Juicy, vine-ripened tomatoes are one of summer’s tastiest treats, yet they can be tricky to grow—even for longtime gardeners. Because tomatoes are a warm-season crop and require lots of time to mature, seeds must be started indoors 6-8 weeks before your average last frost for plants to produce a fruitful harvest. (Here’s a helpful guide to indoor seed starting.) Tomato plants are also notoriously susceptible to pests and disease problems.
But fear not, tomato lovers! If you follow some best practices, you can keep your plants strong, healthy and productive. Below you’ll find 10 tried-and-true tips for growing tomatoes in your garden. We hope you enjoy the sweet taste of tomato victory.
1) Wait for Warm Weather
You’ve carefully tended to your tomato seedlings indoors, eagerly looking forward to gardening season. Now stay patient and wait for the ideal planting time so that your hard work pays off. Tomatoes need warm weather to grow and will not tolerate the cold. Transplant after all danger of frost has passed, usually 2-4 weeks after the average last frost date in your area.
2) Harden Off Transplants
Before transplanting, make sure to harden off your tomato plants. Doing so will help to reduce transplant shock. Start by taking the young plants outdoors and giving them just a little morning sun, keeping them indoors overnight. Gradually increase sun exposure each day, moving plants to a protected location outside when they are not in the sunlight. If frost is predicted at night, bring the plants inside. After a week or so, your plants will be hardened off and ready to go into the garden!
3) Give Them Space
Set your tomato plants 30 to 48 inches apart in rows spaced 4 feet apart. If you plant them too close, you’ll increase the chance of disease and decrease their yield. Also consider the growing habit of the tomato variety you’re planting:
- Determinate tomatoes grow to a determined size and produce fruit over a short time period. These varieties are great for small spaces and pots (1 plant per 24-inch container). When growing in containers, always use a quality potting soil.
- Indeterminate tomatoes keep growing and producing fruits until they get hit by frost. These plants get big and need tomato cages or stakes for support.
4) Plant Deeply
Tomatoes root from the stem, so you can plant them deeper than they were in their pots. Bury the stem up to the first set of leaves. The more deeply tomatoes are planted, the stronger their root systems will develop.
5) Set Supports at Planting Time
To avoid damaging the roots, always place your cage or stake at the same time that you plant your tomatoes. Supporting your plants keeps them healthy by improving air circulation, preventing stem breakage and circumventing ground pest problems. Well-supported plants are also more productive, yielding a bigger harvest!
6) Water Early in the Day
Your plants need at least an inch or two of water a week. Water them slowly and deeply, keeping soil moist but not soaked. Try to water plants early in the day and avoid wetting leaves—this helps to minimize any disease problems.
7) Fertilize Wisely
Tomatoes demand lots of fertilizer once the fruit sets, but too much early in the season will grow a large plant with fewer tomatoes. Use slow-release fertilizer at planting time and avoid using a high nitrogen fertilizer, which triggers the plant to grow more foliage than fruits. Our pick: Burpee’s Organic Tomato Plant Food 3-6-4.
8) Apply Mulch
Mulch helps you conserve water by improving the soil’s moisture retention, and it prevents fungus from splashing up onto your tomato plants. In the hot days of summer, mulch will also moderate soil temperature, keeping roots happy and healthy.
9) Remember to Rotate Your Crops
Reduce your plants’ risk of disease by rotating your crops. Before you plant tomatoes, make sure you did not grow any vegetables from the same family in the bed the previous year—this includes tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and potatoes. If you’re growing in containers, be sure to fill them with new potting mix from year to year.
10) Try Companion Planting
Take a holistic approach to your garden by growing certain companion plants near one another. Basil and marigolds are two great neighbors for tomatoes! Basil helps keep away whiteflies, which feed on tomatoes and cause yellow, curling leaves. Meanwhile, marigolds deter root-infesting nematodes and attract beneficial pollinators to your yard.