How to Grow Tomatoes

By: Julie Day

Tomato growing on the vine.

With so many delicious varieties available, tomatoes are the most popular vegetable in the gardening world. They’re easy to grow, nutritious, and bring a taste of summer to any dinner table. Here’s what you need to know to grow great tasting tomatoes.

About Tomatoes

Tomatoes are a warm-season vegetable, which means that they do not tolerate frost and are typically planted in spring for harvesting over the summer. Tomatoes are considered heat loving plants, although they will tend to peter out as temperatures soar over 90° F.

There are hundreds of types of tomatoes that vary in size, shape, color, time to maturity, heat and cold tolerance, and disease resistance. Be sure to explore the many varieties of tomatoes to find your favorites. In terms of growing tomatoes, it’s important to understand two main classifications of tomato plants:

  • Determinate Tomatoes (also called bush tomatoes) are bushy, compact plants that produce one tomato crop harvested over a 1-2 week period.
  • Indeterminate tomatoes are taller and more vine-like. They bloom and set fruit throughout the growing season, resulting in a longer and more consistent harvest.

Growing Conditions

In order to thrive and produce lots of fruit, tomato plants need:

  • Light: Five or more hours of direct sun each day.
  • Air: Good air circulation is important to prevent disease and rot.
  • Water: Tomatoes must be evenly watered for a successful crop. They do not tolerate extremes of drying out or overwatering.
  • Soil: Well-draining, rich soil with plenty of organic matter.
  • Nutrients: Tomatoes are heavy feeders and appreciate rich soil. To produce fruit, they must have adequate calcium and magnesium, and the nutrients must remain balanced in order for the plant to absorb and use them properly.
  • Space: Some tomato varieties get over 6 feet tall and several feet wide, so be sure they have plenty of room to grow both directions, and plant them where they won’t shade smaller plants.

How to Plant Tomatoes

Plant tomatoes after the last frost in spring when the soil is warm and air temperatures are consistently over 50° F. You can add more plantings of tomatoes throughout the season, just be sure to check the maturation time so you will be able to harvest before the fall frost.

Follow these suggestions for best results when planting tomatoes:

  • Soil: Till or dig the soil about a foot deep, mixing in plenty of compost and organic matter.
  • Planting: Many gardeners plant tomatoes very deep, with only the top few sets of leaves above the surface of the soil. The buried stem will grow roots, resulting in a stronger, healthier plant.
  • Spacing: Tomato plants should be spaced at least 2-3 feet apart. Follow label instructions and give your tomatoes the space they need – they’ll get bigger than you think!
  • Support: If you plan to stake, cage, or trellis your tomatoes, put them in place when planting. Your tomato plants will quickly grow, and they’re likely to break if you try to train them once the stems are firm.
  • Feed: A good starter fertilizer will give your tomatoes a boost at planting time.
  • Mulch: While mulch is great for tomatoes, don’t put it down until the soil is good and warm in late spring. A nice mulch layer will provide even soil moisture and protect unstaked plants that touch the ground.

To give your tomato plants a head start in the spring, consider:

  • Seedlings: Starting tomato seeds indoors in late winter for planting in spring.
  • Preheat soil: Cover your tomato rows with black plastic several weeks before planting to speed up soil warming. Remove the plastic before planting.

How to Care for Tomato Plants

  • Weeds: Remove weeds gently, being careful not to disturb the roots of your tomato plants.
  • Water: Watering your plants is the most important part of tomato plant care! Tomatoes need plenty of water, and they need it regularly and evenly. They’ll respond very poorly to drying out and subsequent overwatering. Consider an irrigation system on a timer if you’re unable to water regularly.
  • Fertilizer: Tomatoes do quite well with regular feedings of compost tea. If you choose to fertilize your tomatoes, use balanced organic fertilizers or those lower in nitrogen. Feed about once per month. Overfeeding results in nutrient imbalance and a poor tomato crop, so don’t overdo it.
  • Support: Stake or tie up your tomatoes to keep them off the ground. You can use premade tomato cages (available at garden centers) or make your own simple trellis system using wooden stakes and garden twine.

Growing Tomatoes in Containers

Tomatoes make great container plants. Choose a dwarf or determinate variety that will stay small and compact. You can use most any planting container that has drainage holes, including standard pots and hanging baskets. Use a high quality potting soil that drains well, and make sure to water and fertilize your plants frequently.

Harvesting Tomatoes

  • Tomatoes should be harvested as soon as they are ripe. Ripe tomatoes are firm to the touch and rich with color.
  • They will continue to ripen on a sunny windowsill and keep for several days at room temperature.
  • Refrigerate tomatoes only if you have to as they begin to lose flavor when chilled.
  • When your tomatoes are producing, be prepared to use them, give them away, or freeze or can them before they spoil. Chances are you’ll have at least a few weeks where you wonder what in the world you’re going to do with all these tomatoes!

Further Information

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