Growing Tomatoes

 | 
Cherry tomato plants perform well in hot summers.

Several varieties of tomatoes are planted in this garden. Toward the front, Husky Cherry produces red cherry tomatoes for snacking while Roma bears larger, meatier tomatoes for canning. Indeterminate varieties are planted in the back.

Grow several types of tomatoes, both heirloom and hybrid, for different tastes and colors.

Tomato connoisseurs grow various types with differing colors and flavors. These are all heirloom tomatoes.

Sun-ripened tomatoes deliver the taste of summer in every bite. Just a few healthy plants will produce buckets of fruit. Tomatoes run on warmth; plant in late spring and early summer except in zone 10, where they are a fall and winter crop. Choosing tomato varieties can be confusing because there are so many, but it’s a good idea to plant a wide variety. Our article “Learn Tomato Terms” explains a few basics about terms like VFN (disease resistance), variety characteristics (indeterminate vs. determinate), and others to help you choose among the different ones. Varieties resistant to diseases are always a good choice because, of all veggies, tomatoes tend to get the most diseases.

Soil, Planting, and Care

Devote a prime, sunny spot to tomatoes, which will grow into a tall screen of green foliage studded with ripening fruits in mid- to late summer. Tomatoes need at least 8 hours of sun to bring out their best flavors, and you will need to stake, trellis, or cage the sprawling plants to keep them off the ground. Decide on a support plan before you set out your plants, then add that support directly after planting.

  • Space robust, long-vined, indeterminate varieties about 3 feet apart.
  • Stocky determinate plants can be grown 2 feet apart.
  • A single patio tomato will fill an 18-inch-wide container.
Choose a small determinate tomato like Better Bush to grow in a container.

Sometimes tomatoes in pots do better than those in the ground because of perfect soil and improved air circulation. Better Bush is a great variety for containers.

You can combine fast-maturing varieties with special season-stretching techniques to grow an early crop, but wait until the last frost has passed to plant main-season tomatoes. Tomatoes take up nutrients best when the soil pH ranges from 6.2 to 6.8, and they need a constant supply of major and minor plant nutrients. To provide the major nutrients, mix a balanced timed-release or organic fertilizer into the soil as you prepare planting holes, following the rates given on the fertilizer label. At the same time, mix in 3 to 4 inches of compost. The compost will provide minor nutrients and help hold moisture and fertilizer in the soil until it is needed by the plants. Or, in place of the fertilizer, feed your tomatoes with Bonnie Herb & Vegetable Plant Food when planting and every couple of weeks during the growing season.

Use a soaker hose to water plants well and to save water.

A soaker hose waters a tomato plant well and without waste. Once they're in place, cover soaker hoses with mulch.

To grow really strong tomato plants, we recommend burying two-thirds of the plant’s stem when planting. This crucial step will allow them to sprout roots along the buried stem, so your plant will be stronger and better able to find water in drought. Please note that this deep-planting method only works with tomatoes (and tomatillos), not other veggies.

Cover the ground with 2 to 4 inches of mulch to keep down weeds and keep the soil evenly moist. Straw and shredded leaves make great mulches for tomatoes. If summer droughts are common in your area, use soaker hoses, drip irrigation, or other drought-busting techniques to help maintain even soil moisture – the key to preventing cracked fruits and blossom-end rot.

As summer heats up, some tomatoes have trouble setting fruit. Be patient, and you will start seeing little green tomatoes again when nights begin cooling down. Meanwhile, promptly harvest ripe tomatoes to relieve stressed plants of their heavy burden. If you live in an area in which summertime temperatures are typically in the 90s, be sure to choose some heat-tolerant tomato varieties, bred for their ability to set fruit under high temperatures.

Tomato plants have long, deep roots.

If you plant a tomato deeply and in good soil, it will develop a big, deep root system that makes the plant stronger and more drought tolerant.

By late summer, plants that began producing early in the season will show signs of exhaustion. With just a little effort, you can rescue those sad tomato plants by pruning away withered leaves and branches. Then follow up with liquid fertilizer and treatments for leaf diseases or insects, if needed.

Troubleshooting

If your tomato plant is not setting fruit, it’s likely because the weather is too hot or too cold for the tomato flowers to produce fruit.

Tomato blossoms can be temperamental. If it gets too cool (below 55˚) or too hot (above 90˚), the flowers of most varieties will pause from setting fruit until the temperature is back where they like it.

Humid weather creates ideal conditions for fungal diseases like early blight, which causes dark spots to first form on lower leaves. Late blight is a more devastating disease that kills plants quickly; the only way to control it is to protect against it by spraying the leaves with an approved fungicide such as chlorothalonil or copper, and to keep the garden clean of tomato and potato debris. Of all crops, tomatoes are the most likely to get problems, but many hybrids have been developed that resist the most prevalent diseases. (Check your variety description in our online catalog to see what diseases it might be resistant to.) Often diseases tend to be worse in one region of the country and practically non-existent in another, which is why it’s important to have varieties suited to your area. You’ll also want to be on the lookout for pests. In mid-summer, for example, big green caterpillars called tomato hornworms eat tomato foliage and sometimes damage fruits. One or two hornworms can strip a plant leafless.

Check out our article on Tomato Quirks for more troubleshooting information.

Harvest and Storage

Know what the mature color of your tomato variety should be in order to know if your tomato is ripe.

This cluster of tomatoes shows several stages of ripening. Tomatoes ripen to different colors depending on the variety.

As tomatoes begin to ripen, their color changes from vibrant medium-green to a lighter shade, with faint pink or yellow blushing. These “breakers,” or mature green tomatoes, can be chopped into salsas, pickled, or pan-fried into a crispy appetizer. Yet tomato flavors become much more complex as the fruits ripen, so you have good reason to wait. The exact signs of ripeness vary with variety, but in general, perfectly ripe tomatoes show deep color yet still feel firm when gently squeezed. Store picked tomatoes at room temperature indoors, or in a shady place outside. Never refrigerate tomatoes, because temperatures below 55° cause the precious flavor compounds to break down. Bumper crops can be frozen, canned, or dried for future use.

Download our How to Grow Tomatoes instructions. They are in .PDF format.

FAQs

Your plant tags say to plant tomatoes deep: two-thirds of the plant underground. Is that really a good practice?

Yes, we recommend this because the more plant you put under the soil, the better the root system. The buried stem of a tomato plant will sprout roots. However, this is not true for all vegetables, only tomatoes and tomatillos.

The tag says full sun, but in Arizona with temperatures reaching over the 100 degree mark, is that going to be an issue with this plant?

We recommend that you give your tomatoes some afternoon shade in summer. They need some relief.

What is meant by “maturity is reached in __ days”?

The maturity is the number of days from planting the seedling until the fruit is ready to pick. This varies a little with weather and region, but the “days to maturity” is a good way to see what will be ready early, mid, and late season.

What size cage should I use for my tomato plants?

Most tomatoes work best with a 5- to 6-foot trellis, stake, or cage. Buy the largest cage possible or make your own from concrete reinforcement wire. The vines of indeterminate tomatoes can get longer than 6 feet, but just let them climb to the top and droop over and down if that doesn’t bother you. Otherwise, you’ll be harvesting with a ladder!

When the plant says full sun, what exactly does that mean?

Full sun means no shade all day, but in many cases in the summer, that’s too much. In hot climates, herbs and some vegetables appreciate a little shade in the mid to late afternoon.

Is it a good idea to always stake or cage my tomatoes?

Yes. Staking tomatoes helps to increase yield and prevent rotting and diseases.

Can I plant one tomato plant in a five-gallon bucket on my patio? How large should the container be for a tomato?

Yes, a 5-gallon container is the minimum size for a tomato plant. A container should be at least 18 inches wide at the top for a tomato, preferably 24 inches for an indeterminate tomato plant. Also, make sure your container has drainage holes.

What do the letters VFFN stand for in the names of your tomatoes?

These letters represent problems that a variety resists, which means that it should not succumb to the problem. V=Verticillium wilt, F and FF=Fusarium wilt races 1 and 2, A= Alternaria leaf spot. The N is for nematode resistance; nematodes are not a disease, they are tiny eel-like pests that ruin roots. There are other designations, too, which are included in the tomato variety descriptions in our online plant catalog.

Is there such a thing as nematode-resistant tomato plants?

Yes, many varieties are resistant to nematodes. Look for the “N” after the name, which stands for nematode resistance. To find these varieties, check the catalog section of our website. Our tomato descriptions list plants’ resistance to nematodes and other problems.

Should I be pruning off the lower branches of my tomato plants? How far off of the ground should the lower branches be?

Pruning is not necessary, but some people do it to keep soil that might harbor diseases from splashing up on the leaves; 12 to 18 inches from the ground ought to do it.

Is it true that pinching off the flowers on the tomato plant helps it to produce more fruit?

It will not help production, but it could increase the size of the tomatoes left on the vine by a little bit.

I just planted my tomatoes and found out that it is too early. Should I put something over them to protect them at night?

Your tomatoes should be okay if you cover them to protect them from frost and cold, strong wind. Don’t let the foliage touch the cover unless it is a material that doesn’t transfer the cold easily, such as bonded polyester row cover, a cardboard box, or a blanket. Avoid metal cans or plastic unless it does not touch the plants.

What causes tomatoes to turn black on the bottom?

They call that blossom end rot. It is thought to be caused by lack of calcium and drought stress. One way to add calcium is to lime the soil. This will help future crops. To help the current crop, purchase a calcium solution, such as Stop-rot, that you spray on the plants.

Do I have to replant tomatoes every year, or do the plants come back when the time is right?

Tomatoes are annuals that are killed by frost. They need to be replanted each year.

186 thoughts on “Growing Tomatoes

  1. It’s May 23, 2013 and I am writing you from Savannah, GA. I just purchased some tomato plants from a local nursery and am planting them in containers on my deck. What type of soil and fertilizer should I use? This is my first tomato growing venture. Any helpful hints would be greatly appreciated.

    • Hello Mary,
      Great choice, tomatoes grow well in containers. Be sure the containers are large enough to support the tomato plant. A container about 24 inches in diameter is recommended. A well draining potting mix is great to use for container gardening. There are many mixes available, this article from the Bonnie Plants library will give you direction on choosing a mix. Try mixing a time released fertilizer in with the mix (some potting mixes contain a slow release fertilizer). Follow up with a water soluble fertilizer to keep container veggies healthy. Hoping for many tomatoes for you this summer! – danielle, Bonnie Plants

  2. I live in Nashville, TN. My husband is a huge tomato person so this year I planted several plants for him. One is a heirloom and the others are hybrids. It has not gotten too hot here yet only high 80s so I dont think they are heat stressed. They just dont seem to be thriving. A couple of them just look a bit yellowish and pitiful. All of them have had blossoms and today one has a little bity tomato on it. I do have a layer of mulch over them and we water every other day if it doesnt rain. What am I doing wrong?

    • Hi Laura,
      What types of fertilizers have the tomatoes been given? An overall yellowish hue is a good indication that the plants need fertilizer. Try a liquid ferilizer for vegetables to try and speed up their recovery. – danielle, Bonnie Plants

  3. so far so good, planted my first squarfoot garden. 1 4-4 and 1 6-6. all tomatoes in one. lots of blooms, and small tomatoes. have 4 plants in buckets. buckets do dry so much faster than the sq. ft gardens about 3 plants in garden have yellow bottom leaves. so far I,ve just removed them. where I live is virtually no sunny place. but a tree got cut down in my front yard , giving me sufficient sun so my sq. foot garden was born. planning more “crops” this year carol kobus

    • Hi Carol,
      Would love to see your handiwork. Upload a picture to the Bonnie Plants facebook page if you get a chance. Way to Garden! – danielle, Bonnie Plants

Comments are closed.