One of the season’s tastiest milestones is biting into the first sun-ripened tomato (Solanum lycopersicum). While grocery stores and farmers markets sell plenty of tempting types, it’s hard to beat the flavor and freshness of a homegrown tomato—especially when you consider the dazzling rainbow of heirloom and hybrid varieties you can grow in your garden. From huge, juicy beefsteak tomatoes to bite-size cherry types, these summertime staples come in an array of shapes, colors, textures, and flavors that will inspire you to new levels of creativity in the kitchen. Whichever types you pick, here’s how to cultivate tomatoes for a beautiful—and plentiful—harvest.
Where to Plant Tomato Plants
Choose a location with at least six to eight hours of direct sunshine everyday if you want to grow tomato plants in a garden bed or a container. The garden soil should ideally be well-draining, rich, and have a pH of 5.8 to 7, however tomato plants may flourish in any soil except clay. Garden soil may be too heavy for container gardening, so add compost or perlite or use potting soil.
How and When to Plant Tomato Plants
Though tomato seeds can be directly sown outdoors, you can gain a head start on the growing season by buying transplants or starting seeds indoors six to eight weeks before your area’s average last frost date. Let the soil to warm before moving the tomato plants outdoors.
For planting, remove the lowest leaves from each plant and place the root ball in a hole deep enough that only the top cluster of leaves is visible aboveground. Tomato plants, which may establish roots along their stems, need this planting depth. These extra roots help anchor the plant, especially when starting with tall, leggy transplants, and allow for better uptake of water and nutrients.
Little bush tomato types should be spaced 24 inches apart, while bigger kinds should be spaced 36 to 48 inches apart. This is especially important for sprawling indeterminate types—the tomato varieties that keep growing until there’s a frost. Water the tomatoes well after planting them.
Immediately after planting, stake, trellis, or cage tomato plants (particularly vining kinds). For little bush or patio tomatoes, which can typically maintain themselves, skip this step. As the plants mature, use cages and stakes to keep the leaves and maturing tomatoes off the ground, avoiding fruit rot and tomato plant illnesses.
Use tomato cages that are 5 to 6 feet tall. Stake the cages to the ground firmly to prevent the plants from blowing over and being uprooted during storms. Another possibility: Pound 8-foot stakes at least 12 inches into the ground and 4 inches from the plant; then attach tomato stems to the stake with garden twine, self-adhesive tape, or strips of cloth.
Tomato Plant Care Tips
Tomato plants can tolerate less-than-ideal circumstances, but growing them under their ideal conditions produces the juiciest, most delectable fruit.
Tomato plants, in general, demand full sun (six to eight hours of sunlight daily). In excessive heat, early sun and little afternoon shade are adequate. While the plants will flourish in mostly shaded settings, fruit yield is severely restricted.
Soil and Water
Tomato plants thrive in well-draining soil with continuous watering. If it rains less than an inch each week, augment by watering. That’s 20 minutes three times a week in sprinkler terms. If you find the plants beginning to wilt in really hot weather, you may need to water them more regularly. Avoid watering the foliage to prevent disease. Water the root zones directly with a watering can or wand, or utilize a drip irrigation system.
Placing mulch around your tomato plants discourages weeds, maintains soil moisture, and prevents diseases from splashing off the soil onto the leaves when it rains. A 3- to 4-inch layer of organic mulch, such as straw, chopped leaves, or finely shredded wood chips, is ideal.
Temperature and Humidity
Tomatoes like warm temperatures. Wait till the earth warms up in the spring before planting. Tomato plants thrive in temperatures ranging from 55°F to 85°F. While they like the sun, they cannot set fruit when the temperature exceeds 85°F.
Tomatoes like a relatively high humidity level of 65 percent to 85 percent. Higher levels have a deleterious impact on the plants.
Tomato plants grow best when fertilized at two specific times during the growing season: right after planting and just before the fruit develops. Apply a balanced liquid plant food, such as 5-5-5, as directed on the label.
Tomato plants do not need to be trimmed, but eliminating any side shoots that develop between the main stem and a branch is a good idea since they suck energy that might be going to the fruiting branches.
Pests and Problems
Gardeners aren’t the only ones who like the flavor of tomatoes. The plants attract a host of unwanted visitors, ranging from the aptly named tomato hornworm to the ever-present aphid menace and everything in between. The greatest suggestion is to be alert. Watch for the beginning of any damage to your plants, identify the cause, and use safe management techniques as soon as possible.
If you have hornworms, just pull them off (yuck!). Treat aphids, white flies, and spider mites with insecticidal soap or neem oil, following the product directions.
Additional tomato plant issues include blossom end rot, which happens when the soil pH is too low, and blossom drop, which occurs when nighttime temperatures fall below the plant’s ideal overnight temperature range of 55°F to 75°F.
How to Propagate Tomato Plants
Most gardeners start tomato plants from seed or purchase transplants, but taking cuttings from existing tomato plants may prolong the season in locations with long growing seasons. Cut 4- to 8-inch cuttings from undesired side branches on the plant in May or June. Cut the leaves from the bottom half of the cutting and set it in a bright spot with water. Plant the cutting in a shallow container with well-draining garden soil or potting soil when the roots have formed in three to four weeks. Plant it in the garden after it has established a strong root system. Tomatoes may be seen before frost in warm places.
How to Harvest and Store Tomatoes
Tomatoes are ready to pick when they are fully colored and firm. Weather plays a role in the timeline; tomatoes ripen best at temperatures close to 75°F. When the temperature rises to about 90°F, the fruits start to soften and develop poor color. Green tomatoes will ripen inside if picked when ready.
Harvest everything except the greenest fruits and bring them inside before a strong freeze. Use them in a recipe (fried green tomatoes, anyone?) or allow the green fruits to ripen in a closed paper bag. Inspect the fruits for maturity once a week, eliminating any rotting tomatoes or those that are not showing signs of ripening. You can also uproot whole plants and hang them in a warm, sheltered spot where the fruits can continue to ripen.
Ripe tomatoes can be stored on your kitchen counter for up to a week, depending on the temperature of the room. Tomatoes may be kept in the refrigerator, but they will not taste as well as those stored at room temperature.
What is the correct way to plant a tomato plant?
Plant your tomato plants deeper than they come in the pot, all the way up to the top few leaves. Tomatoes may produce roots all along their stems when planted in this manner. More roots equals a stronger plant. You can either dig a deep hole or simply dig a shallow trench and lay the plant sideways.
What is the secret to growing tomatoes?
Tomatoes are a warm-weather crop. They don’t like chilly “feet” and don’t tolerate frost. Warming the soil before planting promotes early root development and helps the plants get off to a good start. It’s a tomato growth secret that many gardeners overlook.
Should I plant tomatoes in a pots or in the ground?
You’ve got to dig deep when it comes to tomatoes. The majority of veggies should be planted in a hole the size of the pots they come in. Nevertheless, tomatoes are not one of them. Since they are large, heavy feeders, bury them further into the soil, so that portion of the clipped stem — see below — is buried.
What makes tomato plants grow best?
Tomato plants thrive in well-drained soil that receives full light for the most of the day. The pH of the soil should be somewhat acidic (6.2 to 6.8). Excess nitrogen may cause plants to have lush, robust foliage but produce little fruit.