Basics of Growing Tomatoes

Tomato garden Fresh tomatoes in the garden

Growing tomatoes has become a popular past time and infatuation for many vegetable gardeners. Tomatoes are arguably the most popularly grown vegetable (although they are technically a fruit) in the U.S. for the home gardener. With so many different and interesting varieties, it’s no wonder tomatoes are so popular! It’s hard to imagine that at one time Europeans believed the tomato to be poisonous!

Growing tomatoes is not very difficult, but there are a few simple steps to follow in order to grow terrific tomatoes in your vegetable garden. If you are interested in joining the thousands who love growing tomatoes in their vegetable garden, here are some basics for growing fantastic tomatoes.

Choose A Proper Location for Growing Tomatoes

In order to grow the best tomatoes possible you need to choose a location to suit their growing habits. Tomatoes need an area that receives full sunlight, at least six to eight hours per day.

Try to plant in an area that offers some protection against high winds during those evening summer thunderstorms. Planting near a building such as the home, shed or privacy fence can offer such protection.

Make sure the tomato plants have enough room to spread out. Many indeterminate tomatoes can reach heights of seven feet or higher and can get two to three feet wide.

You don’t need to get super picky about where to plant your tomatoes. As long as they receive good amounts of sunlight they will be just fine.

Soil Requirements For Growing Tomatoes

Luckily, tomatoes are not too concerned with having optimum soil. They can grow in just about any type of soil, but for growing the best tomatoes there are a couple soil needs.

The soil should have a pH of 6.0 to 7.0 and have good drainage. You don’t want your tomato plants to be sitting in a pool of water after a thunderstorm.

Once you have found an area to grow your tomatoes that receives adequate light, you need to work the soil by loosening it up using a garden fork or cultivator. This will help the tomato plant establish a strong root system. Adding copious amounts of compost will keep your tomato plants happy all season long. I typically add about two to three inches of compost to the soil and work it in really well with the garden fork.

Planting Tomatoes

Tomato transplants can be planted in the vegetable garden after the threat of frost has passed for your area, or when the soil has reached a temperature of about 55°F. Tomatoes can be planted a bit sooner but you may need to use floating row covers to protect the seedlings at night.

Planting a Tomato PlantOnce the soil is ready for planting, dig the planting holes about 1-1/2 feet deep and one foot wide if planting transplants. You want to plant the tomatoes deep, at a depth equaling about two-thirds of the tomato plant height, or just have the top two sets of leaves above ground.

This will help the tomato develop a strong root system resulting in a healthier more productive tomato plant. Fill in the hole with a mixture of soil and compost, then water the tomato plant well with compost tea. If the soil settles after watering, just add more compost and soil around the plant.

If you are sowing tomato seeds directly in the garden, follow the planting instructions on the seed packet for proper planting depths.

Fertilizing Tomatoes

Tomatoes really do not require much fertilization as long as you start out with healthy soil. In fact, over fertilizing tomatoes is a typical problem many gardeners may face.

Organic Tomato FertilizerGenerally, tomatoes should only be fertilized no more than three times per season.

You can give tomatoes a little organic fertilizer when transplanting the plants into the garden. The best way to do this is to add a handful of granule organic fertilizer to the bottom of the planting hole. Mix the fertilizer into the soil well with your hand or a hand shovel.

Sprinkle another handful of the granular organic fertilizer again about three weeks after transplanting the tomato plant. Simply sprinkle the fertilizer around the tomato in a three to five inch diameter circle around the stem of the tomato. Avoid letting the fertilizer touch them stem of the tomato plant.

Give the tomato plant one last feeding of the organic fertilizer when it begins setting fruit. Sprinkle a handful of the fertilizer around the tomato plant in a five to eight inch diameter circle. Again, avoid getting any fertilizer on the stem or leaves of the plant.

Water the tomato plants once per week with compost tea or fish emulsion diluted in water to provide organic material and beneficial microorganisms to the soil.

Caring For Tomato Plants

Tomatoes require very little maintenance really. One of the most important things to provide tomatoes is support. No, I don’t mean become a cheerleader!

What I mean is to provide your tomatoes with either stakes, cages, or some type of tomato trellis. Most tomatoes will need something to help support their weight, especially once they begin bearing fruit.

Many tomato growers may want to prune their tomato plants as it grows and matures. This is entirely up to the tomato gardener – you don’t have to prune, but you can if you if you prefer a neater looking plant.

There are a couple rules I always tell tomato growers about pruning:

Pruning a Tomato Plant

    1. Once the tomato plant has reached a height of three feet, prune off the leaves on the very bottom of the plant, and any leaves that are touching the soil. These leaves usually get the least amount of sunlight and turn yellow and sometimes brown. The most important factor in doing this is these leaves are the first to normally catch a disease.Many diseases such as blight are carried through the soil, so if the leaves are touching the soil they could easily be infected by the disease.
    2. Avoid any pruning once the fruit begin maturing. Removing too much of the foliage on the tomato plant can expose the fruit to direct sunlight. This can cause the fruit to develop sunscald. Think of sunscald as a sunburned tomato.It is best to allow the tomatoes to have a bit of shade by leaving the foliage of the tomato plant intact while the fruit develops to decrease the chances for sunscald.

Watering Tomato Plants

Tomatoes need about one to two inches of water per week for optimum growth. A good rule for watering tomatoes is to stick your finger one inch into the soil near the tomato plant. If the soil is dry one inch down, the tomato plants should be watered. If the soil is moist one inch down, no watering is needed.

Over watering tomato plants can lead to problems such as root rot, and watered down, bland tasting fruit. Not watering enough can lead to problems with blossom end rot, leaf roll, the fruit splitting at the top, wilting plants, and worst of all dead plants.

It is best to water tomatoes deep at the soil and avoid getting water on the leaves of the plant. You want to supply water where it is needed most, at the roots. Allowing the leaves to remain damp can cause powdery mildew and other diseases to possibly form.

Water tomatoes in the morning so the tomato plants receive a good drink before the hot summer sun comes up. If growing tomatoes in containers, you may need to water twice per day because the soil in containers typically dry out much faster than in a raised bed or garden soil.

The best way to water tomato plants is to soak the soil around the tomato in a twelve to twenty-four inch diameter circle around the plant. A great way to easily accomplish this is using a soaker hose or drip irrigation system. Soaker hoses supply a steady drip of water to the soil and will not get the rest of the plant wet.

Harvesting Tomatoes

Harvesting a Ripe TomatoHarvesting tomatoes is the fun part of growing tomatoes! For best flavor it is best to harvest tomatoes when they are fully ripened on the vine. When the tomato begins to go from being firm to a more softer feel, it is nearing the time to harvest. Tomatoes can also be harvested when it is not entirely ripened, then allowed to finished ripening in a window sill.

Once you find a tomato that is ready to harvest, firmly grasp the tomato in your hand and give it a quick twist and it should pop right off the vine. Another way of harvesting tomatoes is to use a pair of garden shears and cut the fruit from the vine.

Growing Tomatoes Is Easy

Now you should be off to growing great tomatoes in your vegetable garden. Growing tomatoes is very easy as long as you follow these simple steps. With thousands of different varieties to choose from, not to mention fantastic flavors, it is no wonder tomato gardening is so addictive!

Grow Fantastic Tomatoes

16 Comments on Basics of Growing Tomatoes

  1. Sir
    I started following you on facebook and through some seed companies I found your website, also your fb posts are very informative. The situation, I am having is going places on your website – I start out reading your posts on your home page – when finding a topic of intrest I click to read and every time I am booted off you website. I do not have this problem with any other websites.

    Alex Kingston
    [email protected]

    • Hi Alex – Thank you for visiting the Facebook Page and for the visiting the site here.

      I deeply apologize for any inconveniences you have experienced while navigating through the site. I haven’t had any issues myself, but I have received message from a few people saying they had issue accessing the site. I’m currently investigating any problems and hopefully will have them resolved soon.

      Thanks for letting me know about your experience!

  2. hi,
    i have planted several tomatoes about 2 months ago, some of them bear fruits, others did not. they produced flowers but never completed to produce fruits. the flowers dies and fell off. what went wrong? these tomato plants are in a plastic container/s. i likewise have some plant under hydroponics system. the plants produces flowers but not as many compared to those planted in containers. the flowers dries and fell off. like to know why it never bear fruit/s

    • I am also having trouble with my tomato plants bearing fruit. I planted 3 plants. One was big boys, one was romas and I don’t remember what the 3rd one was. My Roma beared fruit but never ripened and the other 2 aren’t bearing fruit at all. What can I do?

      • Hi Pam – More than likely it is heat related. The rate of fruit set with tomatoes when temperatures get above 90 comes to an almost halt. You will need to simply wait until temperatures drop a bit for the fruit set to increase.

  3. i sort of fell into some tomato plants. we moved into a new rental property and had a few small beds that were mostly overgrown with weeds, after things began growing a little more… i noticed the tell-tale prickly branches and thought they were tomatoes from the smell. i weeded out the beds and now there are just tomatoes growing. not sure which variety of tomatoes i am growing, but am trying to do my best with them and try my hand at gardening. the problem is that some plants are all on their own with 3 feet between plants, some are 4 or 5 plants (possibly from the same root system) all growing together on top of eachother. i want to give my plants the best chance of succeeding, so i am wondering if i should take out some of the plants so the one can thrive instead of a couple doing mediocre and possibly not even reaching maturity. i’m going to try the finger one inch into the ground trick (to know how much to water, thanks for that tip). but i am curious what i should do with the plants that are on top of eachother and if i should let them grow as a messy jungle, or rip some out so that a smaller amount will have a better chance. also, do yellow leaves mean not enough sun, not enough water, bad soil, a combination of things? thanks, tee.

    • Hi Ben – I would remove the excess plants so there is just one in that area. You need at least two feet between each plant and any plants that are bunch together will compete for resources and will not reach their optimum potential.

      If you do decide to remove the extra plants do not just pull them up. This could end up damaging the plant you want to keep. Learned that one the hard way a few years ago.

      The best thing to do is to take some sharp scissors, or loppers and cut the plant down at the soil line. This removes the plant without disrupting its neighbor.

      If the yellow leaves are at the bottom then it is either a lack of sunlight, or lack of nitrogen most likely. If the yellow leaves are up higher it could be a disease.

  4. thanks for the prompt reply, tee.

    is it possible that a single plant can have two main “shafts” from the same point in the ground? it’s kinda like two trees that grow up together. i am assuming that it’s not possible and it’s just two plants which are really close to one another… how do i choose which one to “cut off” in that case? pick the one that’s already producing fruit, or pick the one that looks the healthiest, sturdiest?

    how tall is too tall to try to move a tomato plant? since i have a bunch of small ones together (not in a situation where taking ’em out would disturb another plant) and want to give them their own space… is there a height/maturity limit to when you can no longer transplant without disturbing them beyond repair?

    is the two foot distance between plants because they use the resources of the one next to it? or is it because you want the branches and leaves to grow unhindered by other shrubbery, garage, trees, etc.

    i’ll keep you posted. thanks a lot, tee. i would much rather talk to someone who lives and breathes this stuff rather than read it in a book.

    • Hi Ben – I guess it’s possible for two stems to grow from a single plant. Tomatoes will grow more than one stem especially if left unpruned. I’ve never seen one that comes up from the soil like that, but it doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

      In my opinion, it is best to save the healthiest, sturdiest plant when removing one. If they both look about the same then you may need to use the “eenie meennie minnie moe” technique for choosing which one to keep. If you have one that is already producing fruit and looks pretty healthy then I would keep that one and chop the other.

      As far as transplanting a tall tomato plant, I have transplanted them from a container to the ground when they were 3 feet tall before. You might be able to do the same thing, but you must dig around the plant to be moved in a wide circle to prevent damaging the roots. Dig out in a 2 ft diamete circle around the plant. Make sure to have the new hole already dug to accept the new plant.

      Once you get the tomato plant and it’s root ball loose, lift it out of the hole by supporting the bottom of the root ball. Also, make sure the soil is a little moist when moving it so the soil stays around the roots. If the soil is really dry it will just fall away from the roots when you pick it up.

      Place the plant in the new hole and backfill with soil. Water the plants well everyday (twice a day if it’s really hot) for a couple weeks. When you start seeing new growth on the plant you know it’s taken hold of it’s new home and doing well. I wouldn’t try to move you that’s over 3 feet tall.

      The spacing is so the plants will not compete for resources and so they have room to grow. Two feet is the minimum, so if you have more room planting them four to five feet apart is ideal. The extra room will improve air circulation, which is needed to reduce the chances of some diseases.

      • Hey Tee,

        Well, the fruit is starting to change color a little bit on some of the plants.

        How do you harvest? Do you wait for the fruit to turn fully-red before taking it off the plant, or do you pull off as soon as they’re not green/yellow anymore and start to get a bit of an orange tint — to let them ripen up the rest of the way inside? If you do let them ripen inside, do you use a brown paper bag, a window sill, a wooden basket?

        I am not using any sort of pesticide on the plants, and don’t want all the hard work to be foiled by bugs that get in there at the last minute to mess things up when the skin is soft enough to penetrate — but at the same time, I want to make sure the size and flavor are as good as they can be from being connected to the plants food system for as long as possible.

        Also, what’s the best way to take the tomatoes off the plant body? Do you break the whole branch off that the done ones are on? Do you use your clippers and get right above the one you’re harvesting? Should you put them in the fridge to keep for longer, or do you lose the flavor (from storing in the fridge) if you cannot eat them all immediately?

        I have some different types of tomatoes too, so maybe there is a best-practice for each type. I think I have some “bush early girl”, based on the little marker that I found after weeding; some “roma” because they’re longer and skinnier (although their skin is kinda lumpy and not really smooth); and then, of course, I have some mystery tomatoes that I am unable to identify with my limited knowledge — but I can pretty safely say that they are not grape or cherry based on their size.

        Once again, I’m unsure of what the best practice is in terms of harvesting and could really use some expert advice.

        (We were out of town for the weekend and something happened to my largest, fullest, and most fruit-filled plant. Either a squirrel jumped on it or someone bumped into it… but it broke in half and was laying on the ground when we got home. It was sad cutting it off at the ground and throwing it away.)

        Thanks, Tee. Talk to you soon.

        • Hi Ben – I harvest most of my tomatoes once they start turning red – when the tomato gets to a orangish-red color. I tend to pick a little early because the birds and squirrels like to peck and take chunks from the tomato when they are ripe. I pick them before the critters get a chance to get to it.

          After picking the tomatoes I set them on a windowsill to continue ripening. In my experience, it doesn’t change the taste.

          Once they have finished ripening I place any tomatoes I will not immediately use in the refrigerator, where they can be stored for a couple weeks. If you have some that you want to store longer you can blanch them, chop them up and freeze them. These are good for using in soups, salads, sauces, or pastes.

          As far as how to harvest, I generally just pop the tomato off the vine. Just grasp the tomato and quickly give a twist away from the plant. It will pop off in most cases. If you are worried about damaging the plant use some clippers and clip it off right above the top of the fruit.

          For cherry tomatoes, you can pluck them off one at a time or if the whole branch is full and ready to harvest clip the entire cluster.

          I hope this helps, Ben. If you have any other questions please let me know.

  5. Hi Tee, this is my first year of planting heirloom tomatoes. I decided to start the plants from seed indoors and will be planting them in a special raised bed using a soak-er system. I have successfully sown the seeds and the plants are currently about 2 to 3 inches in height. I have three varieties growing in artificial light in one of my bath tubs but I’m not sure at what point I should plant them in the raised bed. I am also not sure how far apart I should plant the same variety plants apart as well as how far apart I should plant the different verities apart from each other variety. As far as watering with the soak-er system, how long should I allow the soak-er system run to get the proper amount of water? I live in the Sacramento CA area and it can get very dry and hot during the summer months here.

  6. have you any advice on growing and caring for Blackberry bush’s?

    • i use horse manure diluted down with water and it is great for my vegetables,hope this advice helps out.

  7. Hi Ben, I am a real armature at gardening but wanted to give it a try this year. I have planted some tomato plants and the are almost 6 feet tall, I keep tying them up. I have some that were planted in Mid march and still have no blooms and are at least 5 ft and are now growing into another one. Not sure what I should do.

  8. Hi, Tee!

    I’m sorry if this was answered and I just completely missed it (it happens), but what temperature can the weather drop to before I should start covering my tomatoes? I’m not sure what specific breed they are, as I was just given a pack of random seeds by a family friend, but they are very big, strong vines, almost as tall as I am with pretty hearty roots and all. I’m not able to find a definitive answer anywhere else.

    I should probably also note that I live just north of Houston, and it usually doesn’t drop too low, but it can get frosty and such around this time of year.

    Thanks for your advice!

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