Tomatoes are a summer crop, right? That means you plant them in the spring, and they produce fruit in the summer. While that’s mostly true, being familiar with how your climate affects plant timing is crucial to their productivity. Different tomato plants also have different days to maturity. It isn’t exactly one shoe fits all when it comes to the best time to plant tomatoes.
To get the most out of your tomato plants, it’s important to know when to plant tomatoes. Keep reading to learn the best time to plant tomatoes for your garden!
Factors to Consider
To figure out when to plant tomatoes in your garden, there are a few factors to consider including your climate, the variety of tomato, and the type of tomato plant (determinate or indeterminate).
The climate you live in directly impacts the best time to plant tomatoes in your garden. Tomatoes need temperatures of at least 50 degrees Fahrenheit to grow. Ideally, temperatures should maintain between 70 and 80 degrees. Once temperatures reach 90 degrees, tomato plants often fail to produce flowers and healthy fruit.
For mild climates in the Midwest and northern areas, you can plant your tomatoes any time after the soil has warmed to 60 degrees. If you have extremely hot summers over 90 degrees, try to time your planting to where the tomatoes will mature in late summer/early fall when temperatures begin to lower.
If you planted them in early spring and suffer hot summers, there are a few tricks to keep your tomatoes healthy. Even though tomatoes are considered full sun plants, having afternoon shade in hot southern climates is essential.
Provide shade cover for your tomato plants during the hottest afternoon hours. You can also mulch around the plants to preserve the soil’s moisture. Once you see mature fruits, pick them immediately, so the heat does not damage them. It’s a good idea to start visiting your plants twice a day – morning and afternoon – to pick ripe tomatoes as you see them.
Variety of Tomato
Once you’ve determined what climate you live in, choose a variety of tomato that will grow best in those weather conditions. There are many tomato varieties that do well in extreme heat, and there are also tomatoes that favor cool climates. That means no matter where you find yourself, you can have a thriving tomato plant!
Choosing tomato varieties based on where they grow best will also give you more flexibility on when you can plant the tomato. If a certain variety is better suited to your temperatures, they won’t mind extreme temperatures as much as other tomato varieties would.
Varieties of heat-tolerant tomatoes:
Varieties of cold climate tomatoes:
- Bush Beefsteak
- Husky Gold
- Orange Pixie
- Oregon Spring
Determinate v. Indeterminate
There are two types of tomatoes: determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomato plants will produce fruit for a couple of weeks once the plant matures and then it will die off. Indeterminate tomato plants will continue to produce throughout the season until the first frost.
The best time to plant tomatoes that are indeterminate is at the start of the season, so you can enjoy having ripe tomatoes for a longer period of time. Determinate tomatoes can be planted at any time during the season as long as the plant has enough time to reach maturity before the first frost.
The Best Time to Plant Tomatoes Indoors
Starting seeds indoors gives you a head start on your garden. It’s recommended to start tomato seeds indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost or before when you want to move your tomato plants outside. So, when exactly is that? It all depends on the region and climate you live in. This is called your USDA zone.
When to plant tomatoes indoors based on zones:
- For zones three and four, sow seeds in early April, and transplant them out in mid-May to early June.
- For zones five through seven, start your seeds in mid-February through March, and transplant them out in mid-April to early May.
- For zones eight through ten, start your tomato seeds in January, and plan to transplant them outdoors in March and April.
You will need to wait until your last average frost has occurred to transplant. If the weather still seems unpredictable after that date, wait an additional two weeks before transplanting. Better safe than sorry! Tomato plants are not frost-tolerant and will die if temperatures get below 32 degrees.
When it’s time to transplant your tomato seedlings to the garden, don’t move them out cold turkey. They will need to be hardened off over the span of a week, so they are not shocked by the weather. Sit them outside for an hour on the first day, then bring them back inside. Slowly leave them outside for longer every day, then after a week, they will be ready to plant in the garden!
When to Direct Sow Seeds
If you prefer to direct sow tomato seeds into your garden, the best time to plant tomatoes is when soil temperatures have reached at least 60 degrees. The seeds will have a difficult time germinating in cold soil. This method is good for those who have long growing seasons of at least four months between frosts.
Lightly cover the seeds with moist soil, and sprouts should appear in six to 11 days. This is the same time that you will see tomato seeds that overwintered in the garden – intentionally or unintentionally – sprout.
When Is It Too Late?
The best time to plant tomatoes is usually at the beginning of the season, but when is it too late? The answer to that, as always, depends on where you live. When to plant tomatoes also heavily depends on the variety of tomato in hand.
Every tomato variety should have a specific “days to maturity” listed on the seed packet. Early season varieties take approximately 50 to 60 days to reach maturity. Mid-season varieties take about 60 to 80 days to mature. Late season varieties usually take over 80 days to mature.
It would be considered “too late” to plant tomato seeds if the tomato variety would reach maturity after your first average frost date. For example, the Big Beef tomato variety takes 70 to 83 days to maturity. If I lived in zone 7 where the first annual frost date was October 15, the tomato seeds would have to germinate by at least August 6, which is 70 days before October 15.
I would even recommend giving a larger buffer than that (about two weeks) because some tomatoes take longer than expected to complete maturity. You don’t want your tomato plant to die because of a frost as soon as some of the tomatoes begin to ripen. Therefore, the best time to plant tomatoes before it’s too late for that example would be mid to end of July.
FAQs About the Best Time to Plant Tomatoes
1. Is it better to start seeds indoors or direct sow?
Most people start tomato seeds ahead, so you are able to grow more tomato plants successfully. Tomato seeds germinate fairly easily in controlled temperatures, and you are able to see how many tomato plants you will have to transplant. This helps when planning your garden and how much space you’ll need for which crops.
You also allow yourself to have a longer growing season by starting seeds ahead. If you are planting indeterminate tomato plants, you’ll be able to harvest more tomatoes before the first frost.
2. When is the best time to plant tomatoes purchased from a store?
The best time to plant tomatoes bought from a nursery or garden center is any time after the last frost. As with direct sowing seeds, I would give an additional two-week cushion to planting tomato plants, so a surprise frost doesn’t hurt your plants.
These tomato plants will not have to be hardened off, as most are displayed outside before you purchase them. They should be used to outdoor conditions once you get them home.
3. Can I plant early-season varieties later in the season?
Yes! Early season tomatoes get their name because of their short growing period, but they can be grown any time before the last frost. If you have a long growing season, you may even get two rounds of early-season tomatoes in.
Good examples of early-season tomatoes include Black Prince, Siberian, Fourth of July, Gardener’s Delight, and Tiny Tim.
Wrapping Up the Best Time to Plant Tomatoes
Knowing about your growing zone and tomato variety will help you to decide on the best time to plant tomatoes. Taking advantage of your climate and growing season is important to have the best tomato harvest possible. Before you know it, you’ll be enjoying a delicious tomato that grew yourself!
If you want to read more about how long it takes for tomatoes to ripen, we have another post for you!
To read all about tomato plant care and how to use them, visit all of our tomato posts here.