Tomato growing 101: 10 tips for a success harvest
Garden of Eatin', How-To, Vegetables

Grow the Best Tomatoes on the Block: 10 Tips for a Successful Harvest

If you’re planning to grow a summer garden, you’re most likely going to grow tomatoes in it. These plump, juicy fruits are the pinnacle of every vegetable gardener’s summer harvest, but it’s not always easy to get the ultimate tomato of our dreams: firm yet ripe, sweet yet tangy, a blemish-free fruit that’s perfectly moist and warm from the sun.

I’ve grown tomatoes every which way: straight in the ground, up in a raised bed, arranged in containers, even indoors for a short spell. I’ve tried almost every trick in the book — both science-based and those rooted in folk wisdom — to improve my harvest each time.

What I’ve found is that there aren’t really any “tricks” to achieving an abundant crop, only a series of well-timed steps that will give you great tomatoes. Every time.

This is what I do each year before I start planning my tomato crop, and I’ve listed the steps in order of what you should do, too. These 10 simple tips are sure to boost your yields and help save time and money in the garden.

Decide if you want determinate or indeterminate varieties

1. Decide if you want determinate or indeterminate tomatoes.

Determinate tomato plants grow to a predetermined size, usually 3 to 4 feet tall, and produce their fruits all at once. When they start setting blossoms, all growth stops and the plants’ energy go into ripening the entire crop within one to two weeks before they eventually die off. In areas with longer growing seasons, the plants may go dormant before setting a second set of blossoms for a smaller follow-up crop.

Determinate tomatoes are also known as compact, bush, or patio plants, as their manageable size, early bloom, and predictable harvests make them ideal for small-space gardens and containers.

Some of my favorite determinate varieties for container gardens include Principe Borghese, Red Siberian, Italian Roma, and Glacier.

They produce smaller fruit than their indeterminate cousins, but work well for gardeners that need a large harvest early (for example, if you got a late start or have a summer vacation planned) or a large harvest all at once (like for canning or drying).

Indeterminate tomatoes, on the other hand, can grow 8 to 10 feet tall (or more!) in a home garden and require caging, staking, or trellising to handle their heavy, fruit-laden vines. (Though they can also be allowed to sprawl on the ground if you have the space; just stay on top of your harvests, as many tomatoes can be lost this way — hidden under the leaves — and start to rot.)

The typical life cycle of an indeterminate plant involves growing a bit, setting some flowers, producing fruit, then repeating the process all season long. It continues to grow until killed by frost (which means in very warm climates, it can actually survive as a perennial plant).

The amount of flowers and fruits set depends on the variety of tomato. Some only set a handful of flowers at a time, while others (particularly cherry types) set dozens all at once.

My tried-and-true indeterminate varieties for flavor, texture, and excellent production in the garden include Cherokee Purple, Black Krim, Chocolate Cherry, Red and Yellow Brandywine, Green Zebra, Speckled Roman, and Cuore Di Bue.

Indeterminate varieties are ideal for gardeners that like to have small harvests several times throughout the season for fresh eating. Since their fruits are generally larger than determinate types, and a single plant can produce up to 25 pounds of tomatoes, even just a couple of plants can easily overwhelm a household in peak summer!

Choose a mix of tomatoes suitable for your climate: some big juicy slicers, a couple of cherry types, and something more unusual (like icicle varieties, or tomatoes with distinctive ribs or stripes) in early-, mid-, and late-blooming varieties. This helps you hedge your bets in the garden; if it gets too hot for one plant to set fruit in midsummer, other plants will.

Start your tomato seeds early

2. Start your seeds early.

When started indoors under ideal conditions, tomato seeds will germinate in five to seven days, and it takes six to eight weeks to grow them from seed to plantable seedlings.

This is in addition to the “days to maturity” stated on your seed packets. (You can read more about this confusing term in my previous post here.)

So, it’s best to start your tomato seeds indoors about four to six weeks before your last expected frost date, repot the seedlings to increase the root mass, and give them a little time to harden off properly to ensure strong, healthy plants.

If it’s already past the last frost date by the time you’re reading this, you might be able to get away with starting seeds now if you have a decent growing season and choose an early maturing variety.

You can always buy tomato starts from a garden center if all else fails, but when you do the math, it just makes cents (er, sense) to try to start tomatoes from seed every year if you can.

Hear me out: a packet of 25 seeds usually runs about $3. Say 20 seeds germinate and make it to the transplant stage. If each tomato plant produces an average of 15 pounds of fruit (on the low end), that means a single packet of seeds could give you at least 300 pounds of tomatoes!

Where I live, good heirloom tomatoes cost about $5 per pound. If I can get one packet of seeds to produce 300 pounds of fruit, that’s a minimum of $1,500 worth of tomatoes that I’ve grown, and I can pick them at the peak of ripeness from my own backyard.

Bury the stems of your tomato plants

3. Repot your tomatoes twice for stronger stems and larger root mass.

Tomatoes are one of the few vegetable plants that like to bury their stems in soil. This is most apparent if you’ve ever let your tomato vines flop on the ground, forget to stake them upright, and come back a couple weeks later to find the vines have firmly rooted themselves into the soil.

The plants have tiny, fuzzy bumps on their stems (called adventitious roots, root initials, or tomato stem primordia) that are essentially the beginnings of new root nodes.

If left in contact with water or soil, these nodes eventually develop into roots, further increasing the root mass of the plant. This in turn means stronger, healthier plants that need less irrigation and fertilization because their extensive root system can reach deeper into the soil, pulling up moisture and nutrients.

You can learn how to repot your seedlings the first time in this post, why you should transplant them a second time here, and how to transplant them in a trough if you’re not able to dig a deep hole to bury the stems.

Choose a location with full sun for your tomato plants

4. Choose a location with full sun.

Sunlight is free, and it’s one of the most important aspects of growing tomatoes. For a good harvest, allow at least 8 hours of sun per day for your plants.

In climates where summers regularly rise above 85°F to 90°F, provide partial shade as tomato plants tend to drop their flowers and fruits fail to ripen in high heat. Take care to only shade the plants, not cover them — covering will only trap heat and moisture, creating a greenhouse effect. Use shade cloth, muslin, or a light sheet that still allows light and air to pass through.

If you don’t get enough sun in your yard, try planting your tomatoes across from a fence or wall, or the side of a shed or garage that can reflect light back onto the plants. Hang a white sheet on the structure if it isn’t already a bright, light color.

A good, budget DIY is to pick up an old door or window from a thrift shop or a place like Habitat ReStore, paint it white, and place it strategically in the garden to reflect more light onto your plants.

Allow ample space for growing your tomato plants

5. Allow ample space in the plants’ final home.

Tomatoes are wide-spreading plants with deep root systems, and the more space you can give them, the more fruits you’ll get. Allow at least 2 to 3 feet between indeterminate tomatoes in the ground, or 1 1/2 to 2 feet between determinate types.

If you’re growing tomatoes in a container, remember that bigger is better. Oftentimes, people are advised to grow tomatoes in 5-gallon buckets, but unless you are super limited on space (or growing a special micro variety), that’s not nearly enough room for the roots to thrive.

Determinate tomato plants are most successful in 10-gallon or larger containers.

Indeterminate tomato plants need at least 20-gallon containers (such as half whiskey barrels) to reach their full potential. Shorter, wider container profiles will accommodate more robust cages and help prevent tipping as the plants grow taller.

Amend the soil with plenty of nutrients

6. Feed the soil with plenty of amendments.

Tomatoes are heavy feeders, and they thrive when given the right amount of phosphorus, calcium, and other essential nutrients throughout the season. (Unless your plants have yellow leaves, however, try to avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers, which will give you lots of foliage but no flowers.)

I like to feed seedlings with diluted liquid fish fertilizer, then add handfuls of tomato fertilizer, bone meal, crushed eggshells, and fish heads when they go in their final planting hole in the garden. (You can learn more about this intriguing mix of amendments in my tomato growing post here — it’s my most popular post on this topic!)

Every few weeks (or per package directions), douse your plants with a foliar fertilizer (like my favorite liquid seaweed and fish fertilizer, or compost tea, which can easily be made at home) or side dress them with a good granular fertilizer that’s specially formulated for tomatoes or vegetables (I like this one).

Use the "stick trick" to deter cutworms

7. Use the “stick trick” to deter cutworms.

Cutworms are the caterpillars of a group of moths called miller moths. The plump larvae are usually brown or gray in color and curl into a “C” shape when disturbed. They’re also one of the most annoying pests in the garden, especially in spring when there’s a veritable buffet of delicious, tender seedlings for the feasting.

If you’ve ever woken up one morning to the horror of what looks like someone just took a mini lawnmower to all your seedlings, you’ve likely been the victim of cutworms.

They hide during the day and feed at night, clipping the stems of seedlings and young transplants close to the soil surface. Usually the top of the plants are left untouched, lying on the ground near the chewed-off stems, but some cutworms will climb up seedlings to feed on buds, shoots, and leaves.

They love tomato seedlings but will eat any and all vegetables in the garden, including the seedlings of squash, corn, and beans. So, this little trick will work for all your young plants, and it’s a surprisingly effective, cheap, and easy method of pest control.

After you transplant your tomato seedlings and starts, place a small bamboo stick, popsicle stick, wooden skewer, coffee stirrer, or similar apparatus right against the stems. The stick prevents the cutworm from wrapping itself around the stem and gnawing on your plant.

Water your tomato plants deeply and thoroughly

8. Water deeply, but less frequently.

Tomatoes have robust roots that will grow as large as you let them. By watering the plants deeply and thoroughly at the root zone once or twice a week, you encourage the roots to sink deeper into the soil.

That’s because tomato plants that receive only a small amount of water each time (even if they’re irrigated more frequently) tend to have roots that gather near the soil surface. Shallow watering and shallow roots weaken the plants and make them more susceptible to pests, diseases, and low production.

My best advice for managing moisture (and ensuring not too much or not too little reaches the roots) is to install drip lines or soaker hoses on a programmable timer so you can set ‘em and forget ‘em. Tomato plants benefit from consistent moisture as it helps prevent blossom end rot and keeps the skin from cracking.

Mulch the soil around your tomato plants

9. Make mulch your friend.

As soon as your tomato plants are at least 6 inches tall (any shorter and they risk being smothered), spread a generous layer of organic mulch on the soil, taking care not to bunch it against the stems.

A good mulch (like straw, my go-to medium) helps conserve moisture, prevent weeds, and regulate soil temperature. It also keeps the soil from splashing up on the leaves when your plants are watered, reducing the chances of soil-borne disease.

Stake, cage, or trellis your tomato plants early

10. Stake or trellis your plants early, and always aim high.

It’s easy to look at your newly transplanted tomato babies and think they’ll get dwarfed by their cages if you put them up right away. But it doesn’t take long for those plants to get unwieldy, and before you know it, you’re struggling to contain the vines without losing flowers or fruits.

Tomato roots spread rapidly, and it’s best to stake, cage, or trellis them early so you don’t risk driving the supports into their developing root systems.

For most home gardens, I prefer super sturdy, heavy-gauge square cages (like these ones) and am not a fan of the flimsy, conical tomato cages you see in garden centers. (Not to mention, the conical cages are never strong or tall enough to fully support an indeterminate plant.)

If you grow lots of tomatoes, try the Florida weave method of trellising your plants. Other gardeners like to DIY their own supports out of hog wire (using it like a living fence for tomato vines to climb), or fashion their own burly cages out of rebar and concrete reinforcing mesh. Experiment with what works for you!

The higher your supports are, the healthier your plants will be. Keeping the leaves off the ground discourages pests or diseases from taking hold, and air is better able to circulate around the plants when the vines have ample support.

Tomato growing tips for the home gardener

I hope these growing tips help you have the most successful tomato season ever!

Do you have any other wisdom gleaned from growing your own tomatoes? Please share in the comments below!

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