing the dark rich-looking soil with the lighter colored earth felt like I was mixing a potent witch’s stew. You want to do all of this before the last frost date, which you can check online.

Tomato plants need a 6-by-2-foot hole about 6 inches deep. Now you have to “turn” the next 6 inches in the patch; you do this with a spade and pitchfork. You literally turn it, as if mixing a brew. Into the hole dump half the compost. You can buy compost from a garden supply store. For this size patch, you need about 200 pounds of compost. Turn the earth again, stirring into the soil the compost. If you are growing in a container, you don’t need to do any of this.

Mix the remaining compost into the earth you have dug out and piled onto the tarp. Then shovel it all back into the hole and level everything off with a rake.

Planting your plum tomato seedlings

Your next step is to buy some tomato plants; three plants will fit nicely in the area described above. You could grow from seed of course, but buying little seedlings is easy and doesn’t make you less of a purist. Your garden supply store will sell many varieties of tomatoes including hybrids and heirlooms. You will want to buy the best tomatoes for making sauces, which are known as plum tomatoes. They also are called Roma or San Marzano tomatoes. Now you need to find out when the last frost date is in your area. Don’t buy the tomato plants until this date.

Plum tomatoesWhen I lived in Massachusetts, I planted my tomatoes on May 13. Now that I live in Southern California, I plant my tomatoes as early as March 15. Tomato seedling plants can be bought for $2 to $5. They should be healthy looking, and have straight stalks that spring back when bent slightly. Remove them from their containers to plant them, pack the soil down around the stalks and water them immediately.

Set the tomatoes about 2 feet apart. If you are planting more than three and will be using rows, make the rows 3 feet apart. There are a number of special problems associated with growing tomatoes, such as cutworms. Generally, tomatoes are easy to grow, however, and you can usually expect few difficulties. The best piece of advice I ever received from a real gardener was “your plant’s not a baby; it’s a plant, and if it dies you buy another one.”


Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.

Photos, from top: Early Girl tomatoes. Plum tomatoes in the at Porta Rudiae market in Lecce, Italy.

Credits: Clifford A. Wright

Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard/KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for "A Mediterranean Feast." His latest book is "One-Pot Wonders" (Wiley).

  • Al G 7·5·13

    Didn’t say how big your garden is needing 200# compost. 4×8′? That’ll hold 6 plants.

    Also – what about staking the suckers (and the main stems too). You don’t want the fruit on the ground.

    There are sooo many varieties even in plum. Try to find local growers for your plants – the advantage here is that the varieties grown probably more attuned to your climate/region.