How To Grow Tomatoes

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Bunch of red Tomatoes on a tomato plant

To grow tomatoes successfully, tomato plants need constant evenly moist soil, full sun, dry leaves and well draining slightly acidic soil with calcium, nitrogen and phosphorus. Indeterminate tomato varieties grow like a vine and produce a steady fruit supply throughout the growing season, while determinate varieties ripen quickly and give a large harvest all at once and die. Prune the suckers (small shoots and leaves) that grow in between the stem and branches. You can grow Tomatoes by planting the seeds (extracting the seeds from a fresh tomato or purchasing seeds) and placing a thin layer of soil over them. After planting, you can get tomatoes within 60 to a maximum of 150 days.

 

If you read this article completely,  you will be an expert in Tomato plant care, how to grow and propagate, what Soil to use, pruning and how much Water, Sunlight and Fertilizer is needed. You will know the best and most recommended ways to care for your Tomato plant.

Tomato General Info

  • Origin: South America
  • Genus: Solanum
  • Scientific Name: Solanum lycopersicum
  • Common Names: Early girl/better boy, Beefsteak, San Marzano
  • 👪Family: Solanaceae
  • 🌵Type: Vine
  • 🌼Flowers: yellow that eventually turn into green with a fruit
  • 🍃Leaf Colors: green
  • 🌵Climate: hot
  • 🌡️Temperature: 65° F to 75° F (18° C to 24° C)
  • 🌼Growing season: Summer season
  • 💧Watering: Frequent watering, evenly moist soil
  • ☀️Light: At least 7 hours of direct sunlight
  • 🐛Pests: Rust, Mildew, Tomato hornworms, Grubs and FigEater Beetles, Birds, Rat
  • Propagation🌱: By seeds or by stem cuttings
  • Height📏: Determinate - 4ft, Indeterminate - 12ft
  • Soil: well-draining & moist. 40% garden soil + 40% organic compost + 20% perlite/bark chips/peat
  • Fertilizer: Once every 2 weeks. Compost with nitrogen, phosphorus and calcium.

Step 1 - Plant the Tomato Seeds🌱

Tomato seeds planted in small labeled seed germination containers

Tomato seeds can be sown from September to October. You can plant your tomato seeds 6 weeks before the growing season and then transplant them into containers. For the US and UK, sow your tomato seeds in March and April, just 6-8 weeks before the expected last frost of the winter season. However, if you live in a city where it's sunny throughout the year, there is no fixed time and you can plant your tomato seeds anytime you like and they will do just fine. 

 

Soil: Don’t use 100% garden soil as it drains poorly and may harbor disease organisms.

 

  1. Take some fresh and soft organic tomatoes and cut them into thin slices. Take the seeds out from the tomato.
  2. Take a small pot with drainage holes, and fill the pot with 60% garden soil and 40% compost or any special seed germination mix that you may find in store.
  3. Place the extracted seeds on the soil.
  4. Top it off with a very thin layer of soil on top of the tomato seeds. Do not push the seeds too deep into the soil.
  5. Water thoroughly. Keep the soil evenly moist during the germination phase.
  6. Keep the pot in partial shade. 
  7. Seeds start to germinate in a week. When seeds start to germinate, move the pot to a location which receives direct sunlight.
  8. After 2 weeks, you should start to see a good amount of stem and foliage growth. When the seedlings are 6-8 inches long or when the seedling roots have started to fill the container, it's time to repot them into a bigger container. Each seedling gets its own container. Keep the root ball intact to avoid any transplant shock.

Why Seeds are not germinating?

Here are the top reasons why you are failing to germinate the seeds:

  1. Most common reason is when you are trying to germinate seeds by placing an entire tomato slice on the soil. The sliced tomato becomes the breeding ground for fungus and diseases - not the best environment for seed germination.
  2. The seeds are not viable and are very old seeds. Check the expiry date/best before date on the seed package. To check the viability of seeds, put some seeds in water. If some seeds are floating, those seeds are not viable.
  3. Sowing seeds too deep.
  4. Bad seed starting potting mix or soil. Using 100% garden soil or too many stones can prevent seeds from sprouting freely.
  5. Wrong temperature or wrong season. Temperature is an important factor for germination.
  6. Improper watering. Too dry, they won't sprout. Too wet, the seeds will rot in the dirt.
  7. Sunlight prevents seed germination. Dark damp and warm conditions are needed for most seed germinations. Gradual sunlight exposure is needed after seed germination.

 

You can also propagate stem cuttings from a mature tomato plant to grow more tomato plants. Below are the steps to transplant a tomato plant into a bigger container.

Step 2 - Planting Germinated Plants into a Big Container

Once the seed has germinated and the foliage growth has started, you can begin to transfer this young tomato plant into its final destination - the big pot/container where it will grow and thrive.

Once the seed has germinated and the foliage growth has started, you can begin to transfer this young tomato plant into its final destination - the big pot/container where it will grow and thrive.

 

You will see white hair on the stem of the tomato plant which is waiting for it to be in contact with the soil. As it touches the soil, it starts to grow roots and that is why it is important to plant the tomato plant as deep as you can into the soil. The more of the stem we can have underground, the more root systems the plant can produce which results in a stronger plant with healthy roots and more fruit.

 

  1. Fill the pot with your potting mix. Dig a hole about 6-8 inches deep.
  2. Remove all the leaves from the bottom and just leave a few leaves on the top of the stem.
  3. Plant the entire stem as deep as possible into the soil. Keep at least 6-8 inch gap between two plants
  4. Add a handful of Rock Phosphate into the soil. Then place your plant along with its root system on top of it. When roots grow, they will get in contact with rock phosphate.
  5. Water thoroughly. Keep the plant in partial shade for 2 days so the plant recovers from transplant shock. Gradually expose the plant to the sun.
  6. In about 2 months, you will see some blooms that will turn into tomato fruit soon. Tomato plants produce fruit between 35 to 60 days post planting.

In about 2 months, you will see some blooms that will turn into tomato fruit soon. Tomato plants produce fruit between 35 to 60 days post planting.

  1. As the plant grows, it will need some support because of the added weight of the fruits on the plant. Use stakes or wood to loosely tie the stems and provide them with the needed support to grow.

 

Tomato plants are self-pollinating and its flower contains both male and female reproductive organs. Tomato flowers are typically pollinated by wind and occasionally by bees. Lack of wind or insects can delay the natural pollination of tomato plants. In that case, you can easily pollinate your tomato plant yourself. Just gently shake the open flowers of your tomato plant which will distribute the pollen grains evenly. This will cause more fruit production in your tomato plant.

How long does it take for tomatoes to grow?

Tomato plants take 3 to 5 days to germinate the seed, 14 to 30 days to reach a height of 12-18 inches and about 2 months in total to produce fruit, from the day you plant seed. This means that a tomato plant grows about 1.4 to 2.1 inches every week after the tomato seed has germinated.

 

Here is a tomato growth timeline for reference

 

Seed Germination

3 to 5 days

Growth of sprouted seeds into a 5 inch tomato plant

14 days

Tomato Flowers appearing

60 days or 2 months, you will see some blooms when vines are approximately 12 to 18 inches tall.

Tomato Fruit

35 to 60 days post planting.

Total time since seed germination to harvest

1.5 to 2 months

Growing Tomatoes in Pots/Containers

Healthy tomato plants grow large root systems and they should have enough space for them to grow efficiently. If you are going to grow the tomatoes on the ground, you don't need to worry about the container size, but keep a space of 18 to 30 inches (2 ft) between two tomato plants. When you are planning to grow tomatoes in pots or containers, the bigger the better. The bigger your container, the more soil it can hold.

 

Your tomato plant pot/container is recommended to be 16 inches deep and the ideal size is 22" with holes at the bottom for drainage, and only one plant per pot. A minimum of 16 inch container is recommended for one tomato plant because it will hold 7-8 gallons (18L) of soil and the tomato plant will have enough room to grow well throughout the season so you don't have to worry about checking the roots or repotting.

 

If you are growing tomatoes in a container that is smaller than 16 inches, it is recommended to only grow determinate varieties in such small sized containers.

 

So basically you can only plant one tomato plant in a 16" to 22" pot. So unless you have a huge container or a raised bed, you will only plant one tomato plant per pot to avoid overcrowding. If you happen to visit a commercial tomato farm, you will see that there is at least 18 to 30 inches (2 ft) space in between two tomato plants and they plant on a large scale: usually 2600 to 5800 plants per acre.

 

Ideally 2-4 indeterminate varieties of Tomato Plant can feed one person throughout the year. So you will need 8-16 Tomato plants to feed a family of 4.

How to Prune✂️

 

In a tomato plant, you need to regularly prune something called a sucker. Suckers are shoots or leaves that grow in between the stem and an individual branch at a nice 45 degree angle. If you do not prune this growth, they will suck the energy from the plant, and we want the energy to be used for fruit production, not leaves. As soon as you see them, pinch them out. Also, trim down the lower branches as they can touch the ground and become a breeding ground for bacteria. The leaves of tomato plants are very sensitive and need to be kept dry at all times. Lower  branches have the potential to get wet during watering.

 

A tomato plant has one main stem. If you do not remove the suckers, they grow as another individual main stem. It is advised to have just 1 or 2 main stems per plant as the roots are only limited. If you allow more main stems in a tomato plant, the more fruit clusters you will have. Fruits will be much smaller and less desirable and delay ripening of the fruit.

 

The flowers grow on a different spot, not in between the stem and a branch like suckers. Flowers grow out of their own stem from the main stem of the plant.

 

If your tomato plant has not reached the height of about 8-12 inches, and you already see flowers appearing, remove those flowers. The reason behind pruning flowers is that we want the plant to focus on its root development first, rather than spending the energy in producing few fruits. With a stronger plant with strong developed root system, the plant will give you an every bigger harvest in the long term.

 

Tomatoes try to spread out its seeds as far out as it can, so it kind of grows around like a vine. As its stem touches the ground, it's going to put down roots. If you live in a wet summer climate, pruning is absolutely essential. Having more leaves will keep the plant insulated and prone to diseases due to decreased air flow.

 

Tomato Plant Problems

Tomato Problems

Reasons

Fruit having cracks

Plant was underwater in the last watering cycle and has now taken up a lot of water all at once, leading to cracks on its skin.

Bottoms of the fruit black

Blossom end rot. Lack of calcium in the soil or underwatering is preventing the calcium in the soil from reaching the plant. 

Tomato plant leaves turning yellow

  • Underwatering/Overwatering
  • Spider mites infestation
  • Nitrogen deficiency in soil
  • Winter has come and tomato plant is starting to decline

Tomato leaves curling

  • High wind, dust and low humidity
  • Hot dry weather
  • Mites and viruses

 

How to water💧

Tomato plants like evenly moist soil but not waterlogged. 

 

For germination of tomato seedlings, you should water as needed to keep the soil always moist. Water from the bottom and let the pot holes extract water to prevent dislocation of seeds. You can also spray water gently from the top.

 

For a grown tomato plant with a strong root system, water deeply and thoroughly so the root grows in deeply. Water at least once a day to keep the soil evenly moist. In extremely hot climates, you may need to water twice a day to keep the soil evenly moist.

 

Tips for watering your Tomato Plant

  • Underwatering makes the plant weak while overwatering will cause root rot and kill the plant.
  • Make sure to water the soil, not the foliage. 
  • Tomato fruit grows by extracting water from the plant. If your soil is dry and the plant experiences drought, the fruit will become dehydrated and will suck as much water as it can during the next watering, causing cracks on the fruit.

Sunlight Requirements ☀️

Tomato plants grow in full sun, at least 8 hours per day. Whether growing in the ground or in a container, make sure to grow your tomatoes in a location that receives the maximum amount of sunlight.

 

Soil

Tomatoes can grow in any type of soil excluding clay soil as it can obstruct the root growth. They thrive in rich well draining soil. 

 

Tomato needs following properties in its soil

  • well-draining soil for roots to grow freely
  • lots of organic fertilizer
  • Slightly Acidic (pH 6-7)
  • Slightly moist at all times
  • Add mulch on top so the soil pathogens are kept covered and do not touch the leaves of the tomato plant

 

For growing tomatoes from containers or pots, 60% garden soil with 40% organic compost is a good combination for growing Tomato plants. Also add some perlite or bark chips for drainage and aeration so the roots can grow freely. If you live in a hot climate, you can also use coco-peat or peat moss to retain moisture in the soil. The compost along with peat moss adds moisture retention properties to the soil.

Fertilizer

Tomato plants are heavy feeders and need to be fertilized every 2 weeks. Tomato plants specifically need a good amount of Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Calcium

 

Tomato plants need a good amount of Nitrogen in the beginning to start growing. Phosphorus helps with root development and flower production so it is needed in the soil throughout the lifespan of your tomato plant. 

 

  • Phosphorus:Rock Phosphate is a good source of phosphate for the roots, blooming and the fruit. You can also feed your plant with Fish Bone Meal which has Phosphorus in it.
  • Calcium: You can use calcium nitrate. You can also crush 2-3 eggshells and mix it with the soil before planting your tomato plant. Eggshells will decompose and release calcium into the soil.
  • Epsom Salt: It contains magnesium and sulfur. Most soils are deficient in these minerals. 1 tbsp per gallon of water, feed once every 3 weeks.

Temperature and Humidity 🌡️

For seed germination, the ideal temperature is between 70° F to 80° F (21° C to 26° C) and that is why seed germination can be done indoors. Once the tomato plant is mature, it thrives in temperatures between 65°F to 75 °F (18° C to 24° C)

 

Temperature should not be too cold: cannot survive in heavy frost and snow.

Pests 🐛and Diseases🦠

  1. Rust and Mildew

Tomato leaves are very weak when it comes to pests and diseases. Any water that gets on the leaves and stays there, is going to be a breeding ground for leaves. You can either get rust (brown spots on leaves) or mildew (white spots on leaves) due to wet leaves. Mostly the lower leaves of the plant get affected by rust or mildew.

 

All you have to do is pinch out those leaves to prevent rust from spreading. If all of the leaves are affected by rust and/or mildew, you need to spray neem oil which gets rid of this fungal disease. 2 tbsp of neem oil per gallon of water, and spray it on the leaves.

  1. Leaf curl

A viral disease that is transmitted by pests and causes the leaves to curl. This does not affect the vigor of your tomato plant though. The only solution to viral diseases is to get rid of the plant and plant a new tomato plant.

  1. Blossom end rot

A problem that affects both peppers and tomatoes, this disease is caused by calcium deficiency or the inability of the roots to grab the calcium from the soil due to underwatering. 

  1. Tomato hornworms

Tomato hornworm on a steam held in hands

Tomato hornworms can decimate an entire plant in a day. The first signs of hornworms on a tomato plant are stripped leaves and black tiny droppings like poop. To get rid of them is easy - just pick them off. 

  1. Grubs and FigEater Beetles

white grubs on a green leaf

green Fig Eater beetle commonly found pest in tomato plants

These are white insects that are beneath your soil and chew on the tomato roots. When they become adults, they become figeater beetles which will devour your tomatoes.

  1. Birds

Birds can eat the tomato fruits too. They are not interested in the tomato, but the water present inside the fruit. A simple solution is to keep a birdbath or a small pond nearby so all the birds will go there.

  1. Rats 

Rats can ruin your vegetable garden. All you can do for the rats is to set the traps at the base of your plants. Do not use rat poison.

Tomato and Aspirin

When tomato plants are under attack by any disease, they produce a hormone that is very similar to the salicylic acid in Aspirin. This hormone triggers the plant's immune system to be ready for an attack. This hack makes tomato plants more disease resistant, produce more fruit, makes the fruit taste better, and increases the nutrient content in the fruit.

 

Grind 600 milligrams of uncoated Aspirin in water and mix it with a 1 gallon of water. Spray this water on the leaves of the plant. This will trick the plant into thinking it is under attack, which results in triggering the immune system even when the disease is not present. 

 

Determinate vs Indeterminate Tomatoes

There are 2 types of tomato plants: determinate and indeterminate. Here is a table to differentiate between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes.

 

Determinate Tomatoes

Indeterminate Tomatoes

Fixed size and grow fruits all at once

Grows like a vine and gives a steady supply of tomatoes rather than a large harvest at once.

Ripe fruit within 2 weeks and then die

Delayed ripening after the start of growing season as they spend some time growing in height.

Bush variety, smaller plants 4-5 ft tall

Vine variety continues to extend its length. Bigger plants throughout the growing season. Can grow more than 6-10 ft tall and become very heavy.

Pruning not needed as they stop growing on their own

Pruning is required. Pinch back the suckers (small shoots or leaves growing in between the stem and a branch) to prevent unmanageable growth. Do not pinch a sucker just below a bloom as it can reduce your harvest.

Support the plant with a stake (staking)

Needs large and strong stakes or caging as a support to their large growth. You can use sticks or bamboo poles as well.

A good choice if you want a lot of tomatoes at once

A good choice if you want steady supply throughout the growing season.

Examples: San Marzano, Amish Paste

Majority of tomato varieties are indeterminate. Examples: heirlooms, cherry tomatoes, beefsteak, big boy, sungold, brandywine, sweet million

When tomato plants are done growing

Determinate varieties of tomatoes grow a specific height (about 4 ft tall), produce one set of flowers and fruit, and die once the fruits are produced. The lifecycle of a determinate variety is about 6-8 months, from seed to flowering and then dying. Determinate varieties stop growing when the top bud has finished producing the fruit.

 

Indeterminate varieties of tomatoes will grow indefinitely reaching heights of upto 12 ft tall, so they are never done producing fruit for you until winter comes and kills the plant. If you live in a place where the temperatures never go below 60F, the tomato plants are short-lived perennials and will keep producing fruit for about 2 years.

Varieties of Tomatoes

 

Variety Name

Type of Tomato

Notes

Early Girl/Better Boy

Indeterminate

Easy to grow and produces lots of tomatoes

Honey gold/Sun gold

Indeterminate

Yellow tomato, which is very sweet and prolific, produces lots of tomatoes.

Juliet Tomato

Indeterminate

Grape sized prolific variety, great disease resistance

San Marzano

Determinate

Prolific heirloom, great for sauces, ketchup and pastes. Chefs love it as it is absolutely delicious.

Mountain Pride Hybrid

Determinate

Grows well in containers, and produces large sized tomatoes.

Cherokee

Indeterminate

Heirloom variety, excellent taste.

Cherokee Purple

Indeterminate

Purple colored tomatoes and people like it’s acidic taste.

Black Krim

Indeterminate

Heirloom variety, not very easy to grow but produces very delicious fruit.

Jersey Devil

Indeterminate

Most prolific, producing plum-shaped tomatoes.

Russian Big Roma

Indeterminate

Most prolific, producing plum-shaped tomatoes.

Growing Tomatoes Upside Down

You can also grow tomatoes upside down as a hanging vine, if you don’t have or dont want to set up staking or caging. This also helps the plant to keep its fruit away from the ground, and allows better penetration of light to all parts of the plant. You still need a strong hook or hanger though.

Tips before harvesting Tomatoes

  1. Before you eat the tomatoes that you harvest, wash them thoroughly with water to get rid of any fertilizer residue, dirt or bacteria.
  2. Depending on the variety, a tomato plant can be ready for harvest between 60 days upto 150 days.
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