Growing Tomatoes Tomatoes

When to Plant Tomatoes in Iowa: Ideal Timing

Howdy, fellow Iowan green thumbs! Ever wondered when the perfect moment is to tuck those tomato seeds into Iowa’s rich soil? Well, grab your gardening gloves and prepare for a reveal as juicy as a ripe beefsteak tomato! This isn’t just about sprouting tomatoes; it’s about getting ’em big, red, and drool-worthy under our unpredictable Midwest skies. So, whether you’re an Ankeny amateur or a Des Moines dirt deity, saddle up! We’re about to dive deep into the ‘tomato-rrific’ world of planting in our beloved Hawkeye state!

Learn about the Tomato Growing Regions

It’s time to tour our great Hawkeye state’s ‘tomato territories’! Let’s saddle up our John Deere tractors and rev up the engines.

1. Northwest Nook

As we know, our northwest corner can be a bit nippy, making it a challenge for our tomato buddies. Yet with good timing and a heap of optimism, you’ll reap hearty Roma tomatoes just fine!

Sioux City and Storm Lake have got some fine soil. As for counties, consider Lyon, Sioux, and Plymouth. They’re perfect for those patient gardeners who don’t mind a tomato challenge.

2. Northeast Niche

A wee bit more forgiving, our northeast can reward us with a bounty of Big Boys! Just mind those late frost dates, folks.

Dubuque, Decorah, and Waterloo promise fertile ground for your tomato growing dreams. If you’re looking at counties, your best bets are Clayton, Allamakee, and Black Hawk.

3. Central Heartland

Oh, the sweet spot! This is the tomato jackpot zone, my friends, where the soil’s as rich as a Bettendorf billionaire and tomatoes pop up like hot corn at the State Fair. Anything goes here!

Welcome to Des Moines, Ames, and Ankeny, tomato-growing heaven. Tomato-friendly counties in this region include Polk, Story, and Dallas. It’s like winning the gardening lottery here, folks!

4. Southwest Saddle

Slightly warmer with a dash of unpredictability. However, with the right attitude (and plenty of mulch), those Beefsteaks will bloom before your eyes.

It’s all about Council Bluffs, Red Oak, and Shenandoah in this region. You can find hospitable earth for tomatoes in counties like Mills, Montgomery, and Page.

5. Southeast Stretch

Warm and welcoming, much like the folks down in Burlington, this region’s prime for an early tomato kickoff. Get those seedlings in, and prepare for a summer tomato festival!

Finally, the grand tour takes us to Burlington, Ottumwa, and Mount Pleasant. For county-level planting, Jefferson, Henry, and Des Moines are where you’d want to put your tomato stakes down.

Remember, no matter your corner in Iowa, a good old dollop of Midwest determination can make tomato-growing a fruitful (pun intended) endeavor!”

When to Plant Tomatoes in Iowa

Strap on your overalls and let’s rustle up some detailed knowledge on the top tomato-growing regions of our glorious Hawkeye state. Remember, the information provided here is approximate, like guessing how many kernels on an ear of corn!

1. Northwest Nook

  • Microclimate: Frosty winters, short growing season
  • USDA Zone: 4b-5a
  • First frost date:  Early October
  • Last frost date: Mid to late May
  • Average growing season: 120 days
  • Start seeds indoors: Mid-March
  • When to transplant: When soil hits a consistent 60°F after last frost (late May)
  • Risk-free transplanting range: Early June to late July

2. Northeast Niche

  • Microclimate: Moderate temps, ample rainfall
  • USDA Zone: 4b-5b
  • First frost date:  Mid-October
  • Last frost date: Late April to early May
  • Average growing season: 130-140 days
  • Start seeds indoors: Early March
  • When to transplant: Once soil warms to a cozy 60°F after last frost (early May)
  • Risk-free transplanting range: Mid-May to mid-August

3. Central Heartland

  • Microclimate: Balanced rainfall, moderate temps
  • USDA Zone: 5a-5b
  • First frost date:  Mid-October
  • Last frost date: Mid-April
  • Average growing season: 150 days
  • Start seeds indoors: Late February
  • When to transplant: When soil temperature maintains 60°F after last frost (mid to late April)
  • Risk-free transplanting range: Early May to late August

4. Southwest Saddle

  • Microclimate: Variable weather, prone to dry spells
  • USDA Zone: 5a-6a
  • First frost date:  Late October
  • Last frost date: Mid-April
  • Average growing season: 160-170 days
  • Start seeds indoors: Late February
  • When to transplant: Once soil warms to 60°F after last frost (mid to late April)
  • Risk-free transplanting range: Early May to mid-September

5. Southeast Stretch

  • Microclimate: Warmer temps, ample rainfall
  • USDA Zone: 5b-6a
  • First frost date:  Mid-October
  • Last frost date: Early April
  • Average growing season: 180 days
  • Start seeds indoors: Mid-February
  • When to transplant: As soon as soil hits a steady 60°F after last frost (early to mid-April)
  • Risk-free transplanting range: Late April to early September

Remember, Iowa’s weather can be as unpredictable as a loose hog in a cornfield. But don’t let that deter you from your tomato dreams, folks!

Tomato Plant Care Tips and Tricks in Iowa

Well, butter my buns and call me a biscuit, it’s time to talk tomato plant care, Iowa-style! If we do this right, your tomatoes will be the talk of the county – heck, maybe even the state!

1. Sun Worship

Tomatoes need at least 6-8 hours of sunlight a day, so be sure to plant them where they’ll get to soak up those rays. They’re more sun-crazy than an Iowan at Adventureland on a clear summer day.

2. Water Wisdom

Tomatoes prefer a deep watering rather than a light sprinkle. Think of it as preferring a good drenching rain over a quick drizzle. But avoid waterlogged soil – tomatoes don’t like swimming as much as kids at the Coralville Reservoir.

3. Mulch Magic

Mulch retains moisture, controls weeds and keeps soil-borne diseases at bay. In other words, mulch for your tomatoes is as essential as a good tractor for an Iowa farmer.

4. Prune with Purpose

Pruning helps direct energy to fruit production and improves air circulation. It’s like getting a good haircut – you look better, feel better, and just perform better!

5. Stake ’em or Cage ’em

Your tomatoes will need support as they grow. It’s like having a good buddy at the Iowa State Fair – it helps you stand tall even when you’re heavy with a turkey leg and funnel cake!

6. Check for Critters

Watch out for pests like aphids, hornworms, and stink bugs. It’s like keeping an eye on that mischievous raccoon who keeps raiding your trash.

7. Disease Detectives

Keep an eye out for diseases like blight, wilts, and leaf spots. Remember, early detection is key, like finding that perfect ear of corn at the farmers market.

8. Rotation, Rotation, Rotation

Like changing up the route for RAGBRAI, rotating where you plant tomatoes can keep diseases and pests at bay.

9. Harvest Time

Pick your tomatoes when they are brightly colored and firm, yet yield slightly to touch. It’s as satisfying as pulling in a big catch on the Mississippi.

Just remember, like growing a prize-winning hog for the state fair, growing great tomatoes takes time, care, and a little bit of love.

Best Tips to Choose and Prepare Tomato Seeds in Iowa

Let’s get those hands dirty and plant some tantalizing tomatoes! Here are some “seedy” tips and tricks for growing tomatoes in our grand Hawkeye State.

1. Score some seeds

Pick from a wide array of juicy, lip-smacking varieties. From the voluptuous Beefsteak to the sweet little Cherry, Iowa’s got room for ’em all.

2. Starting Indoors

Remember, folks, tomatoes are like Iowans, they can’t handle too much frost! Start your seeds indoors about 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost date. It’s like getting a head start in the 4-H race.

3. The Perfect Bed

Plant those seeds about 1/4 inch deep in a fluffy, light seed-starting mix in pots or seed trays. Like the Princess and the Pea, these seeds need the perfect bed!

4. Moisture Magic

Water your tomato babies gently but thoroughly. Keep the soil as moist as a sweet corn kernel in a hot pot, not a muddy pig wallow.

5. Shine a Light

Make sure your seedlings get plenty of light — ideally 14-16 hours a day. If Mother Nature isn’t cooperating, use fluorescent lights as an indoor sun. No need for a fancy beach vacation here.

6. Temperature Tactics

Keep ’em warm but not hot. Tomatoes like their environment about as warm as a well-loved barn cat, around 70-75°F during the day, 60-65°F at night.

7. Upsize Alert

When your seedlings have three to four true leaves, it’s time for an upgrade. Carefully transplant them into larger pots so they can spread their roots. They grow up so fast, don’t they?

8. Harden Off

About two weeks before your big transplant day outdoors, start ‘hardening off’ your seedlings. Give them a taste of the great outdoors with a few hours outside each day, gradually increasing their exposure. It’s like teaching a young calf to walk – start slow!

9. Final Countdown

Just before you’re ready to transplant, make sure your outdoor soil is welcoming. It should be at least 60°F, just warm enough for a barefoot barn dance.

Remember, folks, patience is key. Like waiting for the butter cow sculpture at the State Fair, growing perfect tomatoes takes time.

How to Transplant Tomatoes in Iowa

It’s time to get down and dirty with your tomato seedlings. Buckle up and let’s get to transplanting!

1. Timing is Everything

Wait until after the last frost, and when soil temps consistently sit at 60°F. Remember, tomatoes are sensitive souls – they need warmth like we need our Corn Dogs at the State Fair!

2. Location, Location, Location

Choose a spot in your garden, raised bed, or planter that gets full sun. Like Iowans soaking up rays during a RAGBRAI break, tomatoes love sunshine.

3. Preparing the Beds

Till the soil well. You want it as fine and crumbly as your grandma’s famous coffee cake. If you’re using a container, a good quality potting mix will do the trick.

4. Dig Deep

Create a hole deep enough so that two-thirds of the plant is buried. That’s right! Tomatoes are one of the few plants that benefit from being planted deep. They’ll sprout roots along the buried stem, just like magic.

5. Pinch and Plant

Pinch off the lower leaves and plant the seedlings into the hole. Fill it back with soil and gently firm it around the base of the plant. Your tomato should stand as proud as an Iowan at a Hawkeyes game!

6. Water Well

Give your tomatoes a good drink. Water them right after transplanting and keep the soil consistently moist. Remember, tomatoes need water as much as we need sweet tea on a hot Iowa day.

7. Support Act

Stake or cage your tomatoes right after planting. Your plants will need support as they grow tall and heavy with fruit – like holding up your buddy after an adventurous night at the State Fair.

8. Mulch Magic

Mulch around the base of your plants to conserve water and prevent the spread of diseases. It’s like giving your tomatoes a cozy, protective blanket.

9. Love and Care

Check on your plants regularly, water them as needed, and protect them from any unexpected late frosts. Yes, tomatoes need love too!

Remember, tomatoes might need a bit more attention than your usual crops, but the reward is worth every bit of effort. Imagine biting into a juicy, sun-warmed tomato picked fresh from your garden…now that’s a taste of Iowa summer!

How to Prepare Soil for Planting Tomatoes in Iowa

It’s time to talk soil prep! Getting your soil right is like perfecting grandma’s secret apple pie recipe. Here are a few tips to whip your Iowa soil into tomato-growing shape:

1. Start Early

We’re talking late fall or early spring. Why, you ask? Well, the soil’s like an Iowa City pub crawl – it’s best done slowly.

2. Test the Waters… Or the Dirt

Grab yourself a soil test kit from your local extension office or garden center. It’ll tell you what your soil needs, just like a good Iowa horoscope.

3. Add Compost

Layer on 2-3 inches of compost or well-rotted manure. It’s like topping a pork tenderloin sandwich with extra pickles…your soil will love it.

4. Mind Your Ph

Tomatoes prefer a soil pH of 6.2 to 6.8. If your soil is more acidic than a pickled beet, add some lime. More alkaline than your uncle’s offbeat jokes? Add sulfur.

5. Till It Up

Use a tiller or good old-fashioned garden fork to work the compost and pH adjusters 6 to 8 inches into the soil. It’s a workout more intense than wrestling a prize hog, but your tomatoes will thank you.

6. Tomato Fertilizer

Add a balanced tomato-specific fertilizer according to the package instructions. This is like giving your soil a VIP ticket to the best nutrients show in town.

7. Rotate Your Crops

If you planted tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, or eggplants in that spot last year, rotate your crops. It’s like changing partners at a square dance – it keeps things fresh!

8. Warm It Up

Remember, tomatoes love warmth more than an Iowa City crowd loves the Hawkeyes. Consider black plastic mulch to warm the soil.

9. Rest Time

Let the soil rest for a few weeks before planting. It needs a break more than a tractor at the end of harvest season.

Remember, the better you treat your soil, the better your tomatoes will treat you. Treat it like a beloved old John Deere – give it the care it needs and it’ll never let you down.

How to Fertilize Tomatoes in Iowa

Now, it’s time to chat about fertilizing. Because we all know, a well-fed tomato is a happy tomato, just like a well-fed Iowan at a potluck!

1. Feed ‘Em Early

Get the jump on feeding your tomatoes by mixing a slow-release granular fertilizer into your soil at planting time. It’s like slipping a bit of extra butter into your biscuits!

2. Avoid Overkill

Tomatoes are like teenagers, too much of a good thing can cause problems. Over-fertilizing can lead to more leaves, fewer fruits and can make your tomatoes susceptible to disease. It’s about balance, folks.

3. Pump Up the Potassium

Potassium is to tomatoes what corn is to Iowa – absolutely essential! A potassium-rich fertilizer will help your tomatoes produce delicious fruits.

4. Not Too Nitrogen-Happy

While nitrogen is needed for plant growth, too much can lead to lots of lush green leaves but very few tomatoes. It’s like having all the popcorn but no movie, so watch those nitrogen levels.

5. Supplement with Calcium

Blossom end rot got you down? It’s as disappointing as a rained-out ballgame. To prevent this, supplement your soil with calcium by adding gypsum or lime.

6. Feeding Schedule

After your plants have set their first fruit, it’s time to start feeding them regularly. Think of it as keeping up with your potluck schedule – every two weeks should do the trick.

7. Compost Tea Time

Not just for English gardens! Compost tea is a great natural fertilizer and can be applied every few weeks for a nutrient boost. It’s like serving your tomatoes a gourmet meal.

8. Watch the Water

Tomatoes, like corn at the State Fair, need consistent watering. Irregular watering can interfere with nutrient uptake, so keep ’em hydrated.

9. Back off at the End

Towards the end of the season, stop fertilizing and let your plants focus all their energy on ripening those remaining fruits. It’s like the final sprint in the annual Okoboji triathlon.

Remember, fellow gardeners, feed your tomatoes well and they’ll reward you with a bounty fit for a king…or at least the winner of the ‘Biggest Tomato’ contest at the State Fair!

How to Water Tomato Plants in Iowa

Watering tomatoes isn’t just turning on the hose and giving them a good drench. No siree, watering tomatoes in Iowa is as nuanced as the art of grilling a perfect steak. Here are some tips to keep your tomatoes as hydrated and happy as a duck in the Iowa Great Lakes:

1. Avoid Wetting the Leaves

It’s like wearing a raincoat with the hood down – keeps the important parts dry. Wet leaves can lead to diseases, and nobody wants that.

2. Deep, But Not Too Deep

Tomatoes prefer a good soaking to a shallow sip. But don’t go flooding ’em like the Mighty Mississippi. Overwatering can cause root rot and other problems.

3. Timing is Everything

Water early in the morning to give your plants a good start to the day. It’s like having a big ol’ breakfast at the start of a hard day’s work.

4. Mind the Weather

If it’s hotter than July on the 4th, you might need to water a little more. If we’re having an August downpour, maybe hold off for a bit.

5. Mulch for Moisture

Mulch keeps the soil moist longer and helps avoid splashes onto the leaves. It’s like adding a thick layer of butter on your sweet corn, except, you know, for tomatoes.

6. Feel the Soil

If the soil feels drier than a humorless sermon, it’s time to water. If it’s wetter than a Spring day in Dubuque, give it a rest.

7. Get to the Root of It

Use a soaker hose or drip irrigation to get water directly to the roots. They’ll thank you by giving you big, juicy tomatoes.

Remember, folks, balance is key here. Your tomatoes want to drink, but they don’t want to swim. So keep these tips in mind and your tomatoes will be happier than a pig in the mud!

Common Tomato Diseases in Iowa

While we’d rather talk about sweet corn and apple pie, it’s important to know about tomato diseases that can hit our lovely Iowa gardens. Here are some notorious troublemakers:

1. Early Blight

This character shows up as dark spots on older leaves and stems. Like an unwanted guest at your State Fair picnic, Early Blight spreads fast. To fight it, keep leaves dry and prune lower branches.

2. Late Blight

Late Blight’s like that last-minute snowstorm when you’re dreaming of spring. It causes grey, moldy patches on leaves and fruit. Rotate crops and use resistant varieties to keep it at bay.

3. Septoria Leaf Spot

Small spots with grey centers and dark edges, it’s the garden equivalent of your best bib overalls getting stained. Remove infected leaves and keep a clean garden to manage it.

4. Bacterial Spot

Showing up as small, raised spots, this disease is sneakier than a cat on the prowl. Copper-based sprays can help, but prevention is the best cure.

5. Blossom End Rot

Dark, sunken spots on fruit bottoms – it’s as upsetting as finding your tractor’s got a flat. It’s usually caused by uneven watering and calcium deficiency.

6. Fusarium Wilt

This is like the Grinch that stole Christmas, but for tomatoes. It causes yellowing leaves, wilting, and stem discoloration. Plant resistant varieties to keep it at arm’s length.

7. Verticillium Wilt

Similar to Fusarium Wilt but less picky about temperature, this one’s as persistent as mud on a rainy fairground. Again, resistant varieties are your friend.

8. Tomato Spotted Wilt

This causes bronze or dark spots on leaves and fruit. It’s as unwanted as a drought in corn season. Keep those pesky thrips under control to prevent it.

9. Tomato Yellow Leaf Curl

This pesky virus causes curled, yellowing leaves and stunted growth. It’s more irritating than a mosquito buzzing in your ear during a fishing trip. Insect control is key here.

10. Tomato Mosaic Virus

This causes mottled green or yellow leaves and deformed fruit. It’s as disappointing as a fumbled football at a Hawkeyes game. Keep those hands clean when handling plants to prevent its spread.

Remember, folks, the best offense is a good defense. Keep your plants healthy, your gardens clean, and your eyes peeled for any sign of these unwelcome guests!

How to Harvest Tomatoes in Iowa

Well, we’ve reached the exciting part – the harvest! Picking those plump, juicy tomatoes is like finally unwrapping your Christmas present after a month of staring at it under the tree. Here are some tips to ensure a bountiful, delicious tomato harvest in our beautiful Iowa:

1. Watch for Color

Tomatoes should be a vibrant, even color when ripe. It’s the garden equivalent of that perfect sunset over Lake Okoboji.

2. Give ’em a Squeeze

Tomatoes should yield slightly under gentle pressure. If they’re harder than frozen sweet corn in January, give ’em more time.

3. Check the Bottom

Ripe tomatoes will be colored all over, including the bottom. If the bottom is green, hold your horses, it ain’t ready yet.

4. Easy Does It

When picking, hold the tomato firmly but gently, twist it until the stem breaks. Handle it like a fresh, hot loaf of cornbread straight from the oven.

5. Morning Harvest

Pick tomatoes in the morning after the dew has dried. They’ll be fresher than a newborn calf and ready for the salad bowl or sauce pot!

6. Use Scissors

If the stem is being stubborn, use a pair of garden scissors to cut it. It’s like using a can opener instead of trying to pry it open with a spoon.

7. Don’t Toss the Greenies

Green tomatoes can ripen off the vine indoors. Think of it as giving your tomatoes a second chance to be great!

8. Don’t Refrigerate

Keep picked tomatoes at room temperature for the best flavor. They hate the cold more than an Iowan in February.

9. Beat the Frost

If a frost is forecasted, pick all your tomatoes, even the green ones. Frost is to tomatoes what a hot, dry summer is to a cornfield – bad news.

Remember, harvesting tomatoes is an art, just like perfecting your grandmother’s secret rhubarb pie recipe. Treat them right, and they’ll treat you to a culinary delight!

Common Tomato Varieties in Iowa

Tomatoes in Iowa are as varied and full of surprises as our prairie landscape. With our hot summer days and cool nights, these plump delights become as juicy and robust as our love for corn. So, saddle up, put on your gardening boots, and let’s take a jaunt through the best tomato varieties that our state has to offer!

  1. Celebrity: Hybrid, Determinate, 70 days, VFFNTA. As popular as a State Fair butter cow but healthier!
  2. Early Girl: Hybrid, Indeterminate, 50-60 days, VFF. You’ll be enjoying these beauties faster than a corndog at the Fair.
  3. Better Boy: Hybrid, Indeterminate, 75 days, VFN. Like a good Iowan boy, it’s reliable and productive.
  4. Rutgers: Heirloom, Indeterminate, 74 days, VFA. An oldie but a goodie, just like our covered bridges.
  5. Super Fantastic: Hybrid, Indeterminate, 70 days, VFN. The super fantastic combo of productivity and taste!
  6. Jet Star: Hybrid, Indeterminate, 72 days, VF. They ripen faster than corn in August.
  7. Brandywine: Heirloom, Indeterminate, 85-100 days. As traditional and cherished as a barn quilt.
  8. Big Beef: Hybrid, Indeterminate, 73 days, VFFNTA. Big, hearty, and as satisfying as our pork tenderloin sandwiches.
  9. Beefsteak: Heirloom, Indeterminate, 85-90 days. As big and bold as the World’s Largest Truck Stop.
  10. Roma: Heirloom, Determinate, 75-80 days, VF. Like our famed bridges, they’re sturdy and reliable.
  11. Cherokee Purple: Heirloom, Indeterminate, 80-90 days. They’ll color your garden like a beautiful Iowa sunset.
  12. Pineapple: Heirloom, Indeterminate, 85-95 days. No, not the fruit, but as exotic as a flamingo at the Blank Park Zoo.
  13. Amish Paste: Heirloom, Indeterminate, 85 days. This tomato has more depth than our beautiful glacial lakes.
  14. Mountain Fresh: Hybrid, Determinate, 77 days, FF. Just as refreshing as a dip in the Mississippi.
  15. Yellow Pear: Heirloom, Indeterminate, 78 days. These little golden gems are as cute as a Goldfinch in flight.
  16. San Marzano: Heirloom, Indeterminate, 85-90 days. Italy’s gift to the world, just like our dear pope, John Paul I.
  17. Sungold: Hybrid, Indeterminate, 65 days. These tomatoes are as golden as our cornfields under the summer sun.
  18. Green Zebra: Heirloom, Indeterminate, 78 days. A variety that’s as distinctive as our Loess Hills.
  19. Black Cherry: Heirloom, Indeterminate, 65 days. As sweet and rich as a slice of Dutch letter.
  20. Sweet 100: Hybrid, Indeterminate, 65 days, VF. They produce as many tomatoes as there are kernels on an ear of corn.
  21. Grape Tomato: Hybrid, Indeterminate, 60-75 days. As juicy and satisfying as a sip of our homemade rhubarb wine.
  22. Orange Oxheart: Heirloom, Indeterminate, 80 days. As bright and cheery as the tulips in Pella.
  23. Pink Brandywine: Heirloom, Indeterminate, 85-90 days. Just as sweet and delightful as the strawberry rhubarb pie at your local diner.
  24. Cherry Roma: Heirloom, Determinate, 70 days. These mini versions of Romas are as adorable as a newborn piglet.
  25. Supersweet 100: Hybrid, Indeterminate, 65 days. Sweeter than a newborn calf and more prolific than a field of soybeans.


Alrighty, my green-thumbed Hawkeyes! If you’ve been with us since planting, you’re probably as excited as a kid at the State Fair ready to bite into a turkey leg. We’ve navigated frost dates, wrestled with Iowa’s micro-climates, picked our favorite tomato varieties, and thwarted disease invasions. We’ve prepped, planted, pruned, and finally, oh-so-carefully plucked those ruby-red beauties from their vines. Planting tomatoes in Iowa is a ride, just like our rollercoaster weather, but with patience, love, and a heap of good old Iowan humor, you’ll soon be enjoying the tastiest tomatoes this side of the Mississippi. Get out there, grow, and most importantly – enjoy the fruits (or should I say, tomatoes) of your labor!

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