Tomatoes are summer’s most popular edible garden plant. They’ll grow in numerous climate zones as long as they have plenty of sunlight and well-drained soil. Spring is the ideal time to get started, whether you are growing your plants from seed or simply preparing your garden for the summer crop.
Here are some things to consider first, before you start growing tomatoes:
If your garden receives 6 or more hours of direct sunlight and your area has a long growing season, you can generally grow most varieties, from tiny cherry tomatoes to large tomatoes such as Brandywines. In areas with fewer than 6 hours of direct sunlight and in coastal areas, smaller heirloom varieties and cherry or grape tomatoes might be the best choice. In areas with a short growing season, you’ll want to select a variety that matures quickly.
There are two types of tomato plants: determinate (bush) varieties, which include most plum tomatoes, and indeterminate (vine) varieties, which include cherry and beefsteak tomatoes.The amount of space you have to devote to your tomatoes will also dictate the type of plant you choose. Determinate tomatoes typically grow only 2 to 3 feet high, until all the fruit sets and then ripens. This compact size makes them a good choice for containers and small spaces. Indeterminate varieties continue to grow and produce until the first frost, so they need plenty of room and support from tomato cages as they expand in size.
When you’ve determined your climate and space allocation, you can then begin planting and caring for your tomatoes.
Depending on the variety, it takes approximately 8-10 weeks to grow seedlings from seed, and 60-90 days from transplant to harvest. Sow seeds 6-8 weeks before the last spring frost. Fill small, individual containers with planting soil and plant 1-2 tomato seeds about 1/4-inch deep in the soil. Place the containers in a warm, sunny location such as a south-facing window. Tomato seedlings need strong, direct light or 12-18 hours a day under a growing light. Be sure to water the seedlings regularly.
Once the seedlings are about 2 inches tall, transplant them into the larger pots until they are 6-10 inches tall and the outside temperature is regularly above 55 degrees F. At this point, it’s time for a final transplant outdoors.
Choose a sunny spot.
Whether you plan to plant your tomatoes in a raised bed or a container, choose the sunniest part of your garden, ideally an area that gets 6 or more hours of sunlight a day. You can warm the soil by covering it with plastic sheeting for a week or two prior to planting.
Prepare the soil.
Once you are ready to plant, prepare the soil in your garden bed. Tomatoes like rich, loamy, well-drained acidic soil. Turn the soil to help aerate it, and amend with compost to improve its quality.
Spacing and stalking.
Space the plants about 2-3 feet apart for smaller varieties or more if you plan to cage or stake larger varieties. If you plan to let them sprawl, plant larger varieties 3-4 feet apart. Use tomato spirals and trellises to grow your tomatoes upwards.
To ensure a strong root system, tomatoes should be planted deeply, as roots will form along the buried stem. Plant tomatoes in holes until their lowest leaves are just above the soil, although it’s also okay to bury the first set of leaves if the plant is leggy. This is a good time to set up cages or drive 6-foot stakes into the ground for support, if you are using them.
Water tomato plants deeply and frequently in the early part of the season, about 2-3 times a week, particularly if it’s hot. You can start to taper off as they begin to develop fruit. Their roots run deep, so water the plants slowly and at soil level.
Once the plants have been in the ground for about one week, spread a layer of mulch, straw or bark over the soil around the plants. Adding an organic fertilizer to the soil will help your plants thrive.
Pruning and harvesting
It can take approximately 60-90 days to produce fruit on a tomato plant, depending on the variety. To encourage more flowering and thus more fruit, pinch off the small leaves that grow at the base of the stems. Once the plants reach about 3 feet tall, remove any bottom leaves about 1 foot up the stem of the plant to help avoid fungus problems. Harvest tomatoes as they ripen to encourage other fruit to mature.