The big beef tomato is popular for its meaty texture and deep old fashioned flavor. Unlike smaller cherry tomatoes, they also retain their shape well after slicing. This makes them ideal for use in salads and sandwiches. The largest variety of cultivated tomato, the big beef or beefsteak is prized for its productivity and reliability.
If you want to grow some big beef tomato plants this summer, this guide will take you through everything that you need to know.
Big beef toms are bursting with flavor. Despite their size they are also surprisingly easy to grow.
Different Varieties of Big Beef Tomato
All types of big beef tomato plants are classified as annuals in USDA Zones 3 to 11.
In ideal conditions, the big beef tomato plant can reach a height of between 36 and 46 inches and achieve a spread of 24 to 36 inches. Depending on the variety, when fully ripe the plant’s large round, bright red fruit can weigh 8 to 12 ounces.
Big Beef is a classic variety. It enjoys excellent disease resistance. Heirloom varieties are often preferred for their old fashioned flavor. Popular heirloom varieties include Stump of the World and Tappy’s Finest.
Hybrid varieties are becoming increasingly popular. These newly developed cultivars hold the old fashioned flavor and appearance of the traditional big beef plant while also displaying excellent disease resistance.
Amongst the most productive, easy to grow big beef varieties are:
- Olena Ukranian
- Marizol Red
- Royal Hillbilly
- German Giant
- Mr Underwood’s Pink
- Neves Azorean Red
Some varieties can struggle in humid conditions. Mortgage Lifter and Grosse Lisse are two reliable cultivars that are well suited to humid conditions.
If you are growing specifically for large fruit both Tidwell German and Pink Ponderosa can produce fruit weighing up to 2 pounds in ideal conditions.
More unusual, some varieties produce different colored fruit. Amongst the most reliable cultivars are the yellow fruiting Chef’s Choice Yellow and German Johnson, which produces pink-red fruit.
Growing from seed allows you to choose from a wider variety of big beef toms.
While young transplants are often sold by garden stores and nurseries, these are often smaller cultivars such as cherry toms. If you want a wider range of choice you will need to start your big beef tomato plants from seed. Seeds are easily available from both garden stores and mail order seed catalogues.
Sowing Big Beef Tomato Seeds
Most varieties require a growing season of at least 85 days before their fruit is ready for harvest. If you only have a short growing season, start the seeds off undercover in March. Allow the seedlings to grow on before hardening off and transplanting outside in May.
If you enjoy a long growing season you can start the plants outside in their final position. Otherwise start the seeds undercover in a greenhouse or on a sunny windowsill, ready for transplanting outside once the last frost has passed. You can also purchase transplants ready for planting out when conditions have warmed enough.
Sow the seeds in trays or seed starter pots filled with a fresh potting soil mix. Moisten the soil before sowing the seeds as thinly as possible. If you are starting them in pots, try to sow one seed per pot. Don’t worry if you struggle to space the seeds out, you can thin them out after germination.
Cover the seeds thinly and place in a warm, light position. Germination usually occurs within 3 weeks.
Following germination thin the seedlings out and continue to keep the soil moist. Once the last chance of frost has passed begin hardening the seedlings off before transplanting outside.
Thin the seedlings out after germination. This gives them more room to grow and develop.
Where to Plant
Like other types of toms, big beef tomato plants love warm, sunny positions. For the plant to fully flourish and produce lots of flavor filled fruit, it needs 6 to 8 hours of sunlight every day.
Ideally the soil temperature will be at least 60 °F when planting or sowing. The air temperature should average between 50°F and 95 °F. Big beef tomato plants are particularly sensitive to cool nighttime temperatures. Wait until the nights are warm enough before you transplant. You can protect plants from unexpected frosts with a horticultural fleece or row cover when they are small.
Before sowing or planting work organic matter, such as rotted compost, into the soil for enrichment. Soil amendments are best made a few weeks before planting to give the soil time to re-settle. The soil should have a pH level of around 6.5. If you are unsure of the makeup of your soil a soil test kit will tell you what, if any, amendments you need to make.
How to Plant Young Transplants
Amend the soil by working in compost or amendments such as a slow release fertilizer before planting.
When you are ready to plant, bank up the soil into a mound. Banking up the soil encourages excess water to drain away from the plant. Allowing the plants to sit in soggy soil can cause the fruit to spoil or crack.
Make a hole in the soil large enough to comfortably hold the plant still in its pot. If you have started your seeds in biodegradable pots, such as Growneer Peat Pots, you can simply place the plant and the pot in the hole. Otherwise you will need to remove the plant from the pot. Do this by tipping the plant out of the pot into your hand. If the plant is difficult to remove, try squeezing or cut away the sides of the pot.
Plant the transplant in the hole so that only the top two pairs of foliage sit above the soil. Planting deeply encourages additional roots to form- the small hairs on the stem of the plant all have the potential to become nutrient harvesting roots.
When you are happy with the position of the plant, backfill the hole. Be careful not to overly compress the soil and water well.
As the plant grows and bears fruit it becomes top heavy. Remember to install or place near support such as a K-Brands Tomato Cage. Staking also helps to keep the fruit off the floor.
If you are planting more than one big beef tomato plant, space the plants 24 to 36 inches apart. Larger varieties require more room, check the seed packet or plant label for precise spacing information. Rows of plants should be evenly spaced about 48 inches apart. Don’t plant too close together. This can stifle air circulation and increase the likelihood of disease.
Planting in Containers
You can also grow big beef plants in containers. However, they may not be as large as those in the ground or raised beds.
Plant in as large a container as possible. This gives the roots lots of room to spread, allowing the plants to flourish.Your chosen container should be at least 24 inches deep and 18 to 36 inches wide. A large, half barrel is ideal. The container should be well draining with lots of drainage holes in the bottom. Line the bottom with crocks or gravel to promote better drainage before filling with a fresh, light potting soil. Plant as described above.
Caring for Big Beef Tomato Plants
Once planted, caring for big beef plants is largely the same as caring for smaller specimens.
After planting, mulch the soil with organic matter such as bark. This helps moisture retention within the soil and also suppresses weed growth. While plastic mulches are just as effective, as an organic mulch breaks down it adds nutrients to the soil. This gives growing plants an extra boost.
As the plants grow and fruit develops, they can become top heavy. Ensure that they have robust support to prevent the vines from toppling.
When to Water
After planting keep the soil evenly moist. Soak the soil to a depth of about 6 inches each time you water.
Once established the plants have a large, deep root system. This means that they are pleasingly drought tolerant. To encourage the root system to develop, allow the soil to dry out a little more than usual between waterings.
When flowers start to form try to keep the soil evenly moist. This encourages fruit production and prevents issues such as blossom end rot.
If you are growing in containers, try planting in self watering pots to prevent the soil from drying out.
Fertilizing Growing Big Beef Plants
Big beef tomato plants are notoriously heavy feeders. While the plant has a deep root system the feeder roots are usually found in the top 2 to 2.5 inches of soil.
In addition to tomato feeds, organic solutions such as seaweed extract or fish emulsion can also be used. Homemade liquid fertilizers can be just as effective as commercial products. Make sure that your fertilizer also contains micronutrients such as calcium. This helps to prevent issues such as blossom end rot.
Fertilize your plants every 7 to 10 days. The frequency and size of the dose you apply depends on the product you are using. Consult the label before applying. Continue to fertilize your plants regularly until the fruit begins to ripen. This is usually during August. Stop fertilizing as the fruit begins to ripen. This helps to prevent unwanted, new foliage from emerging at the expense of fruit formation.
Pruning your Vines
Pruning tomato plants is a simple process. Inspect the plant and you will notice suckers emerging from the V space between the main stem and the branches. While the suckers can grow and produce fruit, the fruit will be small and insignificant. Instead remove the suckers. This encourages the plant to place its energy in developing larger fruit.
Remove any branches that contact the ground.
If the plants begin to look overcrowded, don’t be afraid to prune away some excess branches and foliage. This helps to improve air circulation, keeping your plants healthy.
If you have ever pruned a tomato plant before, or are nervous about doing so, this is a great, detailed guide.
The practice of companion planting helps to attract beneficial insects such as pollinators to the vegetable patch. Companion plants can also be used to deter more harmful pests. Basil is a particularly useful companion because it repels flies and tomato hornworm. Similarly, parsley attracts hornworm predators such as ladybugs to the garden. Another popular herb, chives also repel pests such as nematodes and aphids.
Marigolds and nasturtiums are also good companions, repelling parasites and attracting pollinators to the area.
Asparagus and tomato plants are a great combination. While asparagus repels root knot nematodes tomatoes discourage asparagus beetles.
Plants to Avoid
Avoid planting too close to any members of the brassicaceae or cabbage family. This includes kale, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. This combination can stunt growth and fruiting.
You should also avoid planting too close to members of the nightshade family such as eggplants. These plants are all susceptible to the same diseases, in particular early and late blight.
How to Prevent Common Problems
Young plants in particular require protecting from slugs and snails. Organic methods such as beer traps and copper tapes are just as effective as chemical controls.
Check the foliage on a regular basis for signs of infestation. Tomato hornworms, large green caterpillars, pill bugs and slugs can target plants. An application of insecticidal soap, which you can easily make at home, can cure most infestations. Larger or persistent infestations may need to be treated more than once before they are fully cured.
Planting and caring correctly can help to prevent problems. Regularly check the foliage as well as the fruit for signs of disease or infestation.
Humid conditions can also cause blight and fungal issues. Correctly spacing the plants, so that air can circulate, and keeping the foliage as dry as possible when watering also helps to keep humidity levels low.
Blossom end rot is an unsightly problem which can cause fruit to spoil. It is caused by stress, usually stress related to an incorrect watering routine.
As the fruit ripens you will need to protect it from birds. Covering the plants with Anti Bird Netting can deter most bird attacks. You can also try alternative methods such as placing bowls of water nearby or installing plastic birds.
Harvesting Your Big Beef Tomatoes
Harvest when the fruit is fully red and 3 to 5 inches in diameter. To harvest simply pick the fruit from the vine. You can also cut the fruit away to avoid accidentally damaging the stem.
Regularly harvest ripe fruit to prevent it from spoiling on the vine. Allowing fruit to remain on the vine for too long can introduce mold or encourage fruit flies.
While fruit ripened on the vine tastes better if the first frost of the year approaches and you need to pick unripe fruit, don’t worry it won’t go to waste. Green fruit easily ripens at room temperature. You can also ripen the fruit by placing it in a paper bag. This helps to trap the ethylene gas that the fruit emits, encouraging it to ripen.
Check your green fruit daily. It should ripen within 5 days.
Best used fresh, harvested fruit can be kept at room temperature away from direct light for upto 3 days.
Bright and full of flavor, the big beef tomato is a reliable and attractive addition to the garden.
Large, colorful and full of meaty flavor, big beef tomato plants are a great addition to the garden. Requiring a little more time and attention than smaller tomato plants, the extra effort is rewarded by the fruit that these plants produce.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.