The Only Guide You Will Ever Need for Growing Tomatoes
Follow these tricks to ensure a successful harvest―even with late-start seedlings.
Written byKathleen N. BrenzelMay 14, 2015
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1 of 15Staci Valentine
Hedge your bets
Plant a mix of varieties suitable for your area: a couple of slicers, a cherry type, a beefsteak, and something unusual, like striped ‘Green Zebra’ or the ‘Blue Beauty’, which is high in antioxidants. And choose early-, mid-, and late-season varieties, indicated on labels as “days to maturity” (DTM). That way, says tomato-growing expert Scott Daigre, “you’ll get lucky. If it’s too hot for some varieties to set fruit in midsummer, others will.”
2 of 15Scott Daigre
Grow the sweetest
A tomato’s sugar content is largely a matter of its genetic makeup. Some varieties, including many cherry types, are extremely sweet. Others, including black varieties such as ‘Black Krim’ (pictured), ‘Cherokee Purple’, and ‘Paul Robeson’, naturally have a robust, intense flavor. But any tomato grown in full sun—for at least eight hours a day—is more flavorful than one from a plant in part shade.
3 of 15Scott Daigre
Determinate tomatoes such as ‘Celebrity’, ‘Roma’, and ‘Sprite’ set all their fruit over a relatively short period, so many are great for canning and freezing. They don’t grow much after flowering starts and tend to be more compact—better for small spaces and pots. Indeterminate tomatoes (like ‘Sweet Carneros Pink’, pictured) flower and fruit over a long season, and plants keep growing larger until cool weather shuts them down. They need room to sprawl and most likely will require sturdy stakes.
4 of 15Rob Cardillo
Heirlooms often, but not always, taste better. Tomato tasting is not unlike wine tasting—different flavors appeal to different palates, and few crops offer a greater range of flavors than heirloom tomatoes.
5 of 15Reed Davis
Pick sure things
All are easy to grow if they’re adapted to your region. In climates with a short or cool summer (at high altitudes and along the coast, for example), long-season beefsteak types won’t ripen well, but shorter-season varieties will. Cherry (salad) tomatoes are almost foolproof there and elsewhere in the West; our favorites include ‘Black Cherry’, ‘Green Grape’, ‘Isis Candy’, ‘Sun Gold’, and ‘Sun Sugar’. For a medium-size slicer, ‘Early Girl’ also produces well nearly everywhere.
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Pick the perfect spot
Try to avoid planting tomatoes in the same spot every year; diseases build up in the soil and spoil future crops. Grow tomatoes in the same bed only every third or fourth year. If you have just one sunny spot for growing tomatoes, plant in large containers, and change the soil every year.
7 of 15BSIP / Getty Images
Tomato plants sprout additional roots along buried stems—a good thing since more roots are better able to absorb water and food, and support strong growth. Buy seedlings with sturdy stems and bright green leaves. Dig a hole about 15 inches deep in an area that gets at least 6 to 8 hours of sunlight a day. Fill with amended soil. Snip off the seedling’s lowest leaves, then set it into the hole and fill, burying the leafless part.
8 of 15Thomas J. Story
In mild climates, plant a few seedlings each week for 3 to 6 weeks, so flowers appear in succession and extend the harvest. In brutally hot inland areas, screen plants during midday. In cooler climates, locate tomatoes near a south or west-facing wall to reflect heat onto your plants.
9 of 15Staci Valentine
Pot ’em up
Where space is limited, grow tomatoes in pulp pots at least 15 inches wide and deep, which won’t fry the roots on hot summer days. Fill them with premium potting mix and rich organic soil amendments, with 1 plant per container. Soil warms faster in pots, so fruit ripens 14 days sooner than in the ground.
10 of 15Thomas J. Story
The best tomatoes for growing in pots are cherry tomatoes. They do well in containers at least 16 inches deep and wide, and need watering and feeding more often than tomatoes growing in the ground. The bigger the container, the less frequently you’ll have to water in hot weather, and the more room roots have to run. A half whiskey or wine barrel is perfect.
11 of 15Creative Commons photo by Dennis 27852 is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Cages are great for corralling for big indeterminate types. Bend a sheet of wire mesh into a cylinder about two feet across and 5 to 6 feet tall; secure the ends together with wire, and slip it over the new plant. Secure the cylinder to the ground by weaving rebar through the mesh, on opposite sides of the plant.
12 of 15Carol Von Zumwalt
Water, but not too much
Irrigate deeply every 3 or 4 days for the first few weeks. Once plants start growing, water deeply and less often. Use soaker hoses, or try this tip: Poke small holes in the bottom of an empty coffee can, then set the can in a hole in the soil beside the plant. At watering time, fill the can; water will slowly seep into the soil.