How to Grow The Best Tomatoes (+ 2 Things You You’re Doing Wrong)

In this comprehensive guide, I’ll walk you through everything you need to know about how to grow tomatoes, from choosing the perfect spot and selecting the right varieties to planting, care, and troubleshooting.

And I’ll share more about what I think is key to the best plants ever. Bury them super, super deep, and give them tons and tons of room.

Everyone who’s interested in starting a vegetable garden wants to plant tomatoes. There’s a reason for that. Let’s make yours the best on the block.

Key Takeaways

  • Everything you need to know about growing tomatoes, the right way.
  • Plant them deep in a sunny spot with fertile, well-draining soil, give them plenty of space, and take care to avoid disease by maintaining good air circulation and not handling the plants when wet.

Pick the Perfect Spot

Before you start your tomato-growing journey, it’s crucial to select the ideal location for your plants. A well-chosen spot can make all the difference between a lackluster harvest and a bumper crop of juicy, flavorful tomatoes. Let’s learn the two key factors to consider when picking the perfect home for your tomato plants.

assortment of heirloom tomatoes on tea towel.

Tomatoes Need Lots of Sun

Tomatoes are sun-worshippers, plain and simple. They crave at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight each day to thrive and produce an abundant harvest. When scouting for the perfect spot, look for an area that receives full sun throughout the day, especially during the peak growing season.

If you’re unsure about the sun exposure in your garden, take some time to observe the area at different times of the day. You might be surprised to find that a spot you thought was ideal is actually shaded by a nearby tree or building for a significant portion of the day.

Well-Draining Soil is the Key

Tomatoes may love the sun, but they don’t like to sit in soggy soil. Well-draining soil is essential for healthy root development and to prevent issues like root rot, which can quickly spell disaster for your plants.

If you’re not sure about the drainage in your garden, try this simple test: dig a hole about a foot deep and fill it with water. If the water drains away within a few hours, you’re good to go. If it takes longer, you may need to amend the soil with organic matter like compost or consider raised beds to improve drainage.

These two things are a must. All the fertilizing and picking varieties in the world won’t make a difference if they don’t get sun and the soil can’t drain.

Choose Your Tomato Varieties

Now that you’ve found the perfect spot for your tomato plants, it’s time to dive into the exciting world of tomato varieties. With countless options available, from tiny cherry tomatoes to giant beefsteaks, it can be overwhelming to choose the right ones for your garden. Let’s break down the two main categories to help you make an informed decision.

Determinate vs Indeterminate

Tomato plants fall into two main growth habits: determinate and indeterminate. Determinate varieties, also known as bush tomatoes, grow to a fixed size (usually 3-4 feet) and produce their crop all at once. They’re ideal for small spaces or containers and are perfect for canning or making sauce, as the fruits ripen simultaneously.

Indeterminate varieties, on the other hand, continue to grow and produce fruit throughout the season until frost kills them. They can reach heights of 6 feet or more and require sturdy support, like tall cages or trellises. Indeterminate plants are great for fresh eating, as they provide a steady supply of tomatoes over an extended period.

Heirloom or Hybrid?

Another decision you’ll face is whether to grow heirloom or hybrid tomatoes. Heirloom varieties are open-pollinated, meaning they’ve been passed down through generations and will grow true to type from saved seeds. They often boast unique colors, shapes, and flavors, but can be more susceptible to disease and have lower yields compared to hybrids.

Hybrid tomatoes are created by crossing two distinct varieties to produce offspring with specific traits, such as disease resistance, improved yield, or uniform size. While they don’t have the same depth of flavor as some heirlooms, hybrids are generally more reliable and productive, making them a popular choice for many gardeners.

Our Favorite Varieties

Picking tomatoes is fun, but picking favorites is like choosing a favorite child. However, if I had to pick five, here’s what I would choose:

  • Brandy Boy: A hybrid with the flavor of heirloom Brandywines.
  • Supersauce: One of the best canning tomatoes
  • Fresh Salsa: Perfect for dicing for bruschetta, pico, and anything else.
  • Celebrity: A productive, trouble-free winner.
  • Sungold: The only cherry tomato I go. Super sweet!

I order my seeds from Johnny’s or Burpee, and get any started plants from the farmer’s market.

Get Planting

You’ve chosen the perfect spot and selected your tomato varieties—now it’s time to get those plants in the ground! Planting tomatoes may seem straightforward, but there are a few key techniques that can make a world of difference in the health and productivity of your plants. Let’s explore the three essential steps to planting tomatoes like a pro.

Plant Them Deep

One of the most important things to remember when planting tomatoes is to plant them deep. Unlike most other vegetables, tomatoes have the ability to grow roots along their stem, which helps them develop a stronger, more extensive root system. When planting, remove the bottom leaves and bury the stem up to the first set of true leaves. This may seem counterintuitive, but trust me—your plants will thank you!

grid of 3 i mages showing how deep to bury tomatoes.
You can bury them deep and straight or on their side in a “trench”.

You’ll know you’ve done this right when you are sad at how small your plant looks. It will all be worth it!

Give Them Room to Grow

Tomato plants need plenty of space to stretch out and grow, both above and below ground. Overcrowding can lead to poor air circulation, which increases the risk of disease and can also result in smaller yields. As a general rule, space-determinate varieties are 2-3 feet apart, and indeterminate varieties are 3-4 feet apart. If you’re planting in rows, allow 4-5 feet between each row to ensure adequate space for walking and harvesting.

I am a big believer in giving your vegetables more room than is commonly recommended. I learned this in one of my favorite gardening books and have been a believer ever since.

Key Tip:

I like to space my tomatoes so that I can easily walk in between the cages. They will seem absurdly far apart at first, but when they are full-grown you’ll be glad they have space to breathe.

Support is Essential

Tomato plants, especially indeterminate varieties, can become heavy and unwieldy as they grow and produce fruit. Providing support in the form of cages, stakes, or trellises is crucial to keep plants off the ground, improve air circulation, and make harvesting easier. Install your support system at planting time to avoid damaging the roots later on. As the plants grow, tie them loosely to the support using soft twine or tomato clips, allowing room for the stem to expand.

By following these planting techniques—planting deep, giving them room to grow, and providing essential support—you’ll set your tomato plants up for success and pave the way for a bountiful harvest of delicious, juicy tomatoes.

Tomato TLC

Now that your tomato plants are in the ground, it’s time to give them the tender loving care they need to thrive. Just like any living thing, tomatoes have specific requirements for water, nutrients, and maintenance. By providing your plants with the right care, you’ll be rewarded with a bounty of delicious, juicy tomatoes. Let’s dive into the three key aspects of tomato TLC.

Water Consistently

Tomatoes need consistent moisture to grow and produce fruit, but overwatering can be just as detrimental as underwatering. Aim to keep the soil evenly moist but not soggy, and always water at the base of the plant to avoid getting the leaves wet, which can lead to disease. As a general rule, tomatoes need about 1-2 inches of water per week, depending on your climate and soil type. Consider using a drip irrigation system or soaker hose to ensure consistent, targeted watering.

tomato growing in plant

Fertilize for Big Harvests

Tomatoes are heavy feeders and require plenty of nutrients to produce a bountiful harvest. To keep your plants well-fed, apply a balanced, slow-release fertilizer at planting time and then supplement with regular applications of a water-soluble fertilizer throughout the growing season. Look for a fertilizer with a higher phosphorus content (the middle number in the NPK ratio) to promote fruit production. Be careful not to over-fertilize, as this can lead to lush foliage growth at the expense of fruit development.

To Prune or Not to Prune

I have never pruned my tomatoes, although some people choose to. We live in a humid climate and it’s my belief that the less you touch them, the better.

Avoid Tomato Troubles

Even with the best care, tomato plants can sometimes fall victim to various diseases and pests. These issues can quickly spiral out of control, leading to reduced yields and even plant death. However, by taking a proactive approach and implementing some simple strategies, you can minimize the risk of tomato troubles and keep your plants healthy and productive. Let’s explore two key ways to protect your tomato plants.

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Prevent Disease Spread

Tomatoes are susceptible to a range of fungal and bacterial diseases, such as early blight, late blight, and fusarium wilt. These diseases can spread rapidly, especially in warm, humid conditions. To prevent disease spread, always water at the base of the plant to avoid getting the leaves wet, and provide adequate spacing between plants to promote good air circulation. Remove any infected leaves or fruits immediately and dispose of them away from your garden to prevent the disease from spreading.

Another effective strategy is to practice crop rotation. Avoid planting tomatoes (or other members of the nightshade family, like peppers and eggplants) in the same spot year after year, as this can allow disease-causing organisms to build up in the soil. Instead, rotate your crops, planting tomatoes in a different area of your garden each season.

Manage Pests Naturally

Tomato plants can also fall prey to a variety of pests, including aphids, whiteflies, and tomato hornworms. While it may be tempting to reach for chemical pesticides, these can harm beneficial insects and even contaminate your fruits. Instead, opt for natural pest management strategies.

One effective method is to encourage beneficial insects, such as ladybugs and lacewings, which feed on common tomato pests. You can attract these helpful predators by planting a diverse array of flowering plants nearby. Another strategy is to use physical barriers, like row covers or fine mesh netting, to exclude pests from your plants. If you do spot pests on your tomatoes, try removing them by hand or using a strong jet of water to dislodge them.

By taking steps to prevent disease spread and manage pests naturally, you’ll create a healthier, more resilient tomato patch that can better withstand the challenges of the growing season.

Enjoy Your Homegrown Harvest

After all your hard work and dedication, it’s finally time to reap the rewards of your labor. Harvesting your homegrown tomatoes is a moment of pure joy and satisfaction, as you pluck the vibrant, juicy fruits from the vine and anticipate the delicious meals to come. In this section, we’ll cover when to pick your tomatoes and share some inspiring recipe ideas to help you make the most of your harvest.

When to Pick Them

Knowing when to harvest your tomatoes is key to enjoying them at their peak flavor and texture. The best time to pick your tomatoes is when they are fully ripe and have reached their mature color, whether that’s red, yellow, or purple, depending on the variety. Gently squeeze the fruit; it should give slightly under pressure but still feel firm. Ripe tomatoes will also have a sweet, fragrant aroma.

If you need to pick your tomatoes a bit early (for example, if frost is threatening), you can harvest them when they are at the “breaker stage,” which is when they first start to show signs of color. These tomatoes will continue to ripen off the vine at room temperature.

Tomato Recipe Ideas

Now that you have a bounty of fresh, homegrown tomatoes, it’s time to get creative in the kitchen! Here are some of the many things to make with tomatoes.

  • Caprese Salad: Slice your tomatoes and arrange them on a plate with fresh mozzarella, basil leaves, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and olive oil.
  • Bruschetta: Dice your tomatoes and mix them with minced garlic, fresh basil, and a splash of olive oil. Serve on top of toasted baguette slices for a classic Italian appetizer.
  • Gazpacho: Blend your tomatoes with cucumber, bell pepper, garlic, and bread crumbs for a refreshing cold soup that’s perfect for hot summer days.
  • Tomato Sauce: Simmer your tomatoes with onion, garlic, and herbs for a simple, flavorful sauce that’s perfect for pasta, pizza, or as a base for other dishes

FAQs

How Long Until I Harvest My Tomatoes?

One of the most common questions gardeners have is, “When can I expect to harvest my tomatoes?” The answer depends on the variety you’re growing, as well as your climate and growing conditions. On average, most tomato varieties take between 60 to 80 days from transplanting to harvest. Cherry tomatoes and other small varieties may be ready to pick a bit earlier, while larger beefsteak tomatoes may take a bit longer. Keep an eye on your plants and watch for the signs of ripeness discussed in the previous section.

Why Are My Tomato Plant’s Leaves Yellowing?

If you notice your tomato plant leaves turning yellow, don’t panic! There are several possible reasons for this, some more serious than others. One common cause is nutrient deficiencies, particularly in nitrogen or magnesium. This can often be remedied by applying a balanced fertilizer or a foliar spray of Epsom salts. Yellow leaves can also be a sign of overwatering or poor drainage, so make sure you’re watering correctly and that your soil isn’t waterlogged. In some cases, yellowing leaves may indicate a viral or fungal disease, so keep an eye out for other symptoms and remove any affected foliage promptly.

Can I Grow Tomatoes in Containers?

Absolutely! Tomatoes are one of the best vegetables to grow in containers, as long as you choose the right variety and provide adequate care. Determinate or dwarf varieties are best suited for container growing, as they have a more compact growth habit. Choose a container that is at least 5 gallons in size and has good drainage holes. Fill it with a high-quality potting mix and make sure to water and fertilize regularly, as containers can dry out and deplete nutrients more quickly than in-ground gardens. With the right care, you can enjoy a bountiful harvest of delicious tomatoes, even in the smallest of spaces!

Almost every tomato plant will have yellowing leaves at some point in its life. Don’t worry!

Have Fun!

Growing your own tomatoes is a rewarding and delicious adventure that every gardener should experience. Whether you’re a seasoned green thumb or a complete beginner, the joy of harvesting your own sun-ripened tomatoes is unmatched.

So what are you waiting for? Dive in, get your hands dirty, and discover the incredible satisfaction of growing your own tomatoes. With a little patience, care, and the guidance provided in this article, you’ll be savoring the fruits of your labor in no time. Happy gardening!

How to Grow The Best Tomatoes (+ 2 Things You You\'re Doing Wrong)

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