How to Grow Tomatoes (Including Your Favorite Varieties!)
By Leah Zerbe, MS, NASM-CPT, NASM-CES
May 13, 2017
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Find yourself searching “how to grow tomatoes” this growing season? You aren’t alone. In fact, experts say tomatoes are the most popular home garden crop grown in America. It’s the fruit of choice for 85 percent of home gardeners in the U.S. (1)
If you’re new to growing food and just caught the gardening bug, you’re in good company. Between 2008 and 2013, the number of people growing food at home or in community gardens increased 17 percent to include 42 million households. Younger households represent the largest increase in new gardeners, up 63 percent since 2008. (2) If you’re one of these newbies, you’re probably wondering how to grow tomatoes. Thankfully, it’s a fairly simple crop to grow as long as you understand a few key factors.
And sure, tomato nutrition has a lot to offer, but rest assured home gardeners are raising this beloved crop for one main reason: Unbelievable, ripe-on-the-vine freshness that you just can’t get from store-bought versions. If you’ve ever eaten a tomato straight from the garden and still warm from the sun, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Aside from that, tomatoes are fairly easily preserved through canning and freezing, meaning you can grow a bumper crop to enjoy throughout even the winter months.
What Are Tomatoes?
Tomatoes originated in South America and became domesticated in Mexico.
Tomatoes are also related to potatoes and part of the Solanaceae, or nightshade, family.
Scientifically speaking, a tomato is a fruit; however, an 1893 U.S. Supreme Court ruling declared tomatoes a vegetable, protecting U.S. tomato growers from foreign markets. (Imported vegetables, not fruits, were taxed.)
In the 1600s, Spanish explorers introduced tomatoes to Europe, where it eventually became known as one of the aphrodisiac foods of the time and nicknamed the “love apple.”
Tomatoes hit the American scene in the 1700s, and thanks to the avid gardener Thomas Jefferson, because increasingly popular.
Since then, fruit and vegetable breeders have been using traditional breeding methods to provide tomatoes with different disease resistance, size, color and flavor traits.
Today, each American eats, on average, 88 pounds of tomatoes.
But enough about tomato plant fun facts. Let’s learn the basics of planting tomatoes.
How to Grow
If you’re completely new to gardening and need to build a garden bed and understand other gardening basics, I highly recommend having Ed Smith’s The Vegetable Gardener’s BIBLE on hand.
Check the calendar. Find out your region’s frost-free date and then plug it into a gardening calculator to determine the best time to either start tomato seeds inside or plant larger transplants outside. Figuring out when to plant tomatoes (and start seeds inside) depends on your local climate and varies throughout the U.S. To avoid heartbreak in the garden, don’t put any tomato plants in the ground until all danger of frost has passed.
Enrich the soil. Add some DIY compost or high-quality compost to your garden bed in the spring to provide a soil fertility boost. Healthy soil is the basis of organic gardening.
Check in with extension. It’s a good idea to connect with your state’s extension service to get a soil test, check for tomato diseases common to your area and ask about recommended tomato varieties for your state.
Focus on full sun. Tomato plants need full sun in the garden. No shady spots.
Containers work, too. Some tomato varieties are suitable for containers, so if you don’t have space for garden beds, you can still grow certain tomatoes in pots or hanging baskets, as long as you have proper full sun.
Don’t plant near other heavy feeders. Tomatoes require a lot of soil nutrients, so Mary Higby of High Mowing Seeds recommends keeping other plants from the Solanaceae family, like potatoes, away from your tomatoes. Instead, she recommends planting more compatible “light feeders” near your tomatoes in the garden. These include chives, parsley, marigolds, nasturtiums and carrots.
Know the difference between Determinate vs. Indeterminate. This is really important when you first looking into how to grow tomatoes. That’s because tomatoes can be broken down into plant types, Higby explains: Determinate, or “bush,” varieties and indeterminate, or “vining,” varieties.
“Determinate tomatoes are more compact and set fruit only once over the course of the season, ripening all around the same time; after the fruit has matured, the plant stops growing and finishes its life cycle,” she says. “Indeterminate tomatoes will grow and produce fruit until they are killed by frost.”
Because they continue to grow all season, indeterminate tomatoes can reach heights of up to 10 feet tall and usually require trellises to keep them healthy and upright. No matter the type, all tomato plants should be kept upright whenever possible to avoid soil-borne diseases. Tomato plant care may require pruning to ensure good airflow and discourage mildews and blights.
If you’ve never grown tomatoes before, I recommend opting for transplants your first year or two of gardening. This means you purchase the tomato plants when they’re already several weeks old instead of starting them yourself from seed.
Here are some important things to remember when growing tomato transplants:
Look for organic tomato plants or tomato plants grown without chemicals from your local farmer.
A spokesperson for Seed Savers Exchange, a great seed company that helps save and expand the use of heirloom seeds, recommends stripping off the lowest couple of plant leaves so you can plant the stem fairly deeply in the soil. This allows the stem to re-root and provide strong anchoring.
Make sure you give your tomatoes ample space between plants to cut down on the risk of disease. The general rule of thumb is 30 to 48 inches between tomato plants and at least 48 inches between rows.
Fertilize your tomato plants every 3 weeks or so with an OMRI-approved natural fertilizer.
Remember to keep your plant leaves and fruit off of the ground and your tomato plants grow. Seed Savers Exchange notes that tomato cages are generally adequate for determinate varieties, while T-posts with string in between works well for indeterminate types. This allows the vining tomato plant to almost climb. Teepee structures can also keep keep tomato plants off of the ground.
How to Grow Tomatoes from Seed Starting tomato seeds and initially growing tomatoes indoors from scratch indoors is more complex, but definitely doable, even for a new home gardener. You have to time things right, though: Starting too soon means your plants can be trapped inside longer than needed. Start too late, and your crop will be way behind schedule in the garden. If it’s past seed-starting time by the time you read this, transplants may still be an option, depending on the date.
Plan on starting your tomato seeds inside about 6 to 8 weeks before your area’s anticipated last freeze date.
I like reusing containers to start my seeds rather than buying containers. Washed out yogurt cups, egg cartons and other sterilized plastic containers are options. Just make sure you poke holes in the bottom of all containers because drainage is important. (Don’t forget to put something underneath to catch any water!)
Purchase a high-quality seed-starting mix. To start seeds effectively, you should bring garden soil into the mix yet. I like peat-free seed starting mixes because they help protect fragile peat ecosystems. I like the Seed-Starting Potting Mix from Organic Mechanics. It’s OMRI certified, meaning it’s approved for organics and doesn’t include biosolids, AKA potentially toxic human sewage sludge in compost.
Plant two seeds in each container, about a half inch deep. Lightly water, cover with plastic and place on top of your fridge. At this stage, light is not necessary.
Without about 6 to 8 days, you should see some sprouting seeds. Remove the plastic covering and place under grow lights or in your brightest window. If you use grow lights, keep the bulb just about 2 inches above the plant (and continue moving up to keep this distance as the plant grows.) This helps prevent “leggy,” straggly plants putting all of their energy into reaching the light.
If both seeds in every container or container cell sprouts, pinch off the weaker looking one so the stronger one has space to flourish.
As you plants grow larger, you may need to put them into a larger container in the house. Giving a natural fertilizer like fish or seaweed emulsion once at this point will help provide nutrients. Just follow the dilution directions on the product and make sure it’s OMRI certified.
Keep your tomato seedlings watered, but don’t overdo it, as this can increase the risk of disease. Go for medium moisture.
To strengthen plants as they grow, you can use an oscillating fan on them to get them used to what outdoor conditions will be like.
After about 6 to 8 weeks and after the danger of frost has passed, you can start “hardening” off your tomato plants by setting them out. Start by putting them outside in a fairly safe place with partial sun so they can start getting used to outdoor conditions. Start with about 2 hours or so, bring them in before it gets cold at night, and then slowly increase the time they spend outside each day.
Nighttime temperatures should be at least 55 degrees Fahrenheit before you plant your seedlings outside.
Follow directions for transplants, above, to finish the tomato transplanting process.
Some Recommended Tomato Seeds & Plant Varieties
Higby says High Mowing’s easy-to-grow tomato varieties are a good place to start for first-time gardeners looking to start tomatoes from seed. Some of the organic seed companies other popular varieties include Rose de Berne, Iron Lady F1, Montesino and Sweet Cherry.
Cherokee Purple, Brandywine, Black Krim and Mortgage Lifter are popular beefsteak, heirloom tomatoes. Black Cherry is a delicious cherry tomato option. I’m partial to Juan Flamme.
The tomato is the most popular fruit grown in home gardens.
Although botanically speaking, a tomato is a fruit, many people refer to it as a vegetable.
In learning how to grow tomatoes, you decide whether you purchase transplants to plant directly into the garden or to start tomato seeds from scratch indoors several weeks before setting out and planting outside.
Both heirloom tomato seeds and hybridized seeds are good choices for growing tomatoes, although you can’t save the seeds of hybridized tomatoes to plant in future growing seasons.
Tomatoes require proper spacing, full sun and well-drained soil to flourish.
There are two types of tomato plants: The determinate, “bushy” type that requires less support but flowers and fruits just once, and indeterminate, “vining” varieties that continue to flower and fruit all season long. These require much more trellising to flourish.
Growing tomatoes is an economical way to enjoy vine-ripened varieties that would otherwise not be available in the store, since they don’t ship well. Growers can also freeze or can tomatoes to enjoy year-round.