Updated: Jun 25
Tomatoes are one of the most popular garden veggies, and for good reason. There's no substitute for a homegrown tomato. Here are some of our top tips for growing happy, healthy tomato plants.
1. Start with a good foundation. You want rich, healthy soil full of organic matter.
2. Start with high-quality transplants. Or if you have the space and plan in advance, you can also start your own seeds indoors 6-10 weeks before your average last frost date. The seeds need temps of about 65-80 degrees to germinate and the seedlings need bright light to prevent them from getting too leggy.
3. Plant your transplants deeply. Carefully remove the lower leaves and completely bury about 2/3 of the stem. For example in the photo below, you'd want to remove the bottom two sets of leaves and bury the entire stem so just the top is sticking out of the soil. All the little hairs along the buried stem will sprout new roots, and a stronger root system results in stronger, happier plants. Some people also dig a trench and lay the plant in it sideways (which can work well in heavier clay soils).
4. Plant them in the right location.
Give them enough space. Tomatoes can grow quite large and need plenty of room to grow. Plant them at least 2-3 feet apart.
Give them enough support. Tomatoes are actually vining plants that, if left to their own devices, will trail along the ground and create new roots wherever their limbs touch the soil. They do better when well-supported and grown vertically, however. Tall metal cages or trellises are a good choice. Or if you're growing many tomato plants, you can line them up in a row and weave them between stakes and twine (a technique that’s called the florida weave).
Give them enough light. Tomatoes need full sun to grow big and strong. That said, Texas sun in the summer is brutal! An area with bright morning sun and late afternoon shade is perfect. Or be prepared to use strategically placed shade covers that shield your tomatoes from the hot afternoon sun in the summertime.
5. Plant them at the appropriate time. Tomatoes take awhile to grow and flowers won't set when temps are below 50 degrees or above 90 degrees, so timing is important. In Texas, we're lucky to have two tomato-growing seasons: spring and fall.
For spring tomatoes, plan to get your tomato transplants in the ground once nighttime temps are consistently above 45 degrees or be prepared to protect your plants if it gets colder than that. You can get a head start by potting your 4" transplants into 1-gallon pots and keeping them indoors until its warm enough to plant them outside.
For fall tomatoes, plant transplants early enough in the summer that they have enough time to flower and fruit before a freeze. Many people also have success heavily pruning their spring plants to get them through the heat of the summer. They'll emerge with new growth in the fall. Taking cuttings from the tops of spring plants and rooting those is also a good strategy.
6. Choose varieties suited to your space. Tomatoes come in two main growth habits. They are either determinate or indeterminate.
Indeterminate tomatoes grow indefinitely and produce fruit continuously throughout the growing season, shooting off abundant side shoots. They can get quite large and gangly (plan for 10-foot tall plants) and do best with adequate support and frequent pruning. Most tomato varieties, including cherry tomatoes and heirloom tomatoes, are indeterminate.
Determinate tomatoes are much more compact (4-5 feet tall). They grow a fixed height and produce all their fruits in a short period earlier in the growing season. Since these plants are a lot smaller than indeterminate types, they do well in containers. They're also a good choice for a fall planting since they mature earlier and are more likely to produce fruit before cold weather hits.
7. Prune them. With indeterminate tomato plants, you'll want to snip off the suckers that appear between branches (aka tomato armpits). Otherwise each sucker will become its own main stem with its own suckers, and your plant will quickly become a sprawling, uncontrollable monster. Restricting the number of stems and leaves your plant produces also helps it focus that energy into fruit production. Ideally pruning will take place when the suckers first start to emerge, but it's easy to let your tomato plant get away from you. Just know that larger prunes mean larger cuts that can allow disease to enter. Pruning in the morning ideally or evening is best. Avoid pruning in the heat of the day or when it’s moist and humid or about to rain. As the plant grows, cut bottom stems that are close to the ground to prevent disease and improve airflow.
8. Water consistently and give plenty of nutrients. Tomatoes thrive when the soil is kept consistently moist, as uneven watering can lead to issues with fruit development. A good layer of mulch can help keep moisture in the soil as well. Tomatoes are also heavy feeders, so they like rich compost. Organic fertilizer applied throughout the growing season helps as well. Some people add a handful of granular fertilizer, eggshells, or banana peels near the planting hole, then apply a well-balanced water soluble organic fertilizer throughout the growing season (nitrogen for leaf production; phosphorus and potassium for flower/fruit production) and/or spray liquid seaweed as a foliar feed. These are suggestions, but don't get too caught up with specifics. Everyone's situation is different and if your soil is alive and rich in organic matter, sometimes not much else is needed.
9. Incorporate companion plants. Nature doesn't like a monoculture, and interplanting your tomatoes with a diversity of plants has a number of advantages. It's a great way to maximize the space, and your tomatoes will benefit from the various functions these other plants serve in the garden landscape.
Low-growing aromatic herbs like thyme, oregano, and catmint help repel insects and serve as a living groundcover.
Sunflowers attract bees, help provide shade, act as trellises, and attract birds that are helpful for natural pest control. Here's how we interplant sunflowers with our tomatoes.
Dill, cilantro, borage, and calendula attract a number of beneficial insects and pollinators. The large leaves of borage and calendula also act as a living mulch.
Basil and bee balm are said to improve the growth and flavor of tomatoes.
Carrots and lettuce enjoy the dappled shade tomatoes provide in the heat of the summer.
Oats, rye, and vetch make great fall cover crops that prevent weed growth, act as a living mulch, and enrich the soil with organic matter prior to planting your tomatoes.
Clover, planted between tomato plants acts as a living mulch, attracts beneficial insects and pollinators, and adds nutrients to the soil.
10. Prevent common issues and identify problems early on.
Practice crop rotation. Tomatoes are susceptible to various diseases, some of which can remain in the soil for several years. The best disease-prevention practice is to plant your tomatoes in a new location every year.
Avoid getting too much water on the leaves, which can bring on disease in hot, humid conditions. Remove any lower leaves that touch the soil or look diseased.
Tomato hornworms can be extremely destructive, defoliating an entire plant in just a few days. Keep an eye out for them and remove them by hand. The sphinx moths they become are amazing though, so just relocate them to other nightshades that you aren't planning to eat. Here’s some more info about relocating tomato hornworms.
If your tomatoes are getting munched by birds, squirrels and critters, harvest them as soon as they start to show color. They'll ripen the rest of the way indoors.
Here are some of our favorite tomato varieties: