Homegrown tomatoes are a joy to grow, a delight to eat, and provide immense satisfaction to any gardener, from the first-timer to the veteran. Though they’re not too difficult to grow, starting a tomato garden on the right foot is very important to the overall health and success of your tomato plants.
Keep reading to learn the nine simple steps on how to start a tomato garden!
1. Pick a Tomato
The very first step in starting a tomato garden is deciding which tomato variety (or varieties!) you’ll be growing. Though the general care recommended for all tomato varieties is very similar, different kinds of tomatoes do differ on some important necessities, mainly involving the support they’ll need for their growth habit.
Determinate or Indeterminate?
If you’ve already started looking into growing tomatoes at home, you will have certainly come across the terms determinate and indeterminate tomatoes, and it’s definitely something you have to understand well before choosing your tomato variety. While you can read up on more details regarding determinate and indeterminate tomatoes in a different dedicated post, let me go over some of the basics.
Determinate tomatoes have a self-pruning gene that restricts their growth to a pre-determined size (about three to four feet tall) and a rather bushy shape. In fact, a “bush tomato” is synonymous with determinate tomatoes. Determinate tomatoes have a short growing season, and produce all of their fruit all at once.
Indeterminate tomatoes, instead, grow an indeterminate amount because they lack the self-pruning gene. Also known as “vining tomatoes,” indeterminate tomatoes will grow throughout the entire growing season, continuously producing less fruit more often, until the winter cold indicates the plant to stop growing and bunker down for the winter. The vines of indeterminate tomatoes can grow up to twenty feet long!
The reason I bring up the matter of determinate and indeterminate tomatoes is because they have different growing habits that require a different dedicated space and support system once the plants grow heavy with fruits. So in order to start your tomato garden off right, it’s important for you to pick the right tomato kind, whether that be determinate or indeterminate.
Potted Versus In-ground
Closely related to the kind of tomato variety you will be growing is the matter of growing the plant in-ground or in a container. No matter what tomato you choose, if you wanted it potted, you will need a very large container. Determinate tomato plants will need at least 10 gallons. While I advise you to plant indeterminate tomato plants in-ground, if you really want it in a pot, you’ll need a container that holds at least 20 gallons.
So why choose a container? Containers are better at retaining moisture, so you’ll likely need to water your potted tomato garden less than in-ground plants. If cared for properly, tomatoes can thrive both in containers and in-ground, however, so it’s really up to your personal preference.
2. Pick a Location
Now that you’ve decided on a tomato variety and whether it will be potted or in-ground, the second step towards starting a tomato garden is picking the perfect spot that will allow it to thrive at its best. This perfect spot will be dictated by two main elements: spacing, and sunlight.
Spacing is an important detail to keep in mind when starting a tomato garden, especially if you plan on planting more than one tomato plant next to each other. If plants grow too close chances are they won’t get enough sunlight, which allows for the accumulation of too much moisture on the leaves (because it is unable to evaporate), which may result in rot and water-born diseases spreading from plant to plant.
Thus ensuring that your tomato plants have enough space to grow to their full potential without getting in each other’s way is essential for growing a healthy and productive plant.
Indeterminate tomato plants growing vertically will need at least eighteen inches to two feet between each other, whereas bushy determinate tomatoes will need a solid two feet of space on all sides.
The location you pick for starting a tomato garden will need to accommodate that kind of space for each tomato plant you nurture!
Tomatoes are warm-loving plants with no cold tolerance that thrive in lots of sunlight. That means you need to place them in a location that receives at least six to eight hours of direct light every day.
3. Planting Your Tomato
You can either start your tomato garden indoors from seed, or buy young tomato plants from a nursery and transplant them either in a pot or outdoors after the last winter frost has passed. As a first-time tomato gardener might consider, you could consider simplifying the process and going with the latter option. You can buy tomato plants from your local nursery, or save yourself a car ride and order tomato plants online.
Remember that plants love the warm weather and do not do well when it is very cold, so assure yourself that you transplant the young tomato plants outside (whether purchased or grown from seen indoors) when it is well past the last frost date. If you are starting a tomato garden indoors, like in a greenhouse, you have a little more wiggle room.
The soil is perhaps the most important element in growing a tomato garden. If you’re growing tomatoes in containers, don’t reuse garden soil from your backyard—it’s likely too dense and contact, and might smother your young tomato plant’s roots. Use good quality potting soil. If you’re planting your tomato plant in-ground, then use garden soil to make the soil richer.
The soil should have good drainage to avoid sogginess and rot.
4. Choose a Support
The matter of tomato plant support when starting a tomato garden is largely dependent on whether you’re growing a determinate or indeterminate variety of tomato plants. While it is possible to grow determinate plants without any kind of staking or support, it is still a good idea to use one, especially during the growing season when the fruit might weigh the plant down, or cause it to lean sideways.
Indeterminate tomato varieties absolutely need a support system, or else they’ll grow across the ground into a tangle of vines susceptible to disease and bacteria. This could be in the form of stakes, cages, trellises, and more.
Plus, supporting tomato plants is a good idea in general, because it helps with air circulation, and sunlight, and keeps the plant drier during watering. Check out the best tomato cages.
Since we have a post all about garden watering, I’ll just remind you of the importance of properly watering your tomato garden. Tomato fruit is made up of over 90% water, which means the plan itself needs to be watered correctly in order to produce its fruit. Be careful not to overwater, however, because that could cause issues like blossom end rot.
What’s so important about mulching? Mulching is necessary when starting a tomato garden because it protects the soil from disease and pests, retains moisture, and lessens weeds. Use a mulch made from organic material, layer it two-inches tick on the soil, and leave adequate space between the trunk of the tomato and the start of the mulch. Try to avoid darkly colored mulch, as this might attract too much sunlight and overheat your roots.
Tomatoes are hungry plants! Make sure to keep them fed with slow-release tomato fertilizer. Buy tomato fertilizer online to prepare for your tomato garden! While gardeners agree on consistently feeding young and small tomato plants, some argue that continuing to feed tomatoes throughout the growing period encourages plants to grow more foliage rather than fruit. Experiment with different ways to find what works best for you and your plants!
8. Pests and Diseases
Unfortunately, some tomatoes are susceptible to a host of diseases and pests, especially heirloom varieties. Because of this, make sure to keep an eye on your plants in order to diagnose and treat any issues as soon as you spot them. Learn about and treat common tomato diseases and tomato pests.
A good preventative measure is to adhere to spacing guidelines, water in the morning so that the leaves have time to dry off before night and learn to prune tomato plants when the time is right.
Congratulations! The work of starting a tomato garden has paid off, and it’s time to harvest the literal fruits of your labors between 60 and 100 days after planting. Ripe tomatoes will look different depending on the color of the tomato you are growing, but in general the color should be deep, and the fruit itself firm but not too hard nor too squishy.
Once you’ve harvested your tomatoes, store them in a dark place at room temperature. Experts agree that tomatoes actually taste better a couple of days after having been picked because the flavors will have had time to develop fully.
Though your instinct might be to put them in the fridge, resist the urge! Cold temperatures actually cause tomatoes to lose their flavor.
Now You Know How to Start A Tomato Garden!
There are simply no downsides to starting a tomato garden! All you need to do is put in a little research (this post is a great place to start), determine what tomato variety you want to grow, and take it from there. Remember to pick a spot that will allow for the most sunlight and space between your tomato plants. I hope these 9 steps to starting a tomato garden have inspired you to go out and start your own!
Next, continue your tomato journey by reading up on everything else you should know about growing tomatoes!