One of the best, easiest and most popular vegetables to get started growing in your garden are tomatoes. And tomatoes are one of America’s favorite veggies to chow down on. They’re tasty, sweet and have that satisfying, juicy kick we all love.
So if you ever considered a vegetable garden or are constantly cooking with and buying big, beautiful, ripe tomatoes, why not try your hand at growing some? Here we’ll go step by step through setting up a successful, tasty tomato garden that any gardener can follow without worry.
Before Starting Your Tomato Garden
But before we commit and jump into your new garden, let’s look a little at what goes into growing tomatoes and what you can expect from you new patch. So, as we said tomato are incredibly easy to grow, they aren’t hassle-free though. Planting and caring for a sizable tomato garden takes time and typically plants take awhile before they start producing lusciously red rewards.
How Big of Should a Tomato Garden Be?
The size of your tomato growing operations is largely determined by your available space and expected output of tomatoes. The bigger your garden, the better the yield. A single tomato seed (or seedling if you want to speed the process to tasty tomatoes) grows exponentially and can produce dozens (if not hundreds) of ripe red beauties. To prevent your planting for growing out of control, it’s important to use trellising or stakes to grow up as opposed to outward (see our article on starting a vegetable garden).
The size and setup of your garden should also be dictated by the amount of work you’re willing to put in. Planting entire garden beds will take more effort than single potted plants. The good news is either work well and will result in tons of tomatoes for your family to enjoy.
Seeds or Seedlings?
How you plant your tomatoes initially is up to you. Experienced gardeners typically opt for seeds and start growing indoors for 6-8 weeks before the last spring frost while less experienced planters prefer buying partially grown tomato plants right from their local nursery. Either works but I’d recommend going the easier route, at least getting started.
Which Tomatoes to Grow?
Just getting started growing? How do you know what to grow? There are so many species of tasty tomatoes, what makes sense to get started, what about a bunch? Planting a variety is one trick gardeners use to keep tomato plants producing. More variations, more growing patterns, more tomatoes for you and your family to enjoy.
I’d personally recommend any grape or cherry tomato variety as these are a personal favorite, but Brandy Wines, Lemon Boys, Big Boys and Better Boys are all great options to add some variety to your table.
Determinate and Indeterminate Tomato Plants
There are two main varieties of tomatoes and while both are tasty and worth growing, it’s important to understand the differences. And the big difference is how big they grow.
Determinate tomatoes (also known as bush tomatoes) have a height or maximize size they’ll grow to (typically ~4 feet) before they are “mature” and ready to begin producing fruit. Then over a two week period or so, these plants will bear large quantities of fruit and begin to die after this. These tomatoes typically produce and ripen faster than their indeterminate cousins and make great plants for a bunch of tomatoes all at once. Examples of determinate tomato varieties include: Roma, Rutgers, Celebrity and Marglobe tomatoes.
Indeterminate tomato plants however grow at will. These vines will continue to grow and expand as long as you let them and require significant caging, support and pruning to produce fruit. These varieties include some of the beefy, beautifully massive tomatoes we all love like Big Boys and Early Girls but also include most cherry varieties as well.
How Many Tomatoes to Plant?
We said before tomatoes take up space, but they also grow incredibly well upwards and if properly maintained can have bountiful harvests. So the big question, assuming you’ve got the space, is how many tomato plants should you start? Well, does your family eat a TON of tomatoes?
As a good rule of thumb, plant at least two for every person who enjoys a good tomato. They’re very inexpensive and extra tomatoes can be canned, cut up for omelets or given to neighbors.
Starting Tomatoes From Seeds
When starting seeds, sunlight is critical. If you begin raising them indoors, you can leave the seedlings out during sunny days for max exposure, just remember to bring them back inside for cool nights. If your climate is a bit chillier you may need to raise entirely indoors for a period of time. Then, it makes sense to use fluorescent lights to give your tomatoes adequate exposure to grow.
Hang light 2-3 inches directly above your planting surface to help them grow and mature as quickly as possible and raise them until they are at least half a foot high. Any time after this your tomatoes are ready to be transplanted outside (assuming the weather is nice).
One tip most first time tomato planters miss is the fan. While we may be crazy, gardeners seem to agree that tomatoes grow best with a bit of sway or breeze (probably as this mimics mother nature and strengthens the stems). Either way, running a fan once or twice a day for a few minutes over your growing tomatoes seems to work wonders in helping them prosper.
Where to Plant Tomatoes
Whether you bought small tomato plants or nurtured your seeds, once they’re ready it is time to move your plants out to the garden (you don’t want tomato juice all over your home). To increase the odds of success it’s important to scope out a good spot.
If you already have a garden (or raised garden bed) then you will probably want to transplant here but tomatoes in particular love sun and heat. These are the secret ingredients to juicy fruits. Once you’ve selected your tomato haven, it’s a good idea to “heat” the soil for a few days or weeks in advance. Covering the area with thick, dark plastic tape will attract sunlight and make the soil extra awesome for tomatoes (you can skip this step if you like but it helps).
Soil to Satisfy Tomatoes
Finally it’s time to transplant your hard work. But first, you’ve put so much effort in producing absolutely scrumptious tomatoes, let’s add a little more love. For nutrient rich soil to help the plants thrive, nothing beats a good, rotted compost. Adding such to the topsoil will drastically boost the beauty and taste of your tomatoes come harvest time.
Don’t have a compost, didn’t prepare in advance? Not a problem. You can buy compost almost anywhere (search google) or even get some good old manure around town. This should make up the top 3 or so inches of your garden bed to help your tomatoes thrive.
Transplanting Tomato Plants
When planting your plants, bury them a bit deeper than they come in the packaging (if you bought them pre-grown). Typically burying 50-75% is best to help the roots take and begin sucking up the nutrients your nasty compost is helping provide. This will also increase the strength and rigidity of the plants and allow them to thrive. And don’t worry about mulch yet, you’ll want to give the soil plenty of time to heat up as the sun sheds it warmth upon your plants.
In terms of spacing, tomatoes typically thrive on 2-4 feet of spacing between one-another. This will allow plants to grow and expand without competing for resources and maximize the tomato output of each
Watering Tomato Plants
To help the tomatoes settle and start growing it’s important to add water. Watering generously the first two or three days help with this but 3-4 liters (about a gallon) of WARM (not hot or cold) water per plant is common immediately after transplanting.
After the first few days the water requirements of each plant become much less but still giving each a warm water bottle full (about 16oz) a day will help them continue to grow and acclimate. Once the first week has past your plants are likely outside the danger zone and mulch becomes a must to conserve water. The plants are now warmed up and excessive heat causes water to evaporate so cover the areas around your tomatoes well.
As Your Plant Grows
Over the following weeks tomato plants “sprout up” and literally begin growing like wildfire. During this time it’s important to keep watering (1-3” per week) and remove any old, dead leaves from the plants to prevent fungus or disease from crippling them.
For gardeners looking for the best possible output of tomatoes it also makes sense to remove suckers or deadweights which will not bear fruit and only waste precious energy. Cut off these mini-growths as you see them.
Staking and Supporting Your Tomato Plant
Tomatoes grow up and need support to prosper. While your plants will still produce when sprawled across the ground, the results will be mixed, more pests will get at your fruits and like much of the yield will be ruined - we don’t want that.
With tomato gardening, most gardeners use stakes, cages or fences within 2 weeks of transplanting to begin controlling the vines. A simple weave or loosely attached hook or tie can help the plants remain upright and growing effectively. This approach will also make it easier come tomato time to start picking your fruits. For effective supports, ensure your stakes or cages are securely hammered into the ground and extend up at least 4 feet to not limit growth.
Harvesting Your Tomatoes
At long last the day has arrived, your tomatoes are FINALLY ready to fill plates and enjoy. Usually fruits will begin to show approximately 2-3 months after transplanting your tomatoes. During this time your garden will tease you with small, inedible green fruits. Be sure to wait as the individual fruits grow, mature and turn a nice deep red before plucking your prize from the bush. As they ripen and begin to have a slight softness, they are ready to relish. Congratulations, your tomato garden is now officially live. Enjoy as many ripe, red fruits as you can and be sure to collect your tomatoes before pesky pests get ahold of them. You can always pick them and allow to ripen in your home or cover and refrigerate them for later. As long as it’s you and not the rabbits or squirrels enjoying your labors it is okay.