Tomatoes can rightly be considered something of a gateway vegetable for gardeners. Legions of folks have started out intending to grow little more than a few tomato plants, and years later, when plots full of broccoli and onions have taken over the backyard, they’re still working on growing those tomatoes.
That’s in part because of how incredibly different a homegrown tomato is from the kinds you can get at the grocery store. Ripe tomatoes from the garden are bursting with flavor and often so soft they have to be carefully held, nothing like their firm, typically flavorless cousins. But garden tomatoes are also unpredictable. A newbie gardener can luck into an ample harvest, while even seasoned growers can battle pests and disease and end up with a disappointing yield. But even after the inevitable bad season, there’s always next year, and the prospect of a truly spectacular tomato salad makes it worth the effort.
Here’s how to grow tomatoes in your own back yard.
- Exposure: full sun, at least 6 to 8 hours daily
- When to plant: after nighttime temps reach 5o°F, typically April-June, depending on your growing zone
- Pests and diseases to watch out for: tomato hornworms, aphids, whiteflies, Colorado potato beetles
- Recommended varieties: ‘Beefsteak,’ ‘Sun Gold,’ ‘San Marzano plum,’ ‘Brandywine’
Types of Tomato Plants
There are two main types of tomato plants, determinate and indeterminate, and it’s important to know what kind you have before planting. Determinate plants, also known as bush tomatoes, grow to a set (or “determinate”) height, typically 3–4 feet, and then they fruit all at once. These plants do not typically need to be staked.
Indeterminate plants, on the other hand, can keep growing as long as conditions are right. They benefit from staking so they do not fall over or grow horizontally, and they will continue to produce tomatoes, again, as long as conditions are right. Knowing which you have will help greatly in knowing how to plant and care for your veggies.
How to Plant Tomatoes
Tomatoes can be grown from seed, though they typically can’t be sown right into the soil, which is why many new gardeners start with seedlings from the local nursery or garden center. Look for short, sturdy plants that haven’t started flowering, and plant them in a spot that gets lots of sun, with good drainage, and use plenty of soil amendments to ensure the soil is rich with organic matter and nutrients. Tomatoes can be planted a few inches deeper than they are in their containers, which actually helps them to develop stronger roots. Space plants two to three feet apart, and if staking is necessary, add a stake directly after planting, so you don’t damage the plant adding it later.
How to Plant Tomatoes in a Container
Tomatoes (both kinds but especially determinate varieties), don’t need to be planted directly into the ground. They can easily be grown in many kinds of containers as long as they have enough room for their roots to grow. Look for a dedicated tomato-growing container, or a 20 gallon container that is at least 18 inches wide (or 24 inches for indeterminate tomatoes). As with in-ground plants, make sure they have plenty of sun, rich soil, and add the stake right after planting. Tomato containers can be grouped together as long as their leaves aren’t brushing each other — and this actually helps keep the roots a little cooler if the plants are on concrete or blacktop, because too much warmth (nighttime temperatures above 75°F) will stop them from producing new fruit.
How to Care for Tomatoes
You’ll want to make sure plants have at least one inch of water per week, and mulching around the plant will help the soil retain water so the plants don’t dry out. Water low by keeping the watering can at the base of the plant or using a soaker hose to keep the leaves from getting wet or soil from splashing up onto the leaves, which can cause fungal damage. If you’re staking your plant, tie the stem loosely to the stake to give it room to grow, starting at about 10-12 inches off the ground.
How Long Do Tomatoes Take to Grow?
If you’re growing tomato seedlings indoors, you’ll want to give them about six to eight weeks before transplanting. Seeds typically sprout in 5-14 days, and then need to have three or four leaves each before they can be moved outdoors. (Don’t move them until about two weeks after the last frost.) Once you’ve planted seedlings in their permanent space, you can expect to start harvesting fruit in about 60–80 days, depending on the variety. So if you’re able to get your plants into the ground in April, you should be able to harvest tomatoes in June or early July.
Do I Need to Worry About Pests with Tomatoes?
Unfortunately, disease and pests are a constant threat for tomato growers everywhere. While pests are typically easy to take care of if you’re watchful, fungal diseases like blight can wipe out a crop before you know it, and the only consolation is that there’s always next year. The best way to protect against disease is to keep the soil fertile and moist, the leaves dry as much as possible, and the plants properly spaced.
Common pests include the tomato hornworm (a large green caterpillar that can be picked off by hand), aphids (which can be sprayed with a mild solution of soapy water), and whiteflies. The best way to protect against whiteflies is to simply inspect the plant carefully before purchasing.
“Tomatoes are warm weather plants. If you live in the North where the growing season is short, you can cover the soil with black plastic sheeting for a few weeks before planting to help warm the soil.” —Deborah L. Martin, author of Rodale’s Basic Organic Gardening and Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening.
Find more great info on growing all kinds of plants in our Gardening Encyclopedia.