How to Grow Tomatoes
Instructions for Growing Tomato Plants
in Your Vegetable Garden
Topics included on this page:
Tomato fruits come in a wide variety of shapes and colors for your garden. Smaller varieties of tomatoes are very well suited for growing in pots, planters, and even hanging baskets. (For more information, review: container gardening)
Tomatoes are an important plant in companiong gardening practices. Consider reviewing the companion planting guide when picking a location for the tomato patch in your garden.
Be prepared with 6’ posts, cages, or trellises and the means to secure the vines to them. (Drive the posts, etc. into the ground such that they’re sturdy to the touch and a good wind won’t blow them over.) To secure your vines to the supports, use soft cotton cloth strips (from an old bed sheet, etc.). Tie the vines gently and not so tightly as to hinder future growth or damage the plant. Secure the vines at 1 foot intervals.
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There are varieties of tomatoes that can grow in nearly any climate. That being said, tomatoes are primarily a warm weather crop.
Note: Tomatoes do not tolerate frost at all. If you experience a sudden frost, cover your plants temporarily that night (as best as you can with what you have on hand... ex. old bed sheets, etc.) to protect them from the frost. Remove the coverings in the morning.
One month ahead of planting, dig in compost and/or well-rotted manure into your tomato garden bed. Till or dig it in about 6” deep. The pH of your tomato bed's garden soil should be between 5.5 and 7.5 for best success in growing tomatoes. (Instructions on testing your garden soil pH)
Drive in your supports (stakes, posts, cage, etc.) shortly after planting your seedlings. If you wait until later when they need the support, you may damage the root structure in the process.
There are many different ways of supporting your tomato plants. I've seen people build wooden frames (like you'd put around peonies plants) for them. Of course, there's the traditional stake method, and also the tomato cages.
This year, I tried metal fenceposts, with a nylon gardening fence for support (see picture below). I wasn't sure it would hold up, but it's actually been quite remarkable. We just weathered hurricane Irene, and didn't lose a single plant (or tomato, for that matter) to the wind. That's a bit remarkable, considering the mighty oak that broke in half in the back yard! Anyhow, so I tied the tomato stems to the fencing for support with strips of an old cotton sheet. For the plants near the posts, I just used the posts for support like you would a wooden stake.
This one's kind of fun (below). They used tree branches, planted sturdily into the ground, as the tomato stakes. (Taken at the McLaughlin Group Garden in S. Paris ME)
If you have a long gardening season, you can plant the tomato seeds directly in the garden soil. However, most of us are so anxious to get our first garden tomatoes (so much tastier than the grocery store varieties!) that it's more common to start your plants indoors to hasten the season. (Note: you can also buy seedlings from your local nurseries, if you're not able to start your own.)
To start your seedlings: plant your tomato seeds in seed starter trays indoors, about ¼” deep. Keep moist (but not soggy). (I like to use a spray bottle to water the seed starter mix). Seedlings normally immerge within two weeks. See: starting seeds indoors.
When the seedlings are 4” tall, transplant into peat containers (or you can sow the seeds directly into the peat containers). The entire peat container can be placed right in the garden. It will eventually dissolve into your garden soil.
Transplant into the garden when about 10” tall, but harden the plants for two weeks before planting into the garden soil. Plant the tomato plants 2 feet apart in rows that are 2 feet apart.
When planting tomato plants in your garden, you can add a little bit of fertilizer to the bottom of your hole. Then add a little soil, then the seedling, and fill in the rest with garden soil.
Gardening Tip for growing Tomatoes - Plant your tomato plants deeply - the first set of leaves should be near ground level. The tomato plant will use the planted stem to sprout additional roots, giving the plant a stronger root support system.
During the growth cycle, do not let the soil dry out. Keep the gardening soil moist, but not soggy.
Gardening Advice Tip: Uneven watering can cause blossom-end rot. Do not water with sprinklers or from above. Instead, use irrigation hoses or dig troughs among the plants for irrigation.
Make sure your tomato garden has phosphorus in the soil before planting your tomato seedlings. If there’s not enough phosphorus, you will have low yields.
Do not fertilize between planting and when the the first fruit sets. You can apply fertilizer (watered into the soil around the plants) after you see the first fruits forming.
Over fertilizing leads to excessive leaf growth (which means small or few tomatoes).
If your immature tomatoes are blotchy and the foliage is purplish, you likely have spotted wilt (spread by thrips).
Leaf or target spot may be present during wet growing seasons, but can also be caused by too much nitrogen (fertilizer).
Tomatoes can also be susceptible to mites, tomato caterpillars (hornworms), colorado potato bugs, and fruit flies.
Gardening Tip for growing tomatoes - Practice good vegetable gardening by rotating your crops within your garden space with each new season. This will prevent many plant diseases.
It's difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato. ~Lewis Grizzard
Depending upon the variety, you may see tomatoes as early as 3 months (some varieties can take 5 months).
Many say the fruit is at its peak in flavor if you wait to pick it when ripened on the vine. However, the fruit will ripen indoors, so you can pick it at virtually any time. Some even prefer green tomatoes for specialty dishes.
Note: the advice and information contained herein is based upon our experience and study. As with any advice, please apply at your own discretion.