What you're learning
- Finding the right type of tomato for your garden
- Growing tomatoes from seed
- Transplanting and caring for your seedlings
- Transplanting your growing tomatoes into the garden
- Caring for your tomato plant
- Caring for your growing tomatoes in pots outdoors
- Watering and feeding your growing tomatoes well
- How to harvest your tomatoes:
- Growing cherry tomatoes
- What to plant around your tomato plants and what not to:
Whether growing tomatoes is your first venture into growing your own food or you already have a garden full of fruits and veggies, the humble tomato is a classic to grow – one that is known to be an easy and deliciously rewarding task.
Before you get started, you’ll want to decide which type of tomato plant is right for you and your garden. Once that’s done, get your gardening tools out, and let’s get to it.
Finding the right type of tomato for your garden
The most well-known variety of tomatoes to grow are heirloom tomatoes, plum, beefsteak, and cherry – which are then split into two main growing types: determinate (bush) and indeterminate (vine, also known as cordon).
If you’re a beginner at gardening then it’s a good idea to grow bush tomatoes, as they don’t require much pruning and they’re the easiest to upkeep out of the two tomato varieties since it only grows up to 4 feet tall. Unlike the vining/cordon variety, which is trained to grow tall and has to be supported by a cane or stake, as well as regularly needing to have side shoots pinched off in order to keep the tomatoes growing on the main stem and keep the plant sturdy.
However, a support option that many gardeners like to use for their bush tomatoes is a wire cage. A wired cage fits around the plant, allowing the stems to grow through the cage’s spaces, resting on the wires for support. Once the cage is in place you can pretty much leave it be.
Another significant difference between the two varieties is that bush tomato plants make all their fruit at once, while vine tomatoes grow in fewer quantities, but keep producing until the early winter. So, if you plan on making a big batch of tomato sauce to freeze – bush tomatoes might be the better choice for you. Or if you just want a few to chop fresh into a salad, then vine/cordon is best – not to have five or ten extra tomatoes laying around that you don’t know what to do with.
Growing tomatoes from seed
The growing season for tomatoes plants starts in late spring to early summer and takes between 60 and 80 days to begin flowering after the seeds have been germinated. The small yellow flowers that grow are self-pollinating and are what will turn into your tomatoes.
The first stage of growing tomatoes is in small pots. We do this to ensure that the roots populate the entire soil mass fairly quickly and drain any of the excess moisture.
You will need:
- Multi-purpose, peat-free compost or sterile potting soil
- Tomato seeds of your choice
- Small pots or any suitable plastic container (be sure to make drainage holes on the bottom of your container if it does not have any)
- A windowsill that gets plenty of natural light
What to do to grow tomatoes:
- Place roughly ten seeds in a small pot, spaced out nicely
- Add just enough potting mix on top to convert the seeds and give them a healthy amount of water
- Cover the top with plastic wrap and label the pot with the date.
It requires very little water for tomato seedlings to grow, so it’s best to use a spray bottle or to mist them daily, just to keep the top of the soil moist. Once a day should be enough, depending on how dry it feels to touch.
After a few days, when you see your tomato seeds have germinated, remove the plastic wrap and keep the compost damp (no longer using the spray bottle) – roughly watering them four times per week, once again checking to see how dry the soil feels.
10-15 days later you should have developed one to two-inch tall seedlings.
Transplanting and caring for your seedlings
When your seedlings grow to a certain length, around 1.5 to 2 inches tall, it’s time to transplant them into their individual, and slightly larger pots filled with moist compost.
Tip the contents of your container into your hand and gently pull apart the seedlings, holding them by their leaves, and make a hole into the compost with your finger or a pencil, and place the seedling inside of it. Pressing the soil down around the seedling and give it a generous watering to settle everything into place.
Place them back onto the windowsill where it gets plenty of warmth and sunlight.
The more your seedlings grow and the temperature warms up, the more water they will need, so beginning to water them every other day is ideal.
Tomatoes are known to be the king of summer fruit and therefore thrive in the sun.
As the temperature outdoors starts warming up, taking your seedlings outside for a couple of hours during the warmest time of day prepares your plant to be transplanted into the garden, to avoid shocking it.
A few weeks later you should have small developing plants of roughly ten inches.
Once daytime and nighttime temperatures stay above 65 degrees Fahrenheit, usually in late May, your garden is ready for your tomato plants.
Transplanting your growing tomatoes into the garden
To successfully grow tomatoes that are bursting with flavor, the perfect spot in your garden for your tomato plant is somewhere where it will get at least 6 to 8 hours of full sun. It however doesn’t have to be continuous sunlight – so it could be somewhere where it gets a few hours in the morning and some again in the afternoon, with a break in between.
The best time to transplant your tomato plants into the garden is in mid to late May, depending on the temperature in your area.
Before you start digging, break up the garden bed with a spade to allow air to mix into the soil. Add some vegetable fertilizer or compost and mix it evenly into the top few inches of the soil to get those nutrients levels up and even more airflow in there.
Once that’s done, it’s time to transplant your tomatoes for the final time.
- Dig a hole slightly bigger in width and quite a few inches deeper in length than the pot your plant has been in
- Remove the plant from its container and place it in the freshly dug hole or pot that is at least 12 inches deep (plant it very deeply, roughly halfway down the plant)
Your growing tomatoes can produce roots along their stems, so planting your seedlings 3 to 5 inches deeper than they were growing in their pots, can result in a stronger and more well-rooted plant that produces healthier fruit.
- If your tomatoes are indeterminate, this is the time to get your 6-foot stake, cane, or stick and place it in the ground directly behind the plant and push it down as far as it can go until it feels sturdy
- Gather the dirt around the plant, filling in any gaps
- Give the soil a healthy watering to set everything nicely, being sure not to wet any of the leaves
Make sure the stick is long and sturdy enough, and that it’s pushed as deep into the ground as possible. The more your indeterminate tomatoes grow in height, you will need to tie the main stem to the stake or cane at 8-inch intervals to keep supporting it.
Keep in mind that it’s normal for the first leaves of your tomato plant to wilt. It will then produce several sets of true leaves, as well as their flowers, which will then turn into your tomatoes.
Determinate tomatoes produce bushy growth and multiple stems. These varieties usually grow no more than 4 feet tall so they don’t require a stake, but you might want to purchase a cage just to be sure your plant is supported and doesn’t droop in some areas that will soon hold heavy trusses.
Air circulation is very important to avoid disease and ripen the fruit, so if the fruits are hidden under the leaves, thin out the foliage a little to let the sun do its thing.
Caring for your tomato plant
Once flowers begin to appear, roughly 20 – to 30 days after transplanting, feed your plant weekly with liquid tomato food.
If you have the indeterminate variety, you will also notice small shoots starting to grow in the “armpits” of your plant. You will need to pinch off any of them that you notice growing, in order to keep the plant strong and focusing all its energy on the main stem, as well as re-tying it at 8-inch intervals to the stake or cane with soft twine as it grows.
When the first tiny fruits begin to appear, strip away the leaves underneath to allow light and air to reach them better. It’s important to remember that less airflow means more chance of disease and unripened fruit, so make sure to keep it very well pruned.
Caring for your growing tomatoes in pots outdoors
Tomato plants do best in soil that is loose, rich, and drains well, which means they thrive in pots —especially more compact determinate (bush) varieties.
The main thing you need is a pot that is at least 12 inches deep.
Tomato plants that are grown in a pot need more water than tomato plants directly into the garden as they don’t retain the water the same way the ground does.
A good tip to remember when watering plants that are in a pot or container is to water them until the water runs freely through from the bottom holes. Water in the morning and check the soil moisture levels again in the afternoon. If the soil feels dry about 1 inch below the surface, it’s time to water it again.
Watering and feeding your growing tomatoes well
As I think we’ve established, the most essential food for growing tomatoes is rich soil and at least 6 hours of sunlight daily, but once that has been covered, the most vital thing that will determine the health of your tomatoes is consistency.
Water your tomato plants every other day if they’re in the ground, or daily if they’re in a pot, making sure to water deeply, while not flooding them in order to ensure the moisture soaks deep into the soil where the roots can take it up as needed.
The best time to water your tomatoes is in the early morning, as the leaves staying wet overnight heightens the chance of disease – though if for some reason you must water them in the evening, be careful not to let any water splash onto the leaves.
Wetting plant leaves in the early morning is safe because the sun will soon dry them off.
In temperatures 75 degrees Fahrenheit or more, you will need to water your tomatoes more often to prevent wilting.
In terms of food for your tomato plants, feeding them with tomato food and/or organic vegetable fertilizer weekly is vital for your plant to bear fruit to its full potential.
An added quick and easy tip is to mix some crushed eggshells into the top layer of garden soil for added calcium and other essential minerals.
How to harvest your tomatoes:
Tomatoes are ready to harvest when they develop their full mature color – usually a red or orange hue, and feel firm to touch.
Harvesting your tomatoes slightly before they reach their full ripe stage reduces the opportunity for pests to get the first nibble and for disease to damage them, so if your tomatoes are at specific risk for either, it might be a good idea to allow them to ripen fully indoors.
You can leave them to ripen on the plant if you’re growing them on a balcony or somewhere where pests are not a concern.
To harvest, simply pluck the tomatoes from the plant with your fingers. You should leave the calyx, the flower-shaped leaf, intact as this will help the tomato ripen correctly.
To store your tomatoes after harvest, once picked, keep your fruit out of direct sunlight to ensure even ripening. As well as ideally keeping them in a cool and shaded place indoors.
If your tomatoes have already fully ripened on the plant, then storing them in a fruit bowl in a cool place is the best option – keeping them out of the fridge as the cold dry temperature encourages loss of flavor.
Growing cherry tomatoes
The most significant difference between cherry tomatoes and regular tomatoes is their size. However, there are a few other ways that these two types of tomato plants are different – such as how they’re used, how they taste, what their nutritional benefits are, and that they grow quicker than regular tomatoes (and ripen earlier too).
In terms of how to grow them – it’s pretty much the same process as regular tomatoes.
- Get yourself a small pot or container with holes at the bottom (to allow excess water to drain)
- Put some potting mix in your container, pop in a few seeds, top it off with a little more potting mix and water until everything is evenly moist.
- Keep them well watered and on a windowsill or anywhere indoors that’s warm and gets as many hours of sun as possible
- To transplant, dig a hole in the soil or compost and carefully remove your tomato plant from its original pot, and slide it into the hole – planting it deep enough so only the top four to six leaves show once you cover it back up
- Water every other day to keep the soil evenly moist (you may need to water every day when the weather becomes more hot and dry).
- Feed your plant fertilizer and/or tomato food once a week until your plant begins making fruit
Most cherry tomato plants will start flowering in about a month. The flowers will be followed by tiny green fruits. A few weeks after that, you’ll have sweet and perfectly tart cherry tomatoes to harvest.
When harvesting, a truly ripe cherry tomato will come off its stem very easily, so if you’re having to tug a little harder, you might want to leave it there for another day or two.
Things to keep in mind when growing tomatoes
- Diseases or infested plants can’t be saved, so it’s important to prevent them from occurring in the first place
- Tomatoes need all the airflow they can get, so pluck off any extra foliage that might be hanging around
- You’re not the only one that can’t wait to take a bite of your tomatoes – many pests do too, so make sure to have a quick search for any that might be lurking around your tomato plant
- Imperfect shaped tomatoes are still good to eat and just as delicious
What to plant around your tomato plants and what not to:
The plants that surround your tomatoes can greatly affect their health and either prevent disease and infestations or contribute to them.
What to grow near your tomatoes:
Plants that are good to grow with your tomatoes are basil, thyme, radishes, dill, carrots, collards, fennel, cilantro, and cucumbers – as well as onions, garlic, and chives. Having some of these companions around your tomatoes can greatly reduce specific pests that could harm your tomato plants like hornworms, flea beetles, hawkmoth, or parasitic wasps infecting your growing tomatoes.
Having types of flowers like sunflowers, coneflowers, and red clover are great to have near your tomatoes as well as they increase pollination and add a touch of brightness and beauty to your garden.
What not to grow near your tomato plants:
On the other hand, planting potatoes, broccoli, peas, cabbage, and peppers is not a good idea.
Now while you can grow members of the nightshade family together (ie. eggplant, potatoes, chili, and peppers, to mention a few) and no obvious harm would be present, having them close together increases the chances of common diseases so it’s best to keep them apart.
The nicest thing about growing your own tomatoes (besides it meaning you can have fresh, nutritious, and ripe tomatoes on hand to add to any recipe), depending on the variety you choose, they are simple to grow whether you have a large garden or a balcony to your studio apartment.
Do try growing them alongside some basil for a wonderfully fragrant experience.
Finally, here’s hoping your tomato plants keep making fruits well up until the frost arrives!
How do tomatoes grow successfully?
Many different factors affect whether or not your tomato plant grows successfully – which include if they are planted at the right time (late May), are watered correctly, get enough sunlight, airflow, and if the soil is rich and nutrient-dense.
How do you take care of tomato plants?
You take care of your tomato plants by making sure they have enough sunlight, plenty of nutrients in the soil, safe from pests, have enough airflow, and are watered consistently.
How long should tomatoes take to grow?
You can expect your tomato plants to begin producing fruits roughly 40 days after planting them in the ground.
What can you not grow with tomatoes?
Broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, and fennel are vegetables you absolutely should not plant with tomatoes as well as any fruit or vegetable from the nightshade family.