How to Grow and Care for Tomatoes in Your Garden

How to Grow and Care for Tomatoes in Your Garden

According to the National Gardening Association, tomatoes are the most commonly grown backyard vegetable, and for good reason.

Not only is a fresh-picked, homegrown tomato extraordinarily tasty, especially when compared to the supermarket variety, is easy to grow, and thrives almost anywhere.

A close up of red ripe tomatoes growing in the garden, pictured on a soft focus background. To the center and bottom of the frame is green and white text.Cultivation and History

Native to Central and South America, tomatoes have been cultivated since the time of the ancient Mayan civilization.

Oblong, ovoid shaped pinkish-red tomatoes with green tops, just harvested and placed on a piece of brown burlap, with a skinny green leaf.available on Amazon, the first American recipe to feature tomatoes dates from 1772.

At the same time, tomatoes were grown in Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello garden, from seeds obtained in Europe.

Today, tomatoes are one of the major vegetables in US cuisine.

Determinate vs Indeterminate

Often, the first consideration when selecting a plant is whether to choose a determinate or indeterminate variety.

Indeterminate types grow all season, and continue to bloom and produce fruit as long as weather conditions are favorable.

They also tend to be viney space-hogs that require extensive staking or caging.

Closeup of several yellow tomato flowers just about finished blooming, with one small green round fruit beginning to develop, on a plant with green leaves and branches, and a brown fence in the background.Photo by Allison Sidhu.

Determinate types grow in a more compact, bushy form, and produce their fruits all at once. After fruiting, they stop growing and die.

This means you’ll have a huge harvest that’s perfect for canning, but you might not be able to enjoy caprese salads all summer long.

You can read more about indeterminate and determinate characteristics here.

Propagation

You can start seeds indoors six weeks before your expected last frost date.

This tender annual is sensitive to cold weather and frost, so don’t set your seedlings or nursery starts out too early.

Wait until all danger of frost has passed, when air temperatures remain above 55°F and soil temperatures are consistently 65°F or higher. This is usually a couple of weeks after your average last frost date.

In Austin, I always put my tomatoes out the second week of March, and have never had a problem.

This year, however, we’ve had some bizarre April nights where the temperature has dropped into the low 40s. It appears the little green fruits are okay, but some of the leaves are definitely showing cold-weather damage.

One small green tomato growing on a plant with large green leaves, in a terra cotta pot on a patio.Photo by Gretchen Heber.

Place seedlings in an area where they can receive six hours or more of sunlight – unless you live in Zones 8-10, where about 5 hours are sufficient.

If you are transplanting from indoor-grown seedlings, don’t put your plants outdoors without getting them used to the different climate.

To harden them off, begin by setting them outside for a few hours each day in the shade.

This way, they will become acclimated to the difference in temperature. Increase the time they are outside every day over the course of about a week.

If you put them directly in the sun at the start, you will end up with sunburned leaves.

Learn more about how to start tomatoes from seed in this guide.

How to Grow

Try to plant in an area that receives early morning sun, late afternoon sun, and is shaded during the hottest parts of the day.

Two small, green tomatoes growing on a plant with green triangle-shaped leaves and tall vining branches, planted in a large terra cotta pot.Photo by Gretchen Heber.

If your growing area only receives about 3 to 4 hours of sunlight, you can plant cherry tomatoes.

The plant will not grow to be as big as it would in a full sun location, but it will still produce a decent harvest of fruit.

Tomatoes grow best in organically rich, well-draining soil, with a slightly acidic to neutral pH of 6.0-7.0. You can even grow them in clay, if that’s what’s available in your garden.

You can conduct a soil test to determine the nutrient content and pH of your soil, and amend accordingly.

If your soil is particularly poor, and you feel nutritive amendments make sense, add them at the beginning of the season, before the plant is in the ground.

Don’t use compost or fertilizer after the plant is in the ground. Too much nitrogen will cause it to produce lots of leaves but little or no fruit.

Choose a balanced fertilizer or one with a slightly lower ratio of nitrogen, so you don’t end up with lots of green leaves and no fruit.

When planting transplants, dig a hole deep enough to bury the stem just past the first set of leaves.

Deep planting of seedlings allows them to generate a better root system, resulting in a stronger and more productive plant.

These plants need to be spaced about 3 to 4 feet apart if they are not going to be caged. And if they are, then you can get away with 2 feet between each.

If you’re growing all determinate varieties, they can be squeezed in a little more tightly, with about a foot in between.

My rows are usually a jumble of both types, so I give them a little more room, though I might sneak a low-growing pepper plant in between, just so no inch of garden goes unused.

Hot Weather Can Be Too Much of a Good Thing

While thrives in hot weather, it is possible for the weather to be too hot for the plants to set fruit properly. If nighttime temperatures stay consistently above 75°F, the pollen can be rendered sterile.

Humidity, too, can have an impact on fruiting. Very high humidity can prevent the pollen from dropping, and in low humidity areas, the flowers may become so dry that pollen won’t stick. Frequent watering may raise the humidity.

But, ultimately, your best bet is to look for cultivars that are developed for your growing conditions. In Austin, for example, local nurseries have shelves and shelves of tomatoes with “heat loving” or something similar in the plant description.

While it might be fun to try the heirlooms that some garden stores sell, they might not do well in every region.

Planting in Pots

Container gardening is a good solution for those who live in apartments and condos, without the luxury of a garden. All you need are containers, potting soil, seedlings, and a few good practices.

First, make sure your containers are large enough. You don’t have to purchase expensive pots – 5-gallon plastic buckets with drainage holes punched in the bottom will do just fine.

Two small green tomatoes growing on a plant with dark green leaves, planted in a large terra cotta pot filled with brown soil.Photo by Gretchen Heber.

In general, plants grown in containers – including tomatoes – require considerably more frequent watering than plants grown in the ground.

Additionally, plants grown in containers will be more compact at maturity than those planted directly in the soil.

Roots are the primary limiting factor in total production, which is why potted plants never grow as big or produce as many fruits as plants grown in the ground.

Hydration and Support

Try to be consistent with watering to keep the soil evenly moist, but not wet. Going from dry soil to soaked can cause the fruit to crack.

Deep watering is preferable to more frequent, light watering. You want the moisture to go deep enough to reach all the roots. On average, plants require 1-2 inches of water per week.

Another significant aspect to caring for is the need to cage or stake them, particularly the vining, indeterminate types.

Growing tomatoes in wire cages is one popular method among gardeners because of its simplicity. Cage training allows the plant to grow in its natural manner, but keeps the fruit and leaves off the ground.

Closeup of a cluster of six red cherry tomatoes growing on a plant in the garden.Summertime rainstorms are wonderful for clearing dust and dirt from your plants’ leaves, but when you’re watering, be sure to concentrate on the base of plants rather than spraying the leaves and fruit.

Other gardeners stake their tomatoes. This requires tying the vines to a stake to support the plant and keep it off the ground. The Florida Weave method is a great option for this.

Whether you choose to cage or stake your tomatoes, add the apparatus right after transplanting your seedlings. Inserting a stake or cage later risks damaging the plants’ roots.

Some gardeners in particularly windy areas — where cages or stakes are apt to topple over — may choose to let their plants vine along the ground instead.

Evidence is mixed as to whether pruning does anything to increase tomato production.

What about suckers? Many gardeners swear by removing these, the shoots that grow between the main stem and a leaf.

They suggest that suckers should be broken off while they are still small, less than four inches long. This enables the plant to put its energy into growing fruit rather than more foliage.

Cultivars to Select

Before deciding what cultivar to choose, consider your intended use of the fruit. Are you looking to preserve your crop for later use in sauces by canning?

Or if you’re looking for table tomatoes, do you want diminutive cherries or larger slicing types?

With so many varieties available, other considerations include heirloom types versus hybrid varieties, color (not all tomatoes are red!), and of course, flavor.

Let’s look at a few options:

Celebrity

‘Celebrity’ is an All-American Selections-winning hybrid with a delicious, sweet flavor.

Three round, red 'Celebrity' hybrid tomatoes growing on a green vine in bright sunshine.‘Celebrity’

Medium to large, deep red fruits are produced on determinate plants.

You can find seeds in a variety of packet sizes, available from Mountain Valley Seed Co. via True Leaf Market.

Indigo Rose

Or, surprise the family with purple tomatoes! ‘Indigo Rose’ is a compact, indeterminate cultivar that produces fruits high in antioxidants.

Closeup of two purple and yellow 'Indigo Rose' tomatoes, growing on a plant with green leaves and branches.‘Indigo Rose’

Cocktail-sized fruits develop their characteristic purple color when grown in a full sun location.

You can find seeds in a variety of packet sizes from True Leaf Market.

Persimmon

For a colorful indeterminate variety, consider ‘Persimmon’ — a Russian slicing tomato that’s yellow instead of red.

Extreme closeup of two vibrant yellow 'Persimmon' tomatoes growing on a green vine.‘Persimmon’

Large fruits are ready for harvest 80-90 days from transplant.

You can find seeds in a variety of packet sizes available from True Leaf Market.

Roma

‘Roma’ is known as a particularly good paste and canning tomato. This heirloom variety matures in 80 days.

A close up of 'Roma' tomatoes, freshly picked from the vine and placed on a wooden surface.‘Roma’

Determinate plants produce high yields of sweet-flavored fruits.

You can find seeds available at Eden Brothers.

Small Red Cherry

If you’d like to try your hand at growing cherries, consider ‘Small Red Cherry.’

A close up of a bunch of small red cherry tomatoes, growing in the garden, ready for harvest.‘Small Red Cherry’

This high-yielding, indeterminate heirloom variety matures in 70 days, and produces sweet, flavorful fruits.

You can find packets of seeds in a variety of sizes available at Eden Brothers.

Yellow Pear

For a pear-shaped dollop of sunshine, consider ‘Yellow Pear.’ These cute pear-shaped fruits grow on indeterminate plants.

Closeup of three yellow pear-shaped tomatoes growing on a green plant.‘Yellow Pear’

Fruits are ready to harvest in 78 days.

You can find seeds in 1- or 4-ounce quantities available from True Leaf Market.

Managing Pests and Disease

As tasty as tomatoes are to humans, they are equally delectable to a number of pests, from insects to mammals, including landlords (more on that later). Several fungal and bacterial diseases can be a problem for these plants as well.

Before we get into specifics, here are some general tips to keep your plants healthy and pest free:

  • Basil is another plant that tends to repel bugs that like to snack on tomatoes. There’s also anecdotal evidence that planting basil near improves the flavor of the red orbs.
  • Rotate crops. Plant vegetables from differing botanical families in different spots each season, so that pests are thrown off the scent. Rotating all nightshade crops at least every 3 years will help to prevent bacterial and fungal diseases as well.

Now let’s look at some specific problems that plague :

Aphids

If the aphid infestation is limited to small area of a plant, you can prune away the creepy-crawly part. Place the pruned bits in a plastic bag, seal it up, and toss it.

Aphids can also be blasted off with an energetic stream of water, or treated with neem oil such as this one from Garden Safe, available via Amazon.

Garden Safe Neem Oil Extract Concentrate

This concentrated product will make about 15 gallons of spray.

You can also treat aphids with insecticidal soap. Via Amazon, try this one from Safer Brand.

Safer Brand Insect Killing Soap, 32 Oz.

This 32-ounce spray bottle is ready to use.

If more information on dealing with an aphid infestation, be sure to check out our in-depth guide.

Beet Armyworms

These are ugly little hairless caterpillar-like creatures that eat the leaves and fruit of .

Get rid of them with bacillus thuringiensis — aka Bt — such as this one from Monterey, available via Amazon.

Monterey Bt Biological Insecticide, Ready-to-Use 32 Oz.

This 32-ounce spray bottle is ready to use.

Hornworms

These greedy green critters can eat so much plant material that they get to be 3 inches or longer, and as big around as a Sharpie! They’ll strip a plant faster than you can make a BLT.

When you spy one of these big puppies, pick it off and squish its green guts out with a trowel. I mean it. They’re evil.

Or you could just spray with Bt.

Loopers

These caterpillar-type insects have an inchworm-like movement and they’ll inch their way all over your plant foliage, leaving large round holes in their wake.

Pick ‘em off by hand or shoot ‘em with Bt.

Stink Bugs

Several varieties of stink bugs bother both the foliage and fruit of tomatoes.

We’ve got a whole article for you about these stinkers.

Slugs

Add slugs to the parade of critters that like to snack on .

If you have a slug problem, try burying a large-mouthed jar in your garden and fill it with beer. The slugs are attracted to the yeast in the beer and will not be able to climb out of the jar after they fall in.

Blight

Blights are caused by fungus, and a number of them can plague tomatoes. This disease often presents with yellow or brown spots on the leaves of plants, or a dark spot on the fruit.

One type, known as southern blight, often presents as white, moldy patches on tomatoes. Learn more about preventing southern blight here.

At the first sign of disease, apply a fungicide such as this one from Garden Safe, available via Amazon.

Garden Safe Fungicide3, 24 Oz.

This 24-ounce bottle is ready to use.

Blossom-End Rot

If the fruits become rotten on the bottom or on the inside, this is blossom-end rot. It is caused by a low concentration of calcium in the fruit.

Why is your plant not taking up enough calcium? This can be caused by soil that’s too wet or too dry, soil that contains too much nitrogen, soil pH that’s too high or too low, root damage, cold soil, or soil that’s high in salts.

You might want to test your soil’s pH first, and make adjustments if necessary.

Learn more about how to identify and treat blossom end rot here.

Rodents

Squirrels love tomatoes. Well, they love a few bites of a tomato, anyway. There is nothing more rage-inducing than finding a ripe and juicy but partially eaten tomato lying haphazardly on the ground near your garden.

It would be better if the squirrels just ate the whole thing rather than just eating some of it and leaving the rest — swarming with ants — to taunt us with the damage it has wrought.

There are squirrel poisons available, but that’s not my cup of tea. While I’ll never stop grousing about it, I’ve just come to accept that some quantity of fruit must be sacrificed to these greedy but entertaining critters.

Mice and rats also enjoy these fruits — deal with them as you see fit.

Harvesting

Tomatoes are ready to be picked when they morph from green to a saturated version of their destination color — whether it’s red, orange, yellow, or purple.

Nine or more round, red tomatoes and a few smaller green fruits growing on a large plant in the garden.Preserving

When it comes to storing your harvested orbs of deliciousness, you may have heard conflicting info. If your picked tomatoes need a day or two of additional ripening, don’t put them in the refrigerator.

A close up of freshly harvested ripe red tomatoes, with the vines still attached.this guide from our sister site, Foodal.

If you want to freeze your tomatoes to use in cooking, you blanch them in boiling water to remove the skins – or simply cut them into quarters and place on a cookie sheet in the freezer.

When they are frozen, put them into a plastic zip top bag, pop them back in the freezer and they’ll for last up to year. When you are ready to use them, remove from the freezer, allow to thaw, and the skins will come off easily.

Recipes and Cooking Ideas

Let’s look at some luscious avenues for cooking with your crop.

A close up of a white plate with a freshly made pepperoni chicken parmesan, set on a wooden chopping board with a glass of red wine in the background.Photo by Fanny Slater.

For a an Italian inspired weeknight meal, try this Pepperoni Chicken Parmesan, from our sister site, Foodal.

A close up of a white ceramic bowl containing fresh tomato soup with croutons on the top, set on a wooden surface.Photo by Meghan Yager.

Or, if you find yourself with a large harvest, why not whip up a quick 20-minute fresh tomato soup? You can find the recipe on Foodal.

A close up of freshly baked crostini topped with roasted tomatoes and basil, on a white plate, set on a wooden surface.Photo by Meghan Yager.

Looking for a quick, tasty appetizer? Check out this tangy roasted tomato crostini, also from Foodal.

And for more inspiration, our sister site, Foodal has got you covered, with recipes for all things tomato!

Quick Reference Growing Guide

Plant Type: Annual fruit Water Needs: Moderate
Native To: Central and South America Maintenance: Moderate
Hardiness (USDA Zone): 2-10 Tolerance Heat
Season: Summer Soil Type: Organically rich, fertile
Exposure: Full sun Soil pH: 6.0-7.0
Time to Maturity: 50-85 days, depending on variety Soil Drainage: Well-draining
Spacing: 2-4 feet Companion Planting: Basil, celery, parsley, peppers
Planting Depth: Seeds: 1/4 inch Avoid Planting With: Other nightshades
Height: 3-5 feet (determinate) 10-12 feet (indeterminate) Family: Solanaceae
Spread: 1-4 feet Genus: Solanum
Pests & Diseases: Aphids, beet armyworms, hornworms, loopers, stink bugs, slugs; anthracnose, early and late blight, blossom drop, blossom end rot, fusarium wilt, septoria leaf spot, verticillium wilt. Species: lycopersicum

The Essence of Summertime

Tomatoes are undoubtedly a favorite crop of backyard gardeners. They’re easy to grow, generally highly productive – and that flavor is sublimely summer!

Give them sun and plenty of water, and you’ll be rewarded with tasty fruit for months.

A close up of three ripe tomatoes growing in the garden pictured on a soft focus background.How to Make Tomatoes Turn Red When They Refuse to Ripen on the Vine

  • The Top 10 Reasons to Love Tomatoes and Add More to Your Diet

  • Don’t forget to Pin It!

    A collage of photos showing different types of homegrown tomatoes.Gretchen Heber

    A former garden editor for a daily newspaper in Austin, Texas, Gretchen Heber goes through entirely too many pruners and garden gloves in a year’s time. She’s never met a succulent she didn’t like and gets really irritated every 3-4 years when Austin actually has a freeze cold enough to kill them. To Gretchen, nothing is more rewarding than a quick dash to the garden to pluck herbs to season the evening meal. And it’s definitely time for a happy dance when she’s able to beat the squirrels to the peaches, figs, or loquats.

    “How to Grow and Care for Tomatoes in Your Garden” was first posted here

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