Growing juicy, delicious tomatoes that everyone will want on their plate takes a little know-how. Use these simple tips to enjoy your own bumper crop.
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Biting into summer’s first sun-ripened tomato is one of the season’s most anticipated events. And though grocery stores and farmers markets sell plenty of tempting varieties, it's hard to beat the flavor and freshness of a homegrown tomato. Plus, by growing your own tomato plants, there's a dazzling rainbow of heirloom and hybrid varieties you can try out. From huge, juicy beefsteak tomatoes to bite-size cherry types, tomato varieties come in all sorts of shapes, colors, textures, and flavors well beyond what you'll find at any store or market. No matter which varieties you choose, here's how to grow tomato plants that will produce a delicious harvest for you.

cherry tomato lycopersicon husky
Credit: Scott Little

How to Plant Tomatoes

Whether you want to grow tomato plants in a garden bed or a container, choose a spot that gets at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight per day. Though tomato seeds can be directly sown outdoors, you can get a head start on the growing season by buying transplants or starting seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before your area's average last frost date. After that date, you can place your tomato plants out in the garden. Space small bush tomato varieties 24 inches apart and larger varieties, especially sprawling indeterminate plants, 36-48 inches apart in rows 36 inches apart.

To give tomato seedlings the best chance of success, remove each plant's lowest leaves and set the root ball in a planting hole deep enough so that only the top cluster of leaves is above ground. This planting depth is unique to tomato plants because they can form roots along their stems. The extra roots help anchor the plant, especially when starting with tall, leggy transplants. Plus, more roots means better uptake of water and nutrients. Some gardeners also like to add a little slow release fertilizer to each planting hole, but if you have rich soil already, this is not necessary. After planting your tomatoes, water thoroughly.

Stake, trellis, or cage your tomato plants immediately after planting (except small bush or patio varieties, which can often support themselves). As your plants grow, use cages and stakes to keep leaves and developing tomatoes off the ground, which helps prevent fruit rot and numerous diseases. Select sturdy tomato cages that stand 5-6 feet tall. Firmly anchor the cages to the ground with stakes to keep the plants from blowing over and uprooting themselves during storms. Or pound 8-foot stakes at least 12 inches into the ground and 4 inches from the plant. Attach tomato stems to the stake with garden twine, self-adhesive fabric, or strips of cloth.

tomato plant with green tomatoes in garden with cage and stake
Credit: Brie Williams

Growing Tomatoes

To keep your tomato plants healthy through the growing season, use mulch, water consistently, and fertilize regularly.

Mulching: Mulch around your tomato plants helps to discourage weeds, maintain soil moisture, and prevent diseases from splashing up with soil onto leaves when it rains. Aim for a 3- to 4-inch-thick layer of organic mulch, such as straw, chopped leaves, or finely shredded wood chips.

Watering: Tomato plants grow best when they have consistent moisture. If it rains less than 1 inch per week, supplement by watering. In sprinkler terms, that's 20 minutes three times a week. You may need to water more frequently in very hot weather if you notice your plants starting to wilt. To prevent diseases, avoid getting the foliage wet. Use a watering can or wand to deliver water directly to the root zones, or use a drip irrigation system.

Fertilizing: Tomato plants grow best when fertilized at two specific times during the growing season. Apply a balanced liquid plant food such as 5-5-5 according to package directions about a month after planting. Then, apply a second dose when your plants start developing fruit.

Pruning Tomato Plants

While tomato plants don't need to be pruned, it's a good idea to remove any shoots growing between the main stem and a branch. Those shoots take away energy from the plant that could be going toward the branches growing fruit.

How to Harvest and Store Tomatoes

Tomatoes are ready to harvest when they are firm and fully colored. Tomatoes mature and ripen best at temperatures close to 75°F. When the temperature rises about 90°, the fruits soften and develop poor color. Tomatoes will ripen indoors when picked at their green mature size.

Before a hard frost, harvest all but the greenest fruits and bring them indoors. Use them in a recipe (fried green tomatoes, anyone?) or allow the green fruits to continue ripening in a closed paper bag. Check the fruits once a week for ripeness. Remove any rotten tomatoes or fruits not showing signs of ripening. Also, whole plants can be uprooted and hung in a warm, sheltered location, where the fruits can continue to ripen.

Once picked, ripe fruits can be stored for on your kitchen counter for up to a week, depending on room temperature. And yes, you can put tomatoes in the refrigerator but they won't taste as good as those stored at room temperature.

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Better Homes & Gardens Member
June 6, 2019
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Better Homes & Gardens Member
June 6, 2019
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