Tomatoes are one of the most diversified and delicious plants you can grow in your garden. Whether you call them a fruit or a vegetable, tomatoes can be acidic or sweet, large or small. And the best bit is, you can grow at least some kind of tomato plant in almost any space you’ve got.
Full sun (6-8 hours or more)
Height: varies (8 inches to 10 feet)
Soil: Nutrient-rich soil (they’ll grow in almost any soil as long as you provide nutrients via compost, organic fertilizers, etc.)
Climate: Tomatoes will drop their flowers if the nighttime temperatures are below 55〫F, or above 75〫F. The plant itself will die in freezing temperatures.
Tomatoes are a heat-loving perennial, grown as a warm-season annual in the United States.
You can easily start your own tomatoes from seed – then you have a larger variety of choice, and it costs a lot less money.
If you do choose to buy tomatoes from a nursery or garden center, try to get short, bushy plants without flowers on them. And be sure to give them a good look-over so you won’t be bringing any pests home to your garden.
Sow tomato seeds in sterile potting mix (you can make your own) in seed flats or pots approximately 6 weeks before the date of the last expected spring frost for your area. As always, we recommend sowing about twice as many seeds as you’ll actually need, so you can select the strongest and healthiest seedlings to grow in your garden.
The ‘ideal’ warmth for germinating tomato seeds is 75-89〫F. But in reality, your tomato seeds will very likely germinate at the normal indoor temperature of your home (68-73〫F). If you want to give your tomatoes a bit of extra heat, set the seed tray on top of the fridge.
Once the seeds have germinated, make sure they get plenty of light. Direct sun is the strongest light, even in the winter. If you can’t give them sunlight, you can use grow lights (don’t bother buying the expensive ones – just nice, bright white lights will do). Because artificial lights aren’t as strong as sunlight, try to keep the lights as close to the seedlings as possible (but not touching – you don’t want to burn your seedlings).
If you planted twice as many seeds as you’ll need for plants, be sure to take a tiny pair of scissors and snip off the tomatoes you won’t be using so they don’t take up nutrients and space that you want for the tomato plants you’ll be keeping.
If you sowed your seeds in a seed tray, they’ll run out of room for their roots before six weeks is up. Transplant your tomatoes into small (4″) pots. (Make your own potting mix!)
Once the tomato has at least one set of true leaves (the leaves that first appear are called the cotyledons), carefully grasp one of the true leaves between your forefinger and thumb and use a pencil, a chopstick, or other similar device to gently reach into the soil and loosen the roots. (Do not grasp the seedling by the stem.)
Transfer the seedling to a pot filled about 3/4 with soil. Gently settle it into the center and push dirt over the roots. Do not press or tamp the soil down. Watering it in will settle the soil without pressing on the roots and damaging them.
Planting Your Tomato Plants out in the Garden
Once nighttime temperatures are consistently above 45〫F (or even 50〫F), your tomato plants can be transferred to the garden. It’s always a good idea to harden off your plants first. Take them outdoors every day for about a week, gradually increasing their exposure to sunlight and the outdoor climate from a couple of hours to a full 6-8 hours.
Once your tomato plants are over 6 inches tall, they’re easy to transplant into the garden. Tomatoes also have the nifty ability to grow roots all along its stem. This is useful, especially during transplanting. You can remove some of the lower leaves and plant the tomato plant much deeper in the ground than it was in the pot. This will encourage more root growth (and greater ability to uptake water and nutrients) and also cuts down on the amount of water the tomato plant will respire through its leaves.
Make sure tomatoes never droop for lack of water. If the weather is warm and dry, you’ll need to water your tomatoes. Remember, it is better to water deeply and less often, than shallowly and more often. When you water, water at ground level and try to avoid getting water on the leaves of your tomato plants to prevent disease.
Once the soil has fully warmed up, mulch heavily (we particularly like wood chip mulch). This will protect the soil, conserve moisture, and help keep weeds from germinating. Don’t mulch too early, or the soil will stay cool under the mulch for a longer period of time. Tomato roots like warm soil.
Trellises, Tomato Cages, or Stakes?
We have now used all three methods of growing tomatoes. They each have their advantages, and disadvantages. Which one is best? It depends on your space and how you set up each system. Read more here.
Determinate vs. Indeterminate/Plant size
If the packet of seed tomatoes doesn’t tell you whether it’s a determinate or an indeterminate variety, you’ll want to find out before you plant any tomato seeds.
Determinate tomato vines grow to a certain height and then stop growing. They produce tomatoes earlier than indeterminate varieties, though not for as long a period and usually the tomatoes are smaller in size. Their more compact, bushier form is good if you don’t want to provide tall trellises and have to continually tie tomato vines to stakes. You will still need to provide support of some kind if the tomato grows more than 2 feet tall, but usually a tomato cage will suffice.
Indeterminate tomato varieties continue growing and growing and growing. You can stop their growth at whatever height you want by snipping off the tips. We always do this as the end of the season nears so that the tomatoes that are already on the vine have a chance to ripen. By snipping off the tips it forces the tomato to stop putting its energy into growing taller and instead to send that energy into growing the tomato fruits.
Indeterminate tomatoes take longer to set and produce tomatoes, but once they do the fruit is usually larger and produced over a longer period of time.
What are you growing tomatoes for? For easy snacking? Salads & sandwiches? Canning tomato sauce & salsa? Purely for flavor? Edible garden ornamentation?
Tomatoes come in ALL shapes and sizes, purpley-black to striped yellow and red, tiny grape tomatoes to huge beefsteak tomatoes. Consider what you want out of your tomatoes.
Each seed catalog or seed packet should describe the size, flavor, and primary uses of the tomato.
Canning tomatoes: You want tomatoes that are acidic. Depending on your desired finished product, they can be either juicy or paste-y. Juicy tomatoes have more flavor, and if you don’t want to can the extra liquid juicy tomatoes contain, you can always boil it down before you can and process it.
Slicing tomatoes: Tomatoes that are ideal for slicing have less juice and more flesh. They can be medium-sized or large, depending on if you’re dicing them for a salad, or slicing them thin for sandwiches.
Snack tomatoes: Cherry, grape, and small pear tomatoes are the best for snacking. They don’t have to be cut before being eaten, allowing them to stay intact longer (which preserves them longer, whether in the refrigerator or on the counter). The small tomatoes are often the sweetest, especially if they’re allowed to fully ripen on the vine. The juicy ones have more flavor.
Garden ornamentation: Tomatoes of any shape and size ornament the garden. But there are some special tomatoes that stand out, like the baby indigo rose tomatoes picture above right. Smaller tomatoes always look more ornamental because they’re smaller, giving you more little baubles of color like strings of Christmas lights.
What kind of a space do you have? At least one kind of tomato will grow in whatever space you’ve got, as long as it gets plenty of sunlight.
There are tomatoes that grow only 8 inches high (they produce more than their weight in tomatoes) and some that tower or grow as big around as they are tall.
If you’re growing tomatoes in a pot, choose a smaller variety. There are some tomatoes that are specifically listed as ‘good for container growing’. But the tiny, 8-inch high tomatoes I’m talking about are labeled as ‘ornamental’ tomatoes, even though they can be eaten. (And they’re delicious.)
As a general rule in your garden, plan on giving each tomato about 4-9 square feet of space.
If your space is somewhere in between a basket tomato and a garden tomato, just remember that you can prune a tomato, if needed, to keep its size smaller. I grew beefsteak tomatoes in a bucket, when we lived in an apartment. They grew very well. I just pruned them now and then to keep them to the size I wanted, and they produced delicious tomatoes. The tomatoes were a bit smaller than usual, but that’s most likely due to the decreased size of the plant and root system. But still… I grew tomatoes. And that’s what mattered.
Tomatoes need plenty of nutrients to grow, and to produce tomatoes. If you use fertilizers, a general fertilizer will do, only make sure it doesn’t contain an overabundance of nitrogen, which will stimulate stem and leaf growth. Phosphorus is needed for the tomato to flower and fruit.
Our recommendation would be to simply mulch heavily with a good wood chip mulch, and add compost around the plants now and then.
Pests & Other Problems
Some of the problems tomatoes face include sun scald, tomato hornworms, blossom end rot, nutrient deficiency, blight, aphids, white flies…
But the most important thing to know is that if your tomatoes are healthy (plenty of nutrients and sunlight, and a proper amount of water) they’ll be able to fight more of their own battles.