Tomatoes are among the most beloved foods in the world! In almost every culture, you’ll find some application for this delicious fruit and its myriad varieties—from savory sauces to spicy curries, from raw salads to slaws and salsas. The tomato is as beloved as it is versatile…and best of all, it’s easy to grow a tomato under a variety of circumstances, making it a favorite among gardeners everywhere!
Whether you’re a first time tomato-grower looking to set yourself up for success, or a long time gardener looking for a comprehensive guide to brush up your skills before the next growing season, our guide on how to grow tomatoes is here to help you make the most of your experience!
Let’s dive in and take a look at all you need to know about how to grow tomato plants!
Types of Tomatoes – Know What You Grow
Before you start to grow tomato plants, you want to know what type you’re growing! This will determine a portion of how you care for them.
Determinate tomatoes. Also know as “bush” varieties, these tomato plants typically grow about 2 to 3 feet tall, but occasionally reach upwards of 5 feet. A few notable characteristics of this variety are as follows:
- Has minimal leaf growth after setting fruit, which encourages a crop of ripe tomatoes to ripen all at once.
- Does not require any staking or caging.
- Performs well in small spaces, including containers.
- Provides a harvest for a somewhat short period of time, but also produces earlier in the season than indeterminate varieties.
- Produces particularly good tomatoes for pastes, sauces, and canning.
Indeterminate tomatoes. Also known as “vining” varieties, these tomato plants are big producers of classic slicing tomatoes. A few notable characteristics of this variety are as follows:
- Experiences more leaf growth than the determinate variety, which causes a more widespread crop throughout the season rather than fruiting in batches.
- Requires staking or caging to support upward growth.
- Ideal for large gardens.
- Has a mid-to-late season harvest period that lasts from summertime up to the first frost.
- Encompasses most of your popular beefsteak and cherry tomato varieties
Knowing these two classes of tomato plants and their distinct characteristics will help you choose the best variety to cultivate in your own garden or indoor planter, based on your particular interests and needs!
Another component to consider when choosing which varieties to grow is their varying harvest seasons. Tomatoes ripen throughout the overall growing season—some early, like determinates, and some in the middle or late season, like indeterminates. This gives gardeners lots of options to choose from! While some won’t mind harvesting all their tomatoes at once, either early in the season, midway through, or at the end of the growing year, you’re not constrained to just harvesting at one time! If you diversify your tomato plant selection to include varieties that produce at different times of the season, you can harvest and enjoy your tomatoes throughout summer all the way to the first frost!
So, before you kick off your planting process, make sure to do some research on the harvest times of whichever plants you pick—and don’t be afraid to grow multiple varieties in your home or garden based on however long you’d like to be harvesting and feasting on tomatoes!
Selecting a Location
Once you have chosen your ideal tomato plant variety—bush or vining—it’s time to decide on where to plant it! Luckily, most tomato plants do well in similar settings to one another, so this guide will be applicable for almost any plant variety you choose (however, we do encourage you to search our website’s tomato blog posts for in-depth planting, tending, and growing information if you have concerns about a particular tomato plant variety!).
Your standard, ideal tomato plant growing space will meet the following requirements:
- Has access to full sunlight (some tomato plants do fairly well in partial shade, but as a general rule, the more direct sunlight, the better for tomato plants!).
- Has not been planted with any other tomatoes, or similar plants such as peppers, potatoes, or eggplants, in the last few years.
- Has rich soil that contains a good pH balance, is loose and well-draining, and is free of diseases.
- Has plant holes dug to a depth of roughly 1 foot and fertilized with compost and/or manure (allow up to two weeks of breakdown in compost before planting).
How to Grow Tomatoes From Seeds
(Note: If you are starting out with an already growing plant, such as one purchased from a farmer’s market, farm stand, nursery, grocery store, etc., you can skip straight to the transplanting step, which will guide you on how to move that precious plant into its permanent indoor or outdoor home!)
If you plan to start your tomato plant off from seed, the good news is, these seeds thrive particularly well in warm climates and can generally be planted directly in the soil once it reaches steadily above a temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
However, if you live in a region that experiences cooler temperatures longer into the season, you may miss your outdoor planting window (unless you choose a particularly cold resistant variety of tomato).
If this is a concern for your area, consider starting the seedlings indoors in the early spring, following these steps below:
- You can plant seeds in a small to medium sized container or seed tray, then cover immediately with a lid or plastic wrap to keep the soil moist.
- Keep the seed container warm—a minimum of 70 degrees Fahrenheit and a maximum of 80 degrees is ideal.
- Water your seeds daily.
- As they sprout, expose them to as much sunlight or artificial growing light as you can. If in a windowsill, rotate throughout the day to ensure adequate exposure on all sides.
When the time comes to transplant your seeds, if you plan to transplant them outdoors, you will need to begin a process called “hardening off”. About 7-10 days before you intend to plant them in the ground, stop the watering process; begin placing your seed tray or potted seedlings outdoors, protected from sunlight and wind. Do this for a few hours the first day, then slowly increase the time spent outdoors everyday, including some exposure to direct sunlight.
For outdoor tomato growth, transplant your seedlings when soil has reached a steady 60 degrees Fahrenheit and all threat of frost has passed. Follow these steps for easy transplanting:
- Place seedlings 2 to 3 feet apart.
- Set the root ball deep enough so that the plant’s bottom leaves are just above the soil.
- Pinch off a few of the lower leaves to encourage growth.
- Water well to reduce shock to the roots.
At this time, you may want to add some organic tomato fertilizer or even bone meal (an excellent source of phosphorus, which tomatoes love!) to the tomato’s planting hole. It is not recommended to use high nitrogen fertilizers, as these encourage foliage growth but can delay the plant’s natural flowering and fruiting.
(Note: If you’re growing an indeterminate variety, you’ll want to stake or cage the plants immediately after transplanting.)
For indoor tomato growth, transplant your seedlings once they’ve sprouted one to two sets of leaves. Follow these steps for easy transplanting:
- Select a container between five to ten gallons, with drainage holes in the bottom and a tray beneath to catch excess water.
- Fill the container with loose, well-draining soil, such as potting mix with added organic material.
- Remove seedlings from their original pot or tray while keeping roots intact. The best way to do this is by holding the seedling between two fingers, placing your palm over the soil, then flipping the container upside down and tapping the bottom gently until the seedling comes out.
- Tease the outer roots gently to loosen them up.
- Bury the plant up to the fuzzy hairs on its base.
- Water generously after transplant and give at least 6 hours of sun per day.
Tomato Plant Care
For the first few days after transplanting, water the soil generously; then you can switch to watering about 1.2 gallons per square foot per week during the growing season.
Tomato plants should be watered early in the morning to ensure they have optimum moisture exposure throughout the day, with water applied near the base/soil level to avoid wetting the leaves (which can invite disease) or underfeeding the root system.
If your region is experiencing drought, you can place a flat rock next to each outdoor tomato plant to help prevent evaporation after watering.
FOR INDOOR PLANTS: Keep the soil in your tomato pot moist; check daily for moisture levels and provide extra water if your region is experiencing a heat wave, as containers dry out faster than garden soil.
You should mulch your outdoor garden about 1 month to 5 weeks after transplanting, which will help the soil retain moisture, keep it from sticking to the lower leaves when watering, and will also help control weeds. It’s recommended to use organic mulch like hay, straw, or bark chips applied in a layer about 2 to 4 inches thick.
Fertilizing and Feeding
Contrary to popular understanding, fertilizer and plant food are actually not the same! Generally, your tomato plant will receive its nutrients through components in the soil, and photosynthesis. Fertilization, meanwhile, helps strengthen your plants through that soil to ensure they can make their own food.
Since this is a lifelong need for your tomato plant, fertilization is also an ongoing process and should be repeated about every two weeks until plants reach 1 inch in diameter, then every 3 to 4 weeks until the first frost. Recommended fertilizers include liquid seaweed or fish emulsion, as they soak well into the soil. If you’re using a granular fertilizer, you will need to shift your mulch away from the plant, place 2 to 3 tablespoons of fertilizer around the plant’s drip line, water the soil, and then replace the mulch.
(Note: Avoid fast-release fertilizers and avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers, as these tend to feed the plant’s foliage but can delay its flowering and fruiting.)
While bush varieties of tomato plants will largely take care of themselves, you can remove any dead growth found near the base of the plant to help ventilate and support it.
For vining varieties of tomato plants, pinch off new, tiny stems and leaves that erupt between the branches and the main stem. This will help with healthy air circulation, encourage better sunlight exposure on the heart of the plant, and aid in the reduction of disease risk. You should also remove lower leaves from the bottom 12 inches of the main stem.
Pruning and pinching are a tomato care technique that can help your tomato put forth its best yield. But you need to know when to do this and what tomatoes need it. To help you with this, visit our pruning tomatoes guide.
How to Troubleshoot Tomato Problems
Tomato Plant Pests
Unfortunately, tomato plants are rather prone to attracting insect pests. To minimize their impact, keep an eye on your plants, watching the soil, leaves, and fruit for any sign of pest activity. You can spray off some pests with a hose and pick off others, such as hornworms, with gloved hands.
For more detailed information on some of the primary pests that may trouble a tomato crop, and how to address and prevent them, check out our article on “The 15 Most Common Tomato Pests: How to Identify, Get Rid Of, and Prevent Them”.
Tomato Plant Diseases
There are a wide variety of diseases that can infect a tomato plant. To minimize the likelihood of this unfortunate occurrence, good watering practices are a must, as well as preventative pruning, choosing disease-resistant cultivars whenever possible, and removing any blighted fruit as quickly as possible before mildews and blights can spread.
For more detailed information on some of the primary diseases that you may encounter on your tomato plants and their fruits, and how to address and prevent them, read our tomato diseases guide that will comprehensively address this subject!
There are a few common problems you may run into with your tomato plants which can be addressed with relative ease to ensure healthy production!
Tomato plant is having trouble setting fruit: This can be a result of summer heat. Often this issue will resolve itself as nights cool down. You can aid your plant by harvesting tomatoes as soon as they ripen to help unburden the plants.
Flowers are not forming: This can be due to a lack of sun or water. Ensure your plants are receiving direct sunlight and plenty of moisture.
Plants are producing plenty of flowers, but no fruit: This can also be due to improper sun exposure or too little or inconsistent watering. Other culprits may be too high or too low temperatures or not enough pollinators in the area. Ensure your plants are receiving direct sunlight and plenty of moisture provided in the morning; support them through any draught conditions or high temperatures with supplemental watering and shading in the heat of the day; and plant flowers around your tomato plant area that will attract bees. You can also mist your tomato plant now and again to encourage pollen to stick.
Flowers are forming but dropping off the plant: This can be due to high daytime temperatures. Use row covers or shade cloth to help provide relief to your plant during the hottest part of the day.
How to Harvest and Store Tomatoes
There’s nothing like the complex flavor profile of a ripe, delectable tomato! This versatile fruit can be harvested at many stages from its initial ripening through its full, late season maturity, with each phase offering a scintillating flavor profile all its own!
Though signs of ripeness can vary from one tomato variety to the next, as a general principle, you can judge how ripe your tomato is by its deepening color profile and a firm hand feel when gently squeezed.
For the most part, you will know your tomato crop is beginning to ripen as its colors morph from an eye-catching green hue to a lighter shade of green, often with tones of blush pink and creamy yellow. This is one stage at which you may choose to harvest, as these mature green tomatoes make an excellent component for salsas, pickled dishes, and fried platters!
As your tomatoes continue to ripen and mature, their flavors will lend more and more exquisitely to sauces, pastas, and raw dishes such as salads and sandwiches, so you may choose to harvest at any point as their ripe colors manifest and they continue to attain to their full complexity.
Once plucked from the bush or vine, tomatoes can be matured an additional few days in direct sunlight. After this point, they should be stored—either at room temperature indoors, or somewhere shady outside. They can also be frozen, canned, or dried for future use. (Note: Tomatoes should not be refrigerated, due to the breakdown of their unique flavor compounds at any temperatures below 55 degrees Fahrenheit.)
Preparing and Cooking Tomatoes
Some of the best ways to enjoy the fruits of your labor with growing your tomato plant are as a raw component, such as in salads and sandwiches! However, there are a host of applications for tomatoes in any number of dishes, from savory to sweet, depending on the variety you’ve chosen to grow! These can include:
And that’s just a few! Here are some of top tomato dishes we recommend trying out with your bumper crop:
There’s so much more you can do with tomatoes—the possibilities are nearly endless! You can search our website’s tomato database for your particular tomato variety, where you may just find some fantastic recipe suggestions tailored to each unique and delectable fruit!
Final Words on Growing Tomatoes
Whether you’re growing them indoors or outdoors, whether you have a full garden bed space or live in a small apartment or tiny house, tomato plants are a great option for gardeners of all ages and walks of life to get their hands deep in the dirt and experience the challenge and reward of growing their own bumper tomato crop!
Have you grown tomato plants before? If so, which was your favorite variety to grow and eat? What challenges and triumphs did you face in your process? We’d love to hear your experience and any tips and tricks you have to share for growing tomato plants! Let us know your insights in the comments below!
You may also find our companion guide on how to grow big tomatoes useful for care pertaining specifically to large fruit tomato varieties. For more information about tomatoes in general, click here for our other tomato blog posts.