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If you want to eat fresh, home-grown tomatoes in winter, when the rest of the Northeast is eating flavorless tomatoes from the grocery store, you need to do a (very) little bit of work now. Growing tomatoes indoors hydroponically is super easy, and I’ll let you know exactly what you need! Plus, I’ll tell you how to make the absolute best tomato sandwich in the world.
The people who have to put up with me every day are, at this point, going to kill me if I don’t shut up about tomatoes. I grow cherry, Beefsteak, and plum tomatoes in our backyard container garden every summer, and then spend August and September waxing poetic about the amazing flavor of fresh, home-grown tomatoes. There really is no comparison between fresh and store-bought. This isn’t even up for debate. And if you want to go deep into why this is, you need to read Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, by Barry Estabrook. It will change the way you look at tomatoes—as well as the people who grow and pick them—forever.
But back to me. I adore tomatoes. When my backyard is bursting with them, I’ll work them into two meals every day, sometimes three. My favorite way to eat tomatoes in summer is a very simple sandwich that hardly needs any instruction, but here it is: take your favorite white bread (yes, it has to be white) untoasted, put Hellmann’s Mayonnaise on both pieces, add thick slices of red, juicy, almost-too-ripe fresh tomatoes, kosher salt, and pepper. That’s it. No cheese, no bacon, nothing else. Those additions are fine, but they’re for other sandwiches, where the tomato is just an accompaniment. In this sandwich, the tomato is the star.
Growing tomatoes indoors
I get sad at the end of tomato season, so a few years ago I started growing them in an AeroGarden, which is a really easy way to grow tomatoes (or anything, really) indoors hydroponically. AeroGardens (and other similar systems) grow plants in water instead of soil, year-round, using powerful lights instead of the sun.
Unlike herbs and lettuce, which can be ready to eat in as little as two weeks after planting, the tomatoes usually take about 100 days until you can actually pick and eat one. So, you need to plan ahead! If you want to eat some delicious, fresh tomatoes in December, you have to plant them right now. I planted mine yesterday. Someday I’m going to get some kind of giant, indoor setup that will grow full-sized tomatoes, but for now I’m happy being able to have anything this fresh in the cold months.
If you already have an AeroGarden, great! Clean it out to get it ready for its next planting, order some tomato pods, and get going. If you don’t have an Aerogarden, I’m going to try to convince you to get at least one, because they’re really amazing (I have four, two big ones and two small ones). Sometimes I grow different kinds of lettuce, sometimes basil or other herbs, and the tomatoes in winter. (You can even grow flowers, but I prefer to grow things I can eat!) This year, instead of growing bigger tomatoes, I’m growing a mix of cherry tomatoes and peppers indoors (I’ve never done peppers!). The AeroGarden website lets you customize seed kits, so I chose a few different kinds of cherry tomatoes, some mini jalapenos, and one hotter pepper.
All you need is an AeroGarden and some seed pods. This particular AeroGarden is a great starter model and comes with starter pods! Or, if you want to jump in with something full-sized, the Bounty is AeroGarden’s first 9-pod model. And if you really want to go crazy? This monster.Want to have fresh, home-grown tomatoes all year long? It's really easy!
It’s an amazing feeling to be able to grab produce this fresh, right from your house, in all weather and at all times of the year! And if you plant outdoors in the spring like I do, there’s a seeding kit you can buy that starts your seeds for you so much faster and easier than in little pots. The first time I tried it I had no idea it would be that fast—they were ready to go outdoors in about two weeks! So now in spring I start growing a month later than I normally would.
All of my AeroGardens are fairly old, from before they started using LED lights. Next time I buy one it will definitely have LEDs! But my gardens are still going strong. I really need to make something with thyme soon, it’s completely taking this one over!
Care and feeding of tomatoes
The most important thing to keep in mind when growing tomatoes indoors hydroponically (since space will be a consideration) is that you have to train them to grow out, not just up. Thoughtful pruning will give you fuller plants with more fruit. The AeroGarden website has some really good guides on how to do this. And when growing anything in water, you absolutely have to feed the plants. Unlike dirt, the water doesn’t have nutrients for the plants’ roots to suck up, but the food that comes with your seed kits does a fantastic job.