Beginners Information Guide:
How to Grow Tomatoes

Tomatoes are a very popular and rewarding fruit to include in your vegetable garden or patio. There are several varieties available and, the great thing is, many have built-in resistance to diseases and fungi that are known to plague tomato plants. It’s not difficult to learn how to grow tomatoes. Whether you are an experienced gardener or not, you can be rewarded with fruits about 3 months from the time of planting, as long as you implement some helpful tomato garden techniques and basics.

The important factors to consider when you are ready to start your tomato garden are to: find the right tomato seeds or plants for your climate zone, find a sunny spot in your garden or patio, amend your soil, purchase the right type of fertilizer, water properly and maintain your plants during the growing season. Whether you are planning to grow your tomatoes in a vegetable garden or container are important factors as well. There are special patio variety tomato plants that do better than the regular garden varieties of tomatoes for container gardening. If you use a regular garden variety, look for one that stays under 4 feet.

Start Tomatoes from Seed

If you decide to start your tomatoes from seed, just make sure to plan ahead. You should start your seeds indoors about 6-8 weeks before the last frost in your area. Don’t start the seeds too early in your excitement to get started because it’s difficult to sustain a healthy tomato seedling for too much longer than 8 weeks unless you can grow them in a greenhouse They have a tendency to become leggy from not enough natural light and therefore not as sturdy. To figure out when to start your seeds, research the internet, talk to your local gardener or gardening neighbors to find out the average month to plant in your area and count back 6-8 weeks. You can also read the back of the seed packet to find out what climate zone you are in and follow the planting recommendations.

It’s more cost-effective to start from seed if you plan to have a large tomato garden; you may want to give some of the seedlings away or plan to use tomatoes for canning. Even if you’re going to plant only a few tomato plants, it can still be worth it to start from seed. Caring for and nurturing seeds can be as rewarding as gardening outdoors.

Purchase your seeds from a reputable garden center. Businesses, such as discount centers that do not specialize in garden products may sell old seeds whose germination rates decrease with age.

The materials you will need are:

  1. Seeds - Choose seeds that are going to produce fruit before the onset of the next frost in your climate zone. The back of the packets will have a zones map and will also tell you the 'maturation date' for that particular tomato plant. Don’t be afraid to ask questions at the garden center. There are different types and sizes of tomatoes to consider, other than maturation dates, when you make your seed selection.

    Beefsteak tomato plants are very large varieties which can weigh up to two pounds, large enough for use on sandwiches. This variety ripens late in the season – about 80 days. Celebrity continues to be a popular variety since it was an All-America Selections winner in 1984. The fruits are smaller than the beefsteak tomatoes, ranging 7 to 8 ounces. Celebrity plants are highly productive and usually have first harvest 70 days after planting. Cherry tomatoes produce small fruits generally used in salads. One cherry tomato plant is usually enough for a family because they bear a lot of fruit. Depending on the type, they can take from 75 to 90 days to ripen. Grape tomatoes are also used in salads and are sweeter and firmer than cherry tomatoes. They take about 70 days to ripen. Dwarf tomato plants are good for patio or hanging containers. These plants produce tomatoes for a short time, so you may consider growing a couple of containers if you’re going to use this variety.

    If you cannot find the variety you want in your local gardening center, search the internet. You will find the largest variety of tomato seeds on the many gardening websites that are available on the internet.

  2. Small containers - consider going green by re-using and re-purposing containers you already have. Egg cartons, plastic strawberry containers, styrofoam or plastic cups, or small seedling pots. You will have to pierce small drainage holes in the egg cartons and cups. Although egg containers are great to get the seeds started, in that they have a built-in lid and convenient little sections, once the seeds germinate, you may have to transplant them into larger containers to ensure the roots have space to grow. Strawberry containers are great because they already have drainage holes and also come with attached lids. The containers are deep enough that you won't have to worry about re-planting them immediately after germination. You will need to set the containers on a tray to catch the draining water. Whichever container you decide to use, just make sure the containers are very clean and free of bacteria by cleaning with bleach and water. Home and garden centers sell seed starter kits for your convenience. The kits include individual planting cells, complete with an insulated water reservoir tray which allows the roots to drink water as they need it. The trays come with covers, which are very important to create that greenhouse effect, trapping warmth and moisture vital for the seeds to germinate.

  3. Potting Mix - Choose a seed starter potting soil or a soil with a mix of organic and inorganic materials. You may wonder why you can’t just use dirt out of your yard. Outdoor soil harbors organisms, insects, and pests that may cause disease and is generally too dense or compact to allow the seeds to germinate. EB Stone Seed Starter Mix, Jiffy Mix, Pro Mix and Metro Mix 360 are examples of good starter potting mixes.

  4. Plastic bags or covers - If you choose a container that does not have a built-in lid, use a large plastic bag to cover the entire flat (tray) or cover the individual pots. The plastic bags help retain moisture and heat which are vital to provide the environment necessary for the seeds to sprout. Just make sure at least a little air can get in so the soil doesn’t mold.

Place your soil in each container and wet it thoroughly and let the water drain. In general, it's a good idea to plant 3 seeds per container because not all seeds germinate. Read the back of the seed packet for specific planting instructions. Poke your finger in the center of the pot about an eight to a quarter of an inch deep into the soil. Place (or sow) the seeds by sprinkling them in the hole and covering them with soil. After planting, dampen the soil a little more and cover with a lid or plastic bag. You do not put the pots in the light just yet. Make sure to keep the seeds moist (not soggy) and warm at all times. The top of your refrigerator provides adequate heat for your pots. If you do not have a warm area to place the pots, place a heating pad under the tray.

After the seeds start to sprout about 5-10 days later, remove the lid or the plastic and immediately move them to sunlight or a fluorescent light no more than 6 inches away. Make sure they get adequate light, about 12 to 16 hours a day. Chances are you are not going to have enough hours of natural sunlight, so you will have to supplement with fluorescent light.

Shortly after germination, the first two leaves to appear are called "baby" or "cotyledon" leaves. Keep a watch on the growth and don’t allow the soil to dry out.

Potting Up

As the “true” leaves start to form on the tomato plants, above the cotyledon leaves, you will need to thin the seedlings out by removing the weaker sprout if there is more than one sprout per cell. It is also time to fertilize so the sprouts get proper nutrition and root foundation.

When the plants show about 4 leaves, transplant them into larger containers if you started your seeds in egg cartons, because the roots need room to stretch out. Be careful when separating seedlings if any roots are clumped together. Insert the seedlings into their new pots up to the cotyledon leaves. Roots will form on the stem of a tomato plant wherever it touches the soil, so planting it deeply will provide a stronger root system. This process of transplantation is referred to as “potting up” and, as already stated, helps to ensure vigorous growth of the roots.

Depending on the size of the containers, you may need to transplant about two or three times before planting them outdoors. If the plants become root bound, they cannot receive the nutrition they need to grow. Check the undersides of your containers for clues that the roots have started outgrowing the pot.

Purchasing Tomato Plants from Your Local Garden Center

If you do not want to start from seedlings, your garden center provides tomato plants of various sizes close to planting time in your area. Make sure to check the information about the maturation time, just as you would for purchasing the seeds. Just make sure the plants are strong, upright, green and healthy-looking. These plants are ready to be planted outdoors, so purchase them close to the time you’re going to plant them in your vegetable garden.

When it’s Time to Plant Outdoors

It’s time to plant outdoors a couple of weeks after the last frost or when the temperature remains above about 55 degrees. Once spring hits, you can move your tomato pots outdoors to acclimate them to a new environment. You can start with a few hours in sunlight and gradually increase the amount of time each day over the course of a couple of weeks. This process of “hardening off” helps avoid the probability that the plants will be shocked when introduced to a new temperature and soil environment.

Area of Garden to Plant

Find a sunny spot in your garden or patio. Tomatoes need about 6-8 hours of sunlight a day. Sunlight is converted into energy which the tomato plants need a lot of to produce their fruit.

Amend and Prepare Your Soil

Most ground soil has to be amended, even if just to freshen it up. Take a handful of soil in your hand. If it breaks apart and flows through your fingers, your soil is sandy. If the soil clumps together, you have clay soil. Peat moss or compost is organic material you can use to amend either type of soil. Organic materials loosen clay soils and give more body to sandy soils. In addition, they add nutrients that will ensure your plants’ root systems will want to stretch out and thrive, once planted.

Break up the soil in the area you want to plant, using a shovel or a tiller. You need to loosen the soil as much as possible so the tomato roots won’t smother. Make sure to have enough of the organic materials to amend your soil in order to make it light and rich-looking.

If you see a lot of worms, your soil is going to be good and fertile. Earthworms till the soil by tunneling through it. Tunnels retain water that the plants can take up and also hold air to help bacteria break down organic matter within the soil. Their excrement (called castings) helps to condition the soil which serves as a natural fertilizer for your plants and helps fight pests and diseases. Once you enrich your soil with organic matter, you will most likely start seeing a lot more earthworms in your garden.

After breaking up your soil and adding the organic material, flatten the area with a rake until it’s smooth and even and then dig your holes, 36 inches apart, a little deeper than the height of the pots.

If you’re growing tomatoes in containers on your patio, you don’t have to worry about amending your soil. The potting soil you use should be the variety made especially for vegetables. Fill the pot about halfway (depending on the size of your plant) with potting soil, place the tomato plant in the center, and finish filling the pot with soil. Tamp the soil around the plant to make sure it’s secure. Water the soil thoroughly and add fertilizer. Place a tomato cage inside the container to help support the plant as it grows. Make sure your container is 3 gallons or more for patio tomatoes, 1-2 gallons for grape or cherry tomatoes, and 5 gallons for larger varieties of tomatoes. There are many varieties of planters that will look very attractive on your patio. You may even consider the hanging planters that have become so popular. Hanging planters can serve a double purpose; you can grow flowers in the top of the planter while your tomatoes hang out of the bottom.

Transplanting Tomato Plants

It’s a good idea to have all of your gardening needs at the time of planting. Purchase your fertilizer, tomato cages and/or stakes.

After the hardening off period, it’s time to transplant the plants into the ground. If you choose a hot day, wait until the sun has gone down a bit before planting. Remove all leaves except for the top few. Squeeze the tomato pot around the bottom, and then place your fingers around the top of the plant as you overturn it to remove the seedling. Retain as much of the original soil as you can and handle your seedling gently. Place the plant deep enough so the ground soil can reach up to the first leaf. Firm the soil around the tomato seedling to make sure it’s planted firmly in the ground and there are no air pockets. Place plastic drinking cups over the young plants if frost is expected at night and remember to remove them in the morning.

Fertilize Your Tomato Plants

Fertilize your newly-planted plants, with a starter fertilizer solution. You can talk to your local gardening center about purchasing a starter solution or making your own. After you see the first fruits on your plants, fertilize with a complete fertilizer and then thereafter about every 4 to 6 weeks.

General Care Tips During the Growing Season

Give the soil around your new tomato plants a good watering and place wire tomato cages around each at the time of planting. The cages support the branches when they start getting heavy from the fruit they produce. If you need to provide additional support of a branch, use a nylon stocking so you don’t harm the plant. It is crucial to provide support to the branches or the fruits will weigh them to the ground.

Water your new plants every day for the first couple of weeks. Thereafter, give your garden a good inch soaking because you want to keep the soil around your plants moist. Tomato plants thrive when they get enough water and sunshine. Naturally the warmer it is, the more often you will have to water. A one to two inch layer of composted bark (organic mulch) around your vegetable plants will keep the soil cool as well as moderately moist during the hot months.

You can be very successful growing tomatoes in a pot, but just be aware that keeping the plants moist is challenging. You may want to invest in a self watering pot or re-use a wine bottle kept filled with water and inverted in the pot. As the soil dries out the water will flow from the bottle into the soil. It is vital that your potted plant is watered every day.

Pruning your tomato plants will produce larger fruits. There are shoots that grow in the elbow of a stem, also called suckers. The suckers start sapping energy away from the main branch. Pinch off the sucker (or prune) to ensure good plant structure and health. If you don’t prune, your plant will grow many weaker stems and produce more, but smaller tomatoes. Your tomato plant will eventually become leggy, messy and weak looking.

Make sure to also keep the weeds out of your vegetable garden. After a good rain, weeds are really bountiful. Weeds steal the nutrition away from the soil as they overtake and smother your vegetable plants. If you weed on a regular basis, you won’t be overwhelmed at one time. Organic mulch helps to keep the weeds at bay.

Check your tomato plants and leaves for insects and disease. If you see insects, such as aphids or spider mites, try spraying them with water before resorting to chemical insecticides. The spraying has to be forceful and will work most of the time. Remove any diseased leaves to keep from infecting the rest of your plant. Check the internet to find the many natural ways to control insects and disease. Many diseases can be prevented by keeping your garden free of weeds and watering the roots well. The organic mulches provide important organic matter for the soil and can help control diseases by encouraging microorganisms that may act as biological controls of plant pathogens.

If you find that squirrels are enjoying your tomatoes a little too much, you will have to outsmart them. One option is using chicken wire to entirely cage in your garden plants. Another less unsightly option is to mix bloodmeal into the soil. This is a powdered fertilizer made from the blood from slaughterhouses and is readily available at garden centers. The smell of blood keeps the garden pests away. You can even try keeping sunflower seeds in a container away from your garden to encourage them to partake of the seeds rather than a bite out of each of your tomatoes.

Once you implement the gardening tips in this article, you will be rewarded with sweet, succulent tomatoes you can use in salads, soup, chili and so many other dishes. They can be canned and frozen to use as a delicious reminder later in the fall and winter seasons as well. Tomatoes are good sources of Vitamins A and C and rich in potassium, iron and phosphorus. Many researchers believe that the antioxidant properties of lycopene, a carotenoid found primarily in tomatoes, have potential anticancer properties. Additionally, tomatoes have as much fiber as a slice of wheat bread. You will find gardening both therapeutic and rewarding as you watch your tomatoes grow and ripen while literally being able to ‘enjoy the fruits of your labor.’