It’s never easy to watch your vegetable garden decline as the days shorten and the temperatures drop. And everyone’s favorite, the tomato, is one of the first to fall victim to the killing frosts of autumn and winter.
So how long can a tomato plant actually live and produce the luscious fruit we all love so much?
The short answer is that your tomato plants will not live forever, however, their life-span is directly impacted by your region, pests and of course your own tender loving care. Let's look at a tomato's life expectancy in more detail.
Perennial or Annual?
Tomatoes are usually classified as tender perennials, although for most gardeners they are grown as annuals, started each spring from seed and allowed to die back in fall when the first hard frosts hit the garden.
In their native habitat in the tropical regions of South America, an indeterminate tomato plant- one that can grow indefinitely as a sprawling vine, rather than forming a small bush with a defined final size- could theoretically keep growing for several years.
There is one variety of perennial tomato that is known as the Tamarillo Tomato Tree, or Cyphomandra betacea Sendt, which is native to the Andes and grown today in places such as Costa Rica and Haiti, as well as in India and Australia.
It’s not quite the same as the classic tomato that we usually grow, having a resinous taste and smell. Seeds of the Tamarillo Tree Tomato can be purchased through Amazon.
Another type of tomato tree has been developed by Chinese scientists, the Giant Tree Tomato, or Lycopersicon Esculentum, which takes up to a year and a half to reach its full size and can produce up to 14,000 tomatoes! One at Epcot Center at Walt Disney World produced 32,000 tomatoes in one year.
Seeds for the giant tree tomato can be bought here if you want to try this unique variety yourself!
Extending Your Tomato’s Life
In the garden, tomato plants usually run out of steam, especially as fall approaches, but it is possible to either get some tomatoes inside during the winter or just get a head start on the next year’s season by suckering your favorite varieties before they fall victim to frost.
The standard tomato varieties that we grow in our home gardens tend to grow to their full size, flower, bear fruit, and then decline and die when the days get colder. However, you may have grown a variety that you liked so much that you want to keep it alive!
You can do that even without digging up and potting the whole plant, which, let’s face it, is probably pretty straggly by the time September comes around. Instead, you can clone that plant by taking suckers and rooting them, as this video demonstrates.
Propagating from Suckers
Every responsible tomato gardener knows that suckering your tomato plants is a great way to improve yields. This is an ongoing maintenance task from when the small plants are first set out after the last frost in spring.
Suckers are the shoots that grow out of the crotches of the branches of your growing tomato plant and can sap the energy of the plant that is better focused on setting and growing fruit. If they are allowed to grow, you can end up with a monster of a plant without a demonstrably higher yield.
Most of the time, we just toss the suckers onto the compost heap after snapping them off, but later in the year, it’s worth taking a second look at them. They can be the way to a whole new life for your tomato plants!
If you take a few of those suckers and root them in water, or in grow plugs, you will end with vigorous new plants ready to start the whole tomato cycle all over again! It can help to use some rooting hormone to get things started, but even without it, tomato suckers are pretty enthusiastic about putting out fresh roots, usually within a few days.
Plant them in fresh potting soil and bring them into a greenhouse or a sunny window inside. They may well flower while inside, and you can set fruit by hand-pollinating.
Even if you can’t grow fruit inside and the plants get too leggy by mid-winter, just take fresh suckers, discard the first generation of clones, and keep the process going until planting weather arrives again!
Keeping Tomatoes Growing in the South
The real problem with extending the life of tomato plants where the winters are warm is the extreme heat of the summer months. Once you’ve got the plants through the hot, dry summer, there are techniques to get the second year of tomatoes from the same plant.
Northern gardeners might find it hard to believe, but in places like Florida and Texas, tomato lovers are well advised to provide some shade for their plants in July and August. Too much sun can kill them.
They also need to be kept watered if there’s not enough rain, as they can wilt and die in hot, dry soil. The other risk is too high a humidity, which will foster diseases that can wipe out your entire crop.
However, once they’ve made it through the summer, it’s possible to see the second year of growth, even if it’s too cool for winter crops. As long as there is no frost to kill off the roots, you can cut your tomato plants back to the ground and there should be regrowth as things warm up in the spring!
Can Your Tomatoes Live Forever?
Let’s face it- the chances of a Bush Beefsteak tomato plant living forever are very low.
However, if you’re willing to grow a different variety, given the right climate or a big enough greenhouse, you could have a Tomato Tree which produces fruit for several years.
You could also clone that perfect Bush Beefsteak by taking suckers and rooting them for over-wintering before planting out again in the spring.
And if you’re lucky enough to live in the sunny south, with enough care in the hot summer months, you could easily get the second year of those Beefsteak tomatoes before you need to replace the plants!
Have you had any success with long-lived tomato plants? Please let us know in the comments below!