How to Plant and Grow Tomato Plants

Growing juicy, delicious tomatoes takes a little know-how. Use these simple tips to enjoy your own bumper crop.

Biting into summer's first sun-ripened tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) is one of the season's sweetest milestones. While grocery stores and farmers markets sell plenty of tempting types, it's hard to beat the flavor and freshness of a homegrown tomato—especially when you consider the dazzling rainbow of heirloom and hybrid varieties you can grow in your garden. From huge, juicy beefsteak tomatoes to bite-size cherry types, these summertime staples come in an array of shapes, colors, textures, and flavors that will inspire you to new levels of creativity in the kitchen. No matter which varieties you choose, here's how to successfully grow tomatoes for a beautiful—and abundant—harvest.

cherry tomato lycopersicon husky
Scott Little

Where to Plant Tomato Plants

Whether you want to grow tomato plants in a garden bed or a container, choose a spot with at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight daily. Ideally, the garden soil should be well-draining, fertile, and have a pH of 5.8 to 7, but tomato plants grow in all types of soil except clay. Garden soil may be too heavy for growing plants in containers, so add compost or perlite or use potting soil.

How and When to Plant Tomato Plants

Though tomato seeds can be directly sown outdoors, you can gain a head start on the growing season by buying transplants or starting seeds indoors six to eight weeks before your area's average last frost date. Wait for the soil to warm, and then transfer the tomato plants outside.

When planting, remove each plant's lowest leaves and set the root ball in a hole deep enough so that only the top cluster of leaves is aboveground. This planting depth is essential for tomato plants, which can form roots along their stems. These extra roots help anchor the plant, especially when starting with tall, leggy transplants, and allow for better uptake of water and nutrients.

Place small bush tomato varieties 24 inches apart and larger varieties 36 to 48 inches apart. This is especially important for sprawling indeterminate types—the tomato varieties that keep growing until there's a frost. After planting the tomatoes, water them thoroughly.

Stake, trellis, or cage the tomato plants (especially vining varieties) immediately after planting. Skip this step for small bush or patio tomatoes, which can often support themselves. Use cages and stakes to keep leaves and developing tomatoes off the ground as the plants grow, preventing fruit rot and tomato plant diseases.

Select sturdy tomato cages that stand 5 to 6 feet tall. Firmly anchor the cages to the ground with stakes to keep the plants from blowing over and being uprooted during storms. Another option: Pound 8-foot stakes at least 12 inches into the ground and 4 inches from the plant; then attach tomato stems to the stake with garden twine, self-adhesive tape, or strips of cloth.

Tomato Plant Care Tips

Tomato plants are adaptable to less-than-optimal conditions, but meeting their preferred conditions yields the juiciest, most delicious fruit.


In general, tomato plants require full sun (six to eight hours of sunlight daily). In extremely hot conditions, morning sun and light afternoon shade is sufficient. Although the plants will grow in predominantly shady areas, the production of fruit is severely limited.

Soil and Water

Tomato plants grow best when they have well-draining soil and consistent moisture. If it rains less than an 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 the plants starting to wilt. To prevent diseases, avoid wetting the foliage. Use a watering can or wand to deliver water directly to the root zones, or use a drip irrigation system.

Placing mulch around your tomato plants discourages weeds, maintains soil moisture, and prevents diseases from splashing off the soil onto the 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.

Temperature and Humidity

Tomatoes are warm-weather fans. Wait until the soil warms in spring before setting out plants. Tomato plants function best when the temperature is between 55°F and 85F. Although they love the sun, when the temperature rises above 85°F, they can't set fruit.

Tomatoes like a relatively high humidity level of 65 percent to 85 percent. Levels higher than this range negatively affect the plants.


Tomato plants grow best when fertilized at two specific times during the growing season: right after planting and just before the fruit develops. Apply a balanced liquid plant food, such as 5-5-5, according to package directions.


Tomato plants don't have to be pruned, but removing any side shoots growing between the main stem and a branch is a good idea since they sap energy that could be going toward the branches growing fruit.

Pests and Problems

Gardeners aren't the only creatures that like the way tomatoes taste. The plants attract a host of unwanted visitors, ranging from the aptly named tomato hornworm to the ever-present aphid menace and everything in between. The best advice is to remain vigilant. Watch for the beginning of any damage to your plants, identify the cause, and use safe management techniques as soon as possible.

In the case of hornworms, just pick them off (yuck!). Treat aphids, white flies, and spider mites with insecticidal soap or neem oil, following the product directions.

Other problems with tomato plants include blossom end rot, which occurs when the soil pH level is too low, and blossom drop, which results from nighttime temperatures that fall below the plant's preferred nighttime range of 55°F to 75°F.

How to Propagate Tomato Plants

Most gardeners start tomato plants from seed or buy transplants, but taking cuttings from existing tomato plants in the garden can extend the season in areas with lengthy growing periods. In May or June, cut 4- to 8-inch cuttings from unwanted side shoots on the plant. Remove the leaves from the bottom half of the cutting and place it in water in a sunny place. After roots have developed in three to four weeks, plant the cutting in a small pot containing well-draining garden soil or potting soil. After it is well rooted, transplant it into the garden. In warm areas, you may see tomatoes before frost.

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

How to Harvest and Store Tomatoes

Tomatoes are prime for plucking when they're fully colored and firm. Weather plays a role in the timeline; tomatoes ripen best at temperatures close to 75°F. When the temperature rises to about 90°F, the fruits start to soften and develop poor color. If you pick green tomatoes at mature size, they will ripen indoors.

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 ripen in a closed paper bag. Check the fruits once a week for ripeness, removing any rotten tomatoes or those not showing signs of ripening. You can also uproot whole plants and hang them in a warm, sheltered spot where the fruits can continue to ripen.

Ripe tomatoes can be stored on your kitchen counter for up to a week, depending on the temperature of the room. You can put tomatoes in the refrigerator, but they won't taste as incredible as those stored at room temperature

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Do deer and other wildlife eat tomatoes?

    Yes, indeed. They like the taste just as much as gardeners do. In addition to deer, the culprits include squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, groundhogs, and chipmunks. Placing a mesh “cage” over the tomato plants, erecting a 4-foot fence around the garden, and putting out nasty-smelling deterrents may help. To be safe, plant more tomato plants than you need.

  • What type of bird or bee pollinates tomato plants?

    Tomato plants are self-fertile, relying primarily on the wind to vibrate the blooms and release the pollen. Bees also supply this service. When the wind is calm and bees are nowhere to be found, some gardeners resort to hand pollination. They gently shake the plants or use an electric toothbrush (or a similar commercial device) to provide the vibrations that cause the plant to release its pollen.

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