How To Grow Tomatoes: The Beginner’s Guide & Useful Advanced Tips

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how to grow tomatoes

There’s nothing like enjoying your own homegrown tomatoes! Now you can learn how to grow tomatoes, either on your balcony, in your garden, or even indoors. This guide is built up from beginner level to semi-advanced level in several steps, adding some skills as you read on.

You will learn super-easy methods as well as more sophisticated ways to get the most out of your tomato-growing endeavor. Ready? Let’s dive in!

Table of Contents

Want To Start Growing Your Tomatoes Right Away? – The Simplest Way For Beginners (The Fast Track)

“I want it now!”, we hear your cry. OK, here’s the shortcut for you, dear Newbie: a quick step-by-step beginner’s guide.

(If you’re a more advanced grower, you can skip this part and browse the Table of Contents for more detailed tips and instructions.)

Step Zero: Are There Still At Least 50 Frost-Free Days Ahead?

45-50 days is the minimum time needed for the fastest-growing varieties can produce ripe fruit.

If you don’t have it, you can only grow your tomato plants indoors using growlights and very rarely in a sunny window.

OK then, here are the steps for growing tomatoes the super-easy way.

1. Buy Healthy Tomato Seedlings

Go to the nearest farmers’ market or garden center, or order seedlings online. Choose mini, dwarf, or smaller determinate (bush) varieties because they need smaller pots.

Ask the seller and go for the varieties that are resistant to diseases, need the least care, and produce fruit reliably.

Select the seedlings that look healthy: they should be dark green, without spots on the leaves, strong-looking, and not leggy. If the container seems too small compared to the plant size, the plant has probably become root-bound, which you should avoid.

2. Buy 3-5 Gallon Pots

For mini, dwarf, or smaller bush tomato varieties, 3-5 gallon (10-20 liter) plastic pots are big enough (for the micro varieties even a 1 or 2-gallon pot can do). Make sure the pots can drain at the bottom through some holes.

Don’t be too greedy. If it’s your first time growing tomatoes, try it with only 1-5 plants and see how you can manage them throughout the season.

3. Choose A Good Quality Growing Mix

This is key. You’ll need a growing medium that drains well, contains a lot of nutrients, and keeps moisture like a sponge. Don’t use garden soil as it may already be infected, may have harmful fungi, and usually drains poorly.

We recommend organic growing mixes specially developed for growing tomatoes. Chemical fertilizers may also work well, but are usually not environmentally friendly.

4. Plant The Seedlings

Here comes the dirty part. Fill up your container with the growing mix leaving about an inch (2.5 cm) from the top. Moisten all the mix by watering it.

Take your seedling and remove the leaves along the stem and leave only the top 1 or 2 sets of leaves.

Dig a deep hole in the middle of the growing medium and sink the seedling into it including the larger part of the stem (where you removed the leaves).

It’s best if only the top set of leaves is above the ground. Firm the soil around the seedling, put a tray under the pot, and water it well.

5. Harden Off Your Seedlings

Before placing your seedlings outside permanently, you should get them accustomed to the harsher outdoor environment.

For 1 week, take them outside for a couple of hours per day when the weather is nice, but don’t put them in direct sunlight during the first couple of days.

6. Place The Plants Outdoors Only When It’s Frost-Free

Tomatoes are frost-sensitive plants, therefore never put them outside if there’s still a chance of night frosts. Check the last frost date in your area and move the pots outside only after this date.

Place the plants in a sunny spot. Tomatoes need at least six hours of direct sunlight daily. Protect them from heavy winds. Should there still be any chance of night frost, take them inside for the night.

7. Should You Use A Stake Or Cage? Only If You Choose Bush Or Vine Varieties

Micro, mini, and some dwarf varieties don’t need staking. That’s why they are the simplest to grow. Other dwarf varieties can easily be controlled with short stakes or cages.

For bush varieties, which can grow to a height and width of 3-4 feet (90-120 cm), you’ll need a stake or tomato cage. The best way is to drive the stake 1.5-2 feet (45-60 cm) into the ground right next to the pot so it won’t fall over even if it’s windy.

Do you have railings or bars on your balcony or patio? Place your pots next to them and use them to support your bush tomato.

Either way, just tie branches to the stake or bars as the plant grows so that the plant will stand upright firmly.

8. Water Regularly And Add Nutrients

Tomato plants need regular watering, make sure the soil is moist all the time below two inches deep. Never use a pot that doesn’t have holes at the bottom so it cannot drain.

After six weeks you can add some fertilizer and then every few weeks during the fruiting season will also help maintain optimal health for your tomato plants.

9. Harvest When Ripe

If your plants are getting enough sunlight, water, and nutrients, they should grow fine and develop ripe fruit after 60-90 days, depending on the varieties you grow. The flavor will be at its peak when the fruit is fully ripe.

However, you can pick them even before they get “ripe looking” when they turn glossy and dark green in color. They will ripen off the vine on your kitchen counter, but make sure they are not in direct sunlight.

mini tomato plant in container
Mini tomato variety in a pot

10. Enjoy!

You’ve worked hard and now it’s reward time.

There are so many ways you can eat tomatoes: pick ‘n’ eat (especially cherry varieties), slice and make a sandwich, chop and cook some pasta sauce or soup, wash and pickle, cook and can, etc.

How To Grow Tomatoes From A To Z

Tomatoes are tender warm-season plants that love the sun and can’t stand frost. It’s important not to plant them outside when there’s still a risk of frost.

In most areas, the soil and air aren’t warm enough to plant them outdoors until late spring or early summer, except in the tropical zones 10-11 (e.g. Southern Florida, parts of California, Hawaii, and Mexico).

Tomatoes take 50 days to over 100 days from transplanting to harvest, based on the variety (there are thousands to choose from worldwide!).

Most gardeners plant small ‘starter plants’ or transplants instead of seeds after the weather has warmed up in spring—this is what we suggested in the first section (The Fast Track).

You can also grow your own tomatoes from seed indoors, which takes about 6 weeks and just a little more work.

Planning

You can only grow tomatoes if a number of conditions are met, so a basic growing plan is needed. Keep in mind all the following factors

  • Light – Tomatoes require more light than most other vegetables, a minimum of 6-8 hours of direct sunlight. Before planting your seedlings or direct sowing, visit the plot at different times throughout the day to determine how much sunlight the spot gets. For example, the shadow cast by a large tree may cause problems for the tomato plants. Note: summer days are longer and the angle of sunlight is higher. Try to foresee where the shadowy spots will appear and plan accordingly.
  • Soil – Tomatoes are heavy feeders, so they need to be planted in fertile soil or a growing mix with lots of nutrients. More on this in the Soil And Growing Mix For Tomatoes section.
  • Water – You’ll need to water your plants regularly, even twice a day if it gets very hot and dry. Hint: unless you apply an automatic irrigation system, try to plant your plants close to the house so it won’t be a pain in the neck to water them regularly. More on this in the Watering Tomatoes section.
  • Temperature – Tomatoes are frost-sensitive and their growth will slow down when temperatures drop below 60 °F (15 °C). Make sure there are still enough warm days to maturity (40-50 at least for the earliest varieties).
  • Varieties – Vining, bush, dwarf, and mini varieties need different planting spaces. Here’s a simple guide (rotate your smartphone screen horizontally):
VarietyPlant SpacingRow Spacing
Vine (Indeterminate / Vining / Cordon / Upright, usually staked)1 ft (30 cm), if pruned considerably and trained vertically, e.g. in a square foot gardening garden box 2 ft (60 cm), if pruned moderately 3-4 ft (90 cm), if let sprawl3-4 ft (90-120 cm) (Note: when planted in containers and garden boxes, you don’t have rows)
Bush (Determinate, usually caged)2 ft (60 cm)3 ft (90 cm)
Dwarf1 ft (30 cm)1-2 ft (30-60 cm)
Mini / Micro8-10 in (20-25 cm)1-1.5 ft (30-45 cm) (Note: they are mostly grown in containers or garden boxes)

Supplies For Growing Tomato Plants

Growing tomatoes doesn’t need to be resource-intensive. For example, you can grow a single mini tomato plant in just a gallon of nutrient-rich growing mix and regular watering—no support or extra care is needed.

On the other hand, if you go for a couple of large-fruited vining varieties, or think big, you’ll probably need proper support structures, such as stakes or cages, fertilizers, mulching, irrigation equipment, potting soil, pots, grow bags, garden boxes, etc.

Must-have supplies for growing tomatoes in the soil

  • Stakes or tomato cages
  • Fertilizer
  • Garden trowel

Must-have supplies for growing tomatoes in containers

  • Containers (10-20 gallon pots or grow bags)
  • Potting mix
  • Stakes or tomato cages
  • Cup or small watering can

Must-have supplies for starting tomato seeds

  • Seeds
  • Seed starting mix / vermiculate
  • Seed trays / medium pots / seed cells
  • Spray bottle

Optional supplies

  • Gardening gloves
  • Pruning shears (esp. for vining varieties)
  • Different materials for building support (mesh, rebar, lumber, wire, twine, etc.)

Starting With Seedlings

As we’ve mentioned earlier, the easiest way to start growing your tomatoes is to buy healthy seedlings from a reputable nursery or grower.

What to check when selecting seedlings:

  • Your tomatoes should be short and stocky with strong stems.
  • They should look dark green rather than light green.
  • They shouldn’t look too large compared to their container.
  • They shouldn’t have any yellow leaves or spots.
  • They shouldn’t have flowers or fruits already present.
  • If you can, check their roots by sliding them carefully out of their containers. The roots should look light-toned (not brownish) and not root-bound.

Which Tomato Variety To Choose?

tomato varieties on plate
Big, small, red, black, orange, green, bush, cherry, round, oval…

There are thousands of different tomatoes varying in color, shape, fruit size, flavor, plant size, days-to-harvest times, growth (vining/bush), and some are hybrids while others are open-pollinated.

Confused? Here’s a little help.

In the following, we go from beginner-level to advanced-level tips, mentioning the basic criteria for selecting the varieties. Then it’s a matter of preference whether you choose sweet red cherry tomatoes, large pink beefsteaks, or yellow paste varieties.

For Beginner Tomato Growers: Hybrids, Ideally Bush Or Dwarf Varieties

Hybrid (F1) tomatoes are usually easier and safer to grow. They are generally more resistant to diseases. The more letters you see next to their names, the more diseases they can fight.

E.g. VFFNTA stands for Verticillium wilt, Fusarium wilt races 1 and 2, Nematodes, Tobacco mosaic virus, Alternaria.

Additionally, they are usually more productive with fruit that is consistent in size and shape.

Choose bush, dwarf, or mini hybrids. They need shorter stakes or cages (if any) and don’t need pruning.

Determinate (bush) varieties also need less care because they set all their fruit within a limited time frame, i.e. 2-3 weeks, and then they can be removed (the space freed up can still be used for other crops).

Popular Hybrid Tomato Varieties:

Variety TypeVariety Name
Vine (Indeterminate)Sun Gold, Supersweet 100, Sweet 100, Jet Star, Grape, Early Girl, Better Boy, Big Boy, Lemon Boy
Bush (Determinate)Supertasty, BHN 589, Mountain Hybrid Series
Semi-determinateCelebrity, Lizzano
DwarfBetter Bush
Mini / MicroMicro Tom

For Semi-Advanced Tomato Growers:

You can take one step further by choosing some of the indeterminate hybrids, e.g. Sungold, Better Boy, Big Beef, Big Boy, Early Girl, Jet Star, Sweet 100, Belfast, Honeycomb.

They will need taller support (6-8 ft / 1.8-2.4 m) and also pruning to avoid dense foliage and overgrowth.

They will keep growing and bearing fruit until they’re killed by frost, disease, or pests. Therefore you should take care of vining tomato varieties till the end of the season, which takes a little more expertise, time, and effort.

For Advanced Tomato Growers:

Of course, you can still grow hybrids, but open-pollinated varieties or heirlooms will offer a greater diversity of flavor, color, shape, and size—there are thousands of them!

Most of them are vining types, but since the 1950s, several companies and private growers have developed additional open-pollinated bush and dwarf varieties, which you still can grow every season by saving and sowing seeds.

The real tomato challenge is to grow indeterminate heirlooms because they are generally less disease-resistant and need more care all through the growing season.

They may also produce lower yields, but many tomato enthusiasts say there’s hardly any hybrid or bush variety that can compete in flavor with the best-tasting heirlooms.

So if you go for superb taste, go for vining heirlooms.

Note: Heirlooms are generally referred to as open-pollinated varieties that were developed before 1949 when the first hybrid tomato, Big Boy, was introduced by Burpee. They are basically the old, traditional cultivars that now have a history of at least 75-80 years, but many heirloom tomatoes come from old cultivars that were developed over hundreds of years.

And here’s a big advantage:

You can save seeds from heirloom or open-pollinated varieties and sow them. They “breed true”, which means they’ll produce identical fruit year after year. This means that you don’t need to buy seeds, but you can get them for free with just some minutes of extra work.

kellogg's breakfast heirloom tomato
Kellogg’s Breakfast: a popular, orange-colored heirloom variety with a balanced flavor

Popular Heirloom / Open-Pollinated Tomato Varieties:

Variety TypeVariety Name
Vine (Indeterminate)Brandywine, Black Krim, Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, Amish Paste, Black Cherry, Oxheart, Pineapple, San Marzano, Nepal
Bush (Determinate)Roma, Ace 55, Bush Beefsteak, Heinz, Oregon Spring, Southern Night, Gold Nugget, Taxi, Green Grape
Semi-determinateMarmande, Alaska, Fargo
DwarfDwarf Pink Passion, Dwarf Purple Heart, Dwarf Stone, Dwarf Champion, Perth Pride, Rosella Purple, Dwarf Mr. Snow, Budai Törpe

Where To Grow Tomatoes

Tomato plants need warm temperatures, full sun, rich soil, and lots of water. Having these provided, you can basically plant them anywhere, e.g. you can grow them in containers on a sunny balcony or in the soil in your backyard.

How To Grow Tomatoes In Containers

If you plant your tomato plant in a pot or other type of container, follow these steps:

  1. Choose a pot, bucket, grow bag, or garden box of at least 4-5 gallons (15-20 l), preferably 8-10 gallons (30-40 l)
  2. Sanitize the container: submerge it in a 1:10 bleach solution, then scrub the inside, rinse it, and let it dry in the sun
  3. Use a dry, soilless potting mix, fill up the container leaving some room at the top (a few inches)
  4. Dig a deep hole and plant the seedling in the dry mix.
  5. Remove the leaves along the stem and leave only the top 1 or 2 sets of leaves.
  6. Bury as much of the stem as you can and let only the top sets of leaves stick out of the growing medium. Note: Don’t forget to harden off your seedlings before planting! (See the next section for details.)
  7. Water it well from the top, at the root, and avoid getting the leaves wet.
  8. Provide some support (e.g. a spiral stake or a wooden tomato stake driven into the ground just outside of the pot to provide strong support).
  9. Spread some mulch on top of the potting mix (e.g. grass clippings, shredded leaves).
  10. Place your plant in a wind-protected sunny spot.

Growing Tomatoes In The Soil

transplanting seedling into the soil
Right after transplanting your seedlings into the soil, water them well

Once you have the optimal soil and air temperature outside, and your soil drains well, is rich in nutrients, and has a nice texture, it’s time to plant your seedlings—or is it?

Have you hardened off your seedlings?

Don’t plant them outside right away from your window sill or greenhouse. Help them get used to the “outside world”. For 1-2 weeks, take them outside for a couple of hours per day when the weather is nice.

Protect them from the wind and don’t put them in direct sunlight at first. Then, you can expose the plants to direct sunlight for the last days of the hardening-off period.

Time to plant them outside. Let’s see how to do it step by step:

  1. Remove the leaves along the stem and leave only the top 1 or 2 sets of leaves.
  2. Be sure the soil is moist and loose. Add fertilizer to it if needed (e.g. compost, composted manure, bonemeal, or chemical fertilizers of 5-10-5 NPK values).
  3. Dig a hole in the soil with a trowel. Plant the seedling at least a few inches deeper than it was in the container. You can even bury the whole stem and have only the top sets of leaves sticking out of the ground. Firm the soil around the stem.
  4. Water the plant well, but make sure the foliage doesn’t get wet.
  5. Add a layer of organic mulch (e.g. grass clippings, 3-4 in / 8-10 cm thick) to prevent the soil from drying too quickly and to hold back weeds.
  6. Provide support right after planting. Use a stake or tomato cage 4-8 ft (1.2-2.4 m) tall, depending on the variety, to give proper support.

Tips:

  • Leave spaces between the plants and rows as suggested earlier in the Planning section.
  • Don’t plant in soils that have grown tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, or eggplant in the past 2-3 years.
  • Any members of the Brassica family (cabbage and mustard family, e.g. cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, or kohlrabi should not be planted near tomatoes.

How To Grow Tomatoes Upside Down?

growing tomatoes upside down
Homemade upside-down container for tomato

You can have “hanging” tomato plants by growing them upside down. You can make your own hanging bucket or buy a ready-made upside-down tomato planter, like the Topsy Turvy.

The recommended varieties are indeterminate cherry tomatoes since they have more flexible, leggier stems and produce smaller, lighter fruit.

  1. Cut a hole in the bottom of the bucket (4-5 gallons / 15-20 l), 3-4 in (8-10 cm) in diameter.
  2. Push the root ball through the hole and fill up the bucket with moist potting soil.
  3. Hang the planter in a sunny spot where the plant gets at least 6-8 hours of sunlight.
  4. Water it regularly, if it’s very hot, you may need to water it twice a day.

Growing In Straw Bales?

You can grow your tomatoes in straw bales. Tomato expert Craig LeHoullier remembers:

“…it really loved growing in the straw bale in my Hendersonville yard.”

So why not try it?

There are many different approaches to straw bale tomato growing, but here’s a simple method:

  1. Put your straw bale in a sunny spot, cut side on top.
  2. Create cavities in the bale and pour organic nutrients, e.g. bonemeal, blood meal, or fish emulsion, into them.
  3. Water the bale for the next 18-20 days and then check if it’s still warm in the middle of the bale (if it is, wait a couple more days).
  4. When the bale has cooled, you can start planting (2 plants/bale): make holes for each seedling 2 ft (60 cm) apart, 4 in (10 cm) deep, cover the exposed roots of the seedlings with compost or growing mix, plant the seedlings, and water them well.
  5. Keep the bale moist by watering it regularly, however, don’t overwater, otherwise, you’ll wash away a lot of nutrients; 1 gallon per day per bale is enough at the beginning of the season and as the weather gets warmer, increase the amount of water; feed the plants with dilute fish emulsion or compost tea every 2-3 weeks.

Growing Tomatoes Indoors (Advanced Level)

It is a real challenge to grow tomatoes indoors because these plants naturally need at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight and warm temperatures.

If you have a south-facing window, you can try growing tomatoes on the windowsill, but most of the time, growing tomatoes indoors requires growlights and heating to provide adequate light and temperatures of 70-80 °F (21-26 °C).

The most suitable varieties are dwarf or mini tomatoes with short stems and small fruits, for they mature sooner.

Try Red Robin, Florida Petite, Tiny Tim, Toy Boy, or Dwarf Champion.

Technically, if you choose varieties that are not indeterminate (bush), you can harvest all year long, because there won’t be any frost to kill your plant. You just need to take care of your plant regularly.

To grow tomatoes indoors, follow the steps mentioned in the section How To Grow Tomatoes From Seed.

Further instructions:

  • Use growlights for starting seedlings and growing your plants. First, just after germination, place the growlights not farther than 2 inches (5 cm) above the top of the plants. After 3 weeks, raise the lights 5-6 inches above the seedlings. For vegetative and flowering plants, place LED bulbs 20-30 in (50-75 cm) above them.
  • Make sure the seedlings get 14-16 hours of light daily. Turn off the lights at night.
  • Hand-pollination is helpful for growing indoor tomatoes because it helps prevent the lack of pollinating insects. When flowers bloom, gently tap their stems to release pollen. You may also use a cotton swab.
  • Give the plants support by staking to avoid bending over, especially when the plants start setting fruit.

How To Grow Tomatoes From Seed (Semi-Advanced Level)

If you plan to grow a good number of tomatoes, it’s much cheaper to grow your own seedlings from seed. You can also earn some extra money by growing even more seedlings and selling them as the season starts.

Another reason for sowing seeds may be that you want to have some special varieties that are not available as seedlings. In this case, you can choose from a huge number of varieties and grow the ones you prefer.

Don’t worry, it’s not at all difficult, just needs a little extra time, that’s all.

1. Sowing Seeds Into Containers Indoors

Start planting seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before transplanting (depending on your hardiness zone and the last frost date).

You can use seed trays, small plastic pots, yogurt containers, or any other container, just make sure that there is a hole in the bottom so that they can drain.

hole in plastic container for sowing tomato seeds
Hole made with a stab of a knife

1 – Fill the container with dry seed starting mix, potting soil, or even pure vermiculite or perlite (don’t use garden soil; it’s not loose enough and may be infected). Water it thoroughly.

potting mix in plastic seed starting pots
A couple of plastic pots filled with loose, soilless seed starting mix

2 – Sow 2-4 seeds and then put a thin layer (1/4 in or 0.5 cm) of starting mix, potting soil, vermiculite, or perlite over the seeds. Don’t sow deeper than that.

tomato seed starting container with label
Insert a label into the container with name of the variety written on it

3 – Spray it with water and keep the mix moist all the time. Don’t put the container in direct sun.

4 – You can cover the container with a translucent plastic cover or dome to help germination; remove it a couple of days after germination. The ideal temperature for germination is 70-80 °F (21-26 °C).

plastic cover on tomato seed starting container
Seeds start to germinate in a warm, moist environment

5 – After germination, put the containers in a sunny window or under growlights (see the section Growing Tomatoes Indoors). Turn the containers daily if you grow your seedlings on a window sill to keep them from stretching and bending toward the light.

tomato seedlings on windowsill
Seedlings on a window sill—turn them daily to avoid phototropism

If you started your seeds in smaller containers (e.g. seed starter pots or trays), you need to transplant them into larger ones.

Some gardeners suggest that you should do it only after the tiny plants have set a pair of true leaves, but, as they may already have developed deeper roots, this can cause a bigger shock to the plants.

Therefore it’s better to transplant the small seedlings as soon as they have developed their cotyledons or seed leaves.

Just loosen the soil under the tiny plant with a small stick or pencil, hold the leaves (not the stem), gently pull it out, and transplant it into a larger pot.

Planting densely and separating the seedlings (advanced level)

You can sow 20-50 seeds into a single medium pot or container cell, wait until they grow 2-3 in (5-7 cm) tall and then transplant the healthiest ones, say, the 10-20 largest, into separate pots.

1 – Take the single mass of small seedlings out of the pot.

mass of small tomato seedlings

2 – Gently separate the seedlings at the roots.

3 – Push each seedling with your finger into a new pot filled with planting mix.

transplanting small tomato seedling into pot

4 – Water the pot thoroughly, but carefully.

2. Sowing Seeds Directly Into The Garden Soil

You can sow the seeds directly into the garden soil as soon as soil temperatures go above 68-70 °F (20-21 °C). Don’t sow them deeply, 1/8-1/4 in (0.3-0.5 cm) is enough, and water them gently, be careful not to wash away the seeds.

If heavy rains are expected, protect the sown seeds or tiny seedlings with a plant cover or fleece.

To reduce the risk of diseases, choose a patch that you haven’t used for growing plants belonging to the nightshade family (Solanaceae, e.g. potatoes, peppers, eggplants, tomatoes) in the last 2-3 years.

Also make sure that this area receives at least 6-8 hours of sunshine and is not exposed to heavy winds, especially from the north. (I’ll cover soil requirements in a bit.)

Sidenote: Some experienced gardeners say that plants sprouting from directly sown seeds can grow faster and then bear fruit just at the same time as plants that developed from seedlings. And they may even have a larger and deeper root system because they were never exposed to shocks of transplantings.

Watering Tomatoes

The basic rule is that the soil should always be evenly moist at the root level—neither dry nor soggy.

It’s OK, however, if the top 1-2 inches (2.5-5 cm) of the soil are dry. Check regularly if the soil or growing mix is able to provide a consistent rate of moisture.

You can do this by sticking your index finger into the dirt. If it comes out clean, it means the soil is dry so watering is needed. If it comes out dirty, the soil is damp (you can even feel it) so you shouldn’t water.

Garden Soil Watering

If your plants are grown in garden soil and mulched well, it’s usually enough to deep water once a week in dry weather. Otherwise, rainfall during the growing season may be enough for your tomatoes, it depends on your local climate.

Container Watering

If you grow your tomatoes in containers or raised beds, more frequent, regular watering is needed. Here the growing mix loses moisture much faster, so daily watering is likely to be necessary for fully-grown plants.

It’s better to water early in the morning because the leaves that got wet will dry off by the heat of the day thus reducing the chance of foliar diseases, especially fungal infections, and also helping to avoid burning the plants.

During very hot days you may need to water twice a day, early in the morning and late in the afternoon.

Wet Foliage: Avoid It As Much As You Can

Water the soil, not the foliage. Keep water at the base of the plants or water from the bottom if you use trays under the pots. This way you protect your tomato plants from diseases that may stick to foliage.

It’s a good idea to use a soaker hose or to install a drip irrigation system. If set properly, they won’t wet the foliage and will keep the soil evenly moist at all times.

Mulching Plants

tomato plant mulching
Straw and grass clippings are a good option for mulching

Mulching can help a lot in retaining soil moisture, suppressing weeds, preventing soil-borne diseases, and also, if it’s organic, feeding your plants. It saves you time and money.

Good mulching materials include grass clippings (chemical-free), shredded leaves, straw, and wood chips, or a combination of these. A 1-2 inch thick layer of organic mulch will perfectly do.

You can also use newspapers, paper mulch, or any other covers that separate the ground from the plants including biodegradable mulch film, black plastic mulch, landscape fabric, or even red plastic mulch, which can increase yields by 20% because it is a reflective much.

Sidenote: it is still a question whether biodegradable plastic has a negative or positive effect on soil in the long run. If you prefer the organic way, just use organic mulch and forget about plastic in any form.

Pruning Tomatoes

First off, in theory, tomato plants don’t need pruning, not even indeterminate ones, because if they have enough space, and get the right amount of sunlight, water, and nutrients they can produce healthy fruit abundantly.

Some say that suckers take energy away from the whole plant and that’s why they should be cut off, but it’s not true. Suckers will produce additional flowers and fruit so yields will increase.

However, if your space or support system is somewhat limited (they usually are), without pruning, you’ll face the problem of having a “mess” of leaves, vines, and branches that you won’t be able to handle after some time.

That’s why, in most cases, pruning and topping indeterminate plants are strongly recommended to maintain control and to provide proper air circulation in order to avoid mildew, rust, and fungal diseases.

What About Pruning Determinate Tomatoes?

Don’t do it. Bush tomatoes produce flowers at the end of their flowering branches and bear fruit in a limited time window (2-3 weeks).

If you remove any of these flowering branches, including suckers, it will reduce the yield.

The only “pruning” you may need to do to determinate plants, is to pinch off the leaf branches close to the ground, below the first flower cluster. Thus the risk of the development of soil-borne diseases will drop considerably.

What About Pruning Dwarf Tomatoes?

Most dwarf varieties are like slowly growing indeterminate plants, but they don’t need pruning either. However, if the foliage seems too dense, you may remove a few suckers to enhance air circulation to avoid foliar diseases.

Here’s a simple guide on which types to prune and which types not to:

TypePrune / Not to prune
Vine (Indeterminate)Pruning recommended
Bush (Determinate)Don’t prune
Semi-determinateSome pruning recommended
DwarfDon’t prune (maybe 1-2 suckers)

Pruning Indeterminate Tomato Plants (Semi-Advanced Level)

Pruning or suckering tomato plants includes three things:

  • Cutting or pinching off the side branches at the bottom of the plant;
  • Removing the suckers (side shoots) that sprout out at an angle of approx. 45 degrees from where the stem and a leaf stalk meet;
  • Topping the growing tips when the plant has reached the height of its support.

removing tomato plant lower side branch
Remove the branches below the first flower cluster (approx. 1-2 ft / 30-60 cm from the ground level)

How to prune an indeterminate (vining) tomato plant?

  1. Pinch off (with your thumb and index finger or a pair of sterilized garden shears or scissors) any side branches and suckers below the first flower cluster (wait until it appears).
  2. If you have a narrow space: remove the suckers that grow above the first cluster of flowers.
  3. If you have a larger space, e.g. 2-3 ft (60-90 cm) plant spacing: keep 2-3 suckers from about 2 ft (60 cm) from the ground level and let them grow upward.
  4. Keep pruning off the suckers that develop in addition to the ones you allow to grow.
  5. Top the growing tips (the main stem plus the vining suckers) when they have reached the top of the support (stake or cage).

removing, pruning tomato sucker
Pinching off suckers with your fingers is fast and easy

How to Harvest and Preserve Tomatoes?

Picking Tomatoes

All tomato varieties are different so it’s important to know when a specific variety is ready to be picked. Inspect the color of the tomato, look for sizes and shades of red, yellow, or orange depending on the variety.

As a general rule, you can pick tomatoes at the earliest when the fruit has reached full size and the skin begins to change color (starts blushing), i.e. from green to red, pink, yellow, etc.

Smell them, too. When a tomato has reached its peak ripeness, it will have a sweet smell that can’t be mistaken for anything else.

Examine their texture. Ripe tomatoes should still feel firm but not overly hard.

Harvest with care. Tomatoes should be gently picked with a little twist, avoiding any bruising or squashing of the tomatoes.

You can use basic harvesting tools like clippers, scissors, or a picking stick for higher branches, but be gentle so you don’t damage the stems or leaves in the process.

Tip: you can even leave a bit of stem on the fruit (using garden scissors), which prevents entry for air and thus your tomatoes stay fresh for longer.

Don’t leave scatters of broken fruit on the ground—try retaining all the tomatoes in one place so they’re easy to transport safely without too much handling and don’t get infected by disease spread through contact with soil or water sources nearby.

How to store whole tomatoes?

Tomatoes should never be kept in the refrigerator. Refrigeration causes the flavor compounds to break down and gives a mealy texture. Instead, store them at room temperature or in a shaded spot outdoors.

storing whole tomatoes
Store whole tomatoes at room temperature on the kitchen counter

Preserving Tomatoes

Here’s a short list of the most popular ways for preserving tomatoes:

  • Freezing – It’s probably the simplest way to store tomatoes: check the fully ripened, fresh tomatoes that they look good all around; wash, and dry them; put them in freezer bags or plastic containers and put them in the freezer; their flavor will not be spoiled (we’re talking about whole tomatoes, of course)
  • Dehydrating – Slow roast the slices in your oven at 250 °F (120 °C) for approx. 3 hours, or use a dehydrator to dry the slices for approx. 6-8 hours at 140 °F (60 °C). The several-century-old sun-drying method can also be used: slice the tomatoes in half, sprinkle them with salt lightly, and lay them in a single layer on a flat surface such as a baking sheet or plastic plate. Place in direct sunlight for 5-14 days (depending on the weather) until all moisture has evaporated. You may need to bring them inside for the night to avoid evening dew ruining the drying process.
  • Milling – For thick tomato juice, use a tomato strainer, which separates the juice from the seeds and skin. Then cook the juice over low heat and finally, you can freeze or can the juice.
  • Canning – Boil the whole tomatoes for approx. 60 seconds, drop them in cool or icy water and peel the skin off and remove the core. Add 2 tablespoons of bottled lemon juice to quart-sized jars each, and fill the jars with the tomatoes leaving 1/2 in (1.3 cm) headspace. Seal the jars and put them in boiling water in a large pot, simmer them for 90 minutes.
  • Saucing and freezing – You can cook tomatoes for sauce just by dicing and cooking them together with garlic, chopped onion, herbs, and spices. After the sauce has cooled down, transfer it into freezer containers and deep freeze it.
  • Pickling – Put the tomatoes in a jar, add some dill and pearl onions, pour the brine (vinegar, water, salt, sugar, garlic, peppercorns) over them, seal the jar, and put it in the fridge.

Common Tomato Problems And Fixes

Tomato plants are susceptible to numerous problems that can affect the taste, quality, and yield of your crop. Some of the most common tomato problems include blossom-end rot, cracking, fungal diseases, yellowing leaves, and pests.

Fortunately, there are ways to prevent and treat these issues so you can enjoy a harvest of fresh tomatoes all summer long.

Blossom-end rot

It’s one of the most common tomato problems. It causes dark spots on the bottom of the tomato fruit that can eventually turn into leathery or sunken areas with a deep black or brown appearance.

The cause is usually a lack of calcium which can be alleviated by applying fertilizer, egg shells, or by adding gypsum when planting in heavy soil conditions.

Cracking

This occurs when rapid growth takes place due to fluctuating temperatures, rain, or watering too heavily at one time.

To prevent cracking tomatoes it is best to provide consistent moisture throughout the season and avoid sudden fluctuations in temperature or water level.

tomato cracking
Too much watering can cause cracking

Fungal diseases

The most common fungal diseases are verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, and early blight. To help prevent these diseases you can choose to plant disease-resistant varieties (e.g. hybrids mentioned earlier at Which Tomato Variety To Choose?)

Keep up with regular inspections for signs of damage or wilting leaves on your plants. It’s also important to rotate your crops each season so that no nightshades (Solanaceae) are planted in the same area year after year which helps reduce the spread of disease from host plants.

Tip: Once you detect an issue it’s essential to take immediate action to protect your crop from further damage, e.g. by removing any affected foliage or fruit from the plant.

Yellow Leaves

Yellowing leaves on your tomato plants always indicate that there’s something wrong going on. They are mostly caused either by nutritional deficiency or diseases.

You can treat nutritional deficiency by applying a lot of organic matter. In the case of diseases, the first thing you should do is get rid of the yellow leaves as soon as possible.

I cover this problem in detail here.

Pests

Aphids are tiny, soft-bodied insects that come in many colors. They suck sap from the leaves and stems of plants and spread disease as they travel through the garden.

Aphids can also hide underneath the foliage so it is important to check your plants regularly for signs of infestation.

To get rid of aphids, you can use an insecticidal soap or neem oil spray which should be applied directly to the plant.

Whiteflies are tiny, flying insects with white wings that love to hang around tomato plants. They feed on the sap from leaves, stems, and fruit, causing them to yellow, curl up or become spotty with lesions over time.

Getting rid of whiteflies can be done by using natural predators such as ladybugs or lacewings, or by using organic or chemical sprays available at your local gardening store.

Tomato hornworms munch on tomato leaves and weaken them over time. To get rid of them you can handpick them off the plant or spray neem oil to create an unfavorable environment for the caterpillar pests.

FAQ About Growing Tomatoes

How long does it take a tomato plant to grow?

how long does it take a tomato to grow

Tomato plants take 40 to 100 days to grow from seedling to adult plant with tomatoes ready for harvest. The specific timing may vary based on the variety of tomato, the climate, and other conditions. In most cases, a tomato plant should be ready for harvest between 60-80 days after planting.

Are very hot temperatures, e.g. over 100 °F (37 °C), an issue for tomatoes?

Yes, very hot temperatures can weaken plants and reduce the quality of the fruit. At these extreme temperatures, tomatoes will become stressed, suffer from nutrient deficiencies, and be more prone to pests and diseases. It is wise to ensure tomatoes receive enough shade and adequate water supply when the temperatures are very high.

What do the letters VFN stand for?

VFN stands for the ability of plants to resist Verticillium wilt, Fusarium wilt, and root-knot Nematodes.

Why do tomatoes develop black bottoms?

tomato black bottom, blossom end rot

Tomatoes turning black at the bottom is a common issue, and this is a sign of blossom-end rot. This occurs when the tomatoes do not receive enough calcium. Add some crushed eggshells or fertilizer that contains calcium to the soil and water your tomatoes regularly.

Can you grow tomatoes during the winter?

Frost kills tomatoes. Not enough light also makes the case hopeless. So you need to make sure the temperatures are warm enough and that the plants need enough light. You can grow tomatoes during the winter in a winter greenhouse or inside your house. You’ll probably need growlights to provide sufficient light. Choose cold-resistant and short-season varieties to have a good chance to reach maturity, e.g. Glacier, Siberian, Northern Lights.

What is the best time to plant tomatoes?

The best time to plant tomatoes outside is usually during the late spring or early summer, when soil temperatures are consistently above 60 °F (15 °C) and there are no more chances of frost for the season.
This will vary depending on your location and climate, so it’s important to research local planting times for the variety of tomatoes you plan on growing.

What are the best tomatoes to grow?

san marzano tomato, easy to grow

It depends on the climate and conditions of your area, as well as your personal preferences. Generally, cherry tomatoes are easy to grow and require minimal space, which makes them a popular choice for smaller gardens or container farms. Heirloom varieties are prized for their unique flavors and can add a unique twist to any dish. Some easy-to-grow popular tomato varieties are San Marzano, Celebrity, Sungold, Supersweet 100, and Yellow Pear.

What is the best fertilizer for tomatoes?

Probably the best organic fertilizer is blended compost, which is made up of at least 5 components, such as manure, worm castings, shredded paper, leaves, grass clippings, coffee grounds, straw, vegetable peels, etc.

What are the best ways to protect your tomatoes?

The best ways to protect your tomatoes from pests and disease include rotating crops, treating plants with natural insecticides, cleaning up garden debris at the end of the season, using protective netting or row covers, maintaining soil health through composting and mulching to prevent soil erosion, avoiding overcrowding, keeping weeds under control, removing diseased foliage promptly, and disinfecting your garden tools and containers.

 


Conclusion

All in all, growing tomatoes is not that hard and it can be a great opportunity to get involved with gardening and also to provide your family with healthy, fresh, and tasty vegetables.

Don’t be intimidated by the amount of information mentioned here—we just wanted to cover all there is you need to know to succeed in your tomato-growing endeavor.

There are many ways to grow different kinds of tomatoes, but there is only one YOU. After all, it’s your decision, where, how, why, and which types of tomatoes you want to grow, suited to your needs and expectations.

Of course, you’ll most probably need to test some methods, practices, and varieties. This will cost you some time and money, but believe us, it’ll be worth every second and every penny because it can be an amazing investment, which even your children and grandchildren will be able to benefit from.

Enjoy your homegrown tomatoes for a long time to come!

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AUTHOR

I'm a keen hobby gardener. I love growing fruits and vegetables, especially tomatoes. I'm also a certified instructor of the Square Foot Gardening Foundation.