How to Grow Tomatoes – The Back to the Basics Guide

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how to grow tomatoes

Would you like to grow great tomatoes at home? It’s easier than you might think, even if you’ve tried before and it didn’t quite work out. Check out this back to the basics guide for how to grow tomatoes at home and start growing great tomatoes today.

Growing Tomatoes: What to Know Before You Grow

Are tomatoes easy to grow?

Yes, tomatoes are one of the easiest vegetables to grow. And they produce well. With just a few plants, you can grow enough tomatoes for salads, sandwiches, and sauces and still have more to give away.

Are tomatoes annual or perennial plants?

Tomatoes are perennials but they’re usually grown as annuals in the United States. They are sensitive to cold, especially temperatures below 55 degrees. Once they get too cold, they’ll stop producing. To keep them growing year-round, it’s best to grow them either indoors, in a greenhouse or in a tropical climate.

What’s the best season for tomatoes?

Tomatoes are warm-season vegetables. They grow best once the soil has warmed up in the spring and will last up until the first frost in the fall.

How much sunlight do tomato plants need?

Tomatoes need from 6-8 hours (or more) of full sunlight daily.

What is the best soil for growing tomatoes?

Tomatoes like well-drained soil with lots of organic matter mixed in, such as compost, peat moss or leaf mold. Take a soil test to make sure you have the correct PH. Tomatoes prefer a slightly acidic to neutral soils between 6.5 and 7.0.

Watering Tomatoes – How much is enough?

Tomatoes like lots of water, at least 1-2 inches per week. Slow soaking encourages their roots to grow deeply, but make sure they’re in well-drained soil.

Try to keep the water away from their leaves and fruit. Instead, direct it around their roots.

It’s best to water earlier in the day to allow the plants to dry before evening. Watering at night can encourage plant diseases due to the cooler temperatures and extra moisture.

Plan Before You Plant – Who was there before?

Rotating crops in your garden not only helps to replenish nutrients, but it can also help to prevent plant diseases, too. Never plant your tomatoes in the same location each year. Also, avoid planting tomatoes after any other vegetables in the nightshade family such as potatoes, peppers, and eggplant.

If you notice a continuing problem with disease and insects, try extending your rotation period to three years before planting nightshades in the same area. 

In addition, plant any tomatoes well away from Black Walnut trees. According to the Ohio State University Extension, these tree roots produce a substance called juglone (5-hydroxy-alphanapthaquinone) that is toxic to many plants, including tomatoes.

If you have a Black Walnut in your yard, plant your tomatoes well outside the root zone of the tree.

growing tomatoes from seeds

What Are Determinate Tomatoes?

There are three basic types of tomatoes: determinate, indeterminate and semi-determinate.

Determinate Tomatoes

Determinate tomatoes are sometimes called “bush” tomatoes. They are shorter and usually grow to about 3-4 feet tall. Their fruit tends to ripen at about the same time, leading to a shorter harvest. These are ideal for growing in pots or indoors since they are shorter and more compact than others.

Indeterminate Tomatoes

Indeterminate tomatoes are larger. They can grow up to 6 feet tall or taller. They will continue to grow and produce fruit all season long.

Semi-determinate Tomatoes

Semi-determinate tomatoes are more compact like the determinate tomatoes but will continue to produce fruit all season.

Indeterminate tomatoes are larger. They can grow up to 6 feet tall or taller. They will continue to grow and produce fruit all season long.

Hybrid vs. Heirloom Tomatoes

What is the difference between hybrid and heirloom tomatoes?

Hybrid tomatoes are created when you intentionally cross-pollinate different varieties. This can be done to make them sweeter, redder, disease-resistant or faster-growing, among other benefits. Their seeds may be sterile or when planted, they may produce after one parent or the other, so you don’t know exactly what you might get.

Heirloom tomatoes have been cultivated without cross-breeding for over forty years. If you plant their seeds, you will get a tomato that is just like the parent of the one you planted.  They are open-pollinated, which means that they are pollinated by wind and insects.

To further complicate matters, you can have open-pollinated tomatoes that are not heirlooms because they may have cross-pollinated within the last forty years.

Growing Tomatoes

How many tomato plants should you grow?

It depends. For casual tomato eaters, 1-2 plants per person may be enough. For tomato lovers, 3-5 plants per person should provide enough tomatoes for eating fresh with some left over to share. If you plan to preserve your harvest, estimate anywhere from 5-10 plants per person.

Common Ways to Grow Tomatoes

how to grow tomatoes from seeds

Growing Tomatoes from Seeds

Tomatoes are easy to grow from seeds. It’s an easy way to get a jump on the season as long as you don’t try to start too early.

Start your tomato seeds at least six to eight weeks before the last frost date for your area. It’s better to start them later and plant the seedlings once the ground has warmed up than to rush the season and have them end up stunted due to the cold.

Use a potting mix for starting your seeds. Fill several small containers about ½” from the top with the potting mix. Make a ¼” deep furrow in the center. Place 2-3 seeds in the furrow and cover them with potting mix, gently firming the soil. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy.

Keep them in a warm place at least 60 degrees or above. Once they begin to sprout, place them in a sunny window or well-lit spot. Rotate them if they seem to be leaning towards the light.

If two or all three of the seeds in one pot all sprout, simply pinch off the weaker ones. Don’t try to pull them out because this may damage the roots of the strongest plant.

If the seeds were started in a tray, transplant them to their own containers once they have two or three leaves.

What to Look For When Choosing Tomato Seedlings

Another easy way to grow tomatoes is from seedlings. When choosing seedlings, look for plants with dark green leaves and strong, healthy roots. Choose short and stocky plants over tall, leggy ones.

Time to Dig In: Planting Your Tomato Plants

Tomatoes love warm weather. Temperatures below 50 degrees can cause tomato plants to be stunted.  Only plant them outside after all danger of frost has passed and the soil temperature is above 60 degrees.

Hardening off Tomato Seedlings

Before planting your delicate seedlings outdoors, you need to first harden them off. This helps them to adjust to the outside world and makes for hardier plants.

To harden them off, simply take them outside for an hour or two a day. Make sure the temperatures are above 50 degrees or you’ll end up stunting your plants.

Water them well before you take them out. Make the process as easy on them as possible. Place them in a shady spot out of direct sunlight or wind.

Keep an eye on them. If they look wilted or stressed, bring them in and let them recover before their next visit to the great outdoors.

Whatever you do, remember to bring them in at night, especially when the temperatures are dropping or rain or heavy winds are expected.

After a few days, increase their time outdoors by another hour or two. Try putting them in slightly sunnier areas and watch to see how they do.

After a week or two, you might let them overnight outdoors on a warmer night. If they do well, then they should be ready to move to the garden.

tomato seedlings

How Far Apart to Plant Tomatoes?

How far apart should you plant your tomatoes? It depends on which type of garden you’ll be planting them in.

Planting Tomatoes in Rows

Planting distances vary based on the variety of tomato you’re growing and how you plan to grow them. Check the recommended planting instructions on your seed packet or seedlings.

Here are a few estimates:

  • If you’re planting tomatoes in rows, the rows should be from 3-4’ or 4-5’ apart.
  • For tomato plants within the row, plant from 24”-36” apart.
  • For tomato plants in cages, plant them from 1 1/2’ to 2’ apart.
  • For tomato plants grown on the ground without cages or stakes, plant them around 3’ apart.
how to grow tomatoes

Planting Tomatoes in Raised Beds

According to the folks at Harvest To Table, if you’re using Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening method, you can plant an indeterminate tomato plant in a single square foot area.

Make sure to stake it to prevent it from sprawling across the rest of your raised bed. Just keep in mind that with Square Foot Gardening, the soil mix is more nutrient-rich than most regular raised beds.

If you have a regular raised bed, try spacing them 2’ apart. Remember to stake them to ensure they get ample light and air to produce a good crop.

How Deep To Plant Tomatoes?

Plant them deep. Plant seedlings deep enough so that the bottom leaves are just above the soil. Tomatoes have the unique ability to grow new roots along the length of their stem.

If you have a tall, leggy plant, simply plant the root ball and stem on its side, bending the plant carefully to allow the leaves on the end to stand above the ground.

After planting, press the soil down well, leaving a slight depression around the tomato plant stem. This helps it collect water and funnel it down to the roots.

When watering, try to keep the water away from the leaves as much as is possible.

Common Tomato Supports

Tomatoes love to sprawl. The taller they grow, the more out of control they can become. Supports help to not only keep the plant from invading its neighbors but also keep the tomatoes off the ground and away from moisture, predators and disease.

The most common tomato supports are wire cages and simple tomato stakes. For more information on the best ways to stake your tomatoes, check out this video:

What is the Best Fertilizer for Tomatoes?

Before fertilizing your tomatoes, get your soil tested. A simple soil test can quickly let you know just what type of fertilizer you may need.

Generally, if your soil is well-balanced, the best fertilizer for tomatoes would be one that is low in nitrogen, high in phosphorus and medium-high in potassium. Common examples would be the 5-10-5 or 5-10-10 mixed fertilizers.

Avoid any type of fertilizer that is a “weed and feed”. These are designed more for lawns and may kill your garden vegetables.

How Often to Fertilize Tomatoes?

Add fertilizer when the garden bed is first being prepared. Mix it well into the top 6 inches of soil.

Once you see the first small tomatoes beginning, fertilize your plants once a month until the tomatoes start to ripen.

How to Grow Tomatoes in Pots: Quick Tips

  • Grow determinate or “bush” tomatoes. They take less space and grow well in containers.
  • Place in a sunny, well-lit location. Tomatoes need at least 6-8 hours of sunlight a day.
  • Water them frequently. Tomatoes need lots of water. Tomatoes in pots can dry out quickly, especially during the heat of summer.
  • Add support. Even bush tomatoes benefit from a little support.
  • Use a big enough pot. A five-gallon bucket is a good size for a single tomato plant.
growing tomatoes

Quick Tips for Pruning Tomatoes

  • You don’t have to prune tomatoes if you don’t want to. You can just let them grow.
  • Only prune indeterminate tomatoes.
  • Pruning tomatoes is useful when gardening in small spaces, such as raised beds, or trellised tomatoes.
  • Prune just enough to allow for good light and air movement through the plant.
  • Prune tomatoes by pinching off auxiliary or side shoots. You can also top a too tall plant by pruning the top shoots.

Harvesting Tomatoes

Now comes the best part – the harvest. Tomatoes taste best when you let them harvest on the vine. They are ready when they reach a deep, red color and the fruit is still firm. If you’re growing differently colored varieties, pick when they reach the proper color. Trust your instincts.

Keep fresh tomatoes out of the refrigerator and away from direct sunlight. If they haven’t yet ripened, simply place them on the counter stem side up and they will continue to ripen.

If you still have green tomatoes on the vine at the end of the season when the first hard frost is coming, simply pull up the vines and hang them upside down somewhere inside. The tomatoes will continue to ripen.

If you’ve planted tomatoes in pots, simply move the pots indoors to a warm, well-lit area. With a little care and attention, you may just find yourself with fresh home-grown tomatoes for the holidays!

how to grow tomatoes

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