How to Grow a Tomato Garden

If you love delicious Caprese salads, homemade pasta sauce and BLT sandwiches, you might want to think about growing your own tomatoes this year. Check out some of these gardening tips to set yourself up for savory success.

Heirloom Harvest

Heirloom tomatoes can be found in absolutely any variety and every color — even in black or white. Grow your own tomatoes and decorate your salads, sauces and sandwiches with vibrant fruits (yes, they are fruits).

Seed Money

If you have a longer winter, you may want to consider starting seeds indoors during the frostier months. Seeds are often available in more varieties than young plants you might buy in a nursery and they’re less expensive, too. A head-start under a grow light will help you take advantage of every bit of the growing season.

Moving Out

After about six to eight weeks, once your indoor seedlings have sprouted two to three sets of leaves, reduce watering a bit to get ready to move outdoors. Plant them in an area that gets a minimum of six hours of full sun. Check your growing region and weather for the best timing for your garden. To avoid shocking new plants, introduce them to outdoor elements for a few hours every day in the shade at first to “harden them off”, increasing the outdoor time each day. After seven to ten days of this process, they should be stronger, and ready to plant.

Make Some Space

Before you plant your seedlings, look to see if they are bush variety (determinate) or vining tomatoes (indeterminate). Bush tomatoes are shorter plants, and produce all at once, where vine tomatoes can grow over ten-feet long and produce over a longer season. Most bush and vine tomato plants require at least two feet of space between them for air circulation. Bury plants up to their second set of leaves to form deep roots.

Cage Fright

Stockier, bush tomatoes work great with typical tomato cages for support. Feel free to hit cages with a can of spray paint if your garden could use a splash of color.

Climb High

Don’t have much room? Get a great yield by carefully training your vines to a trellis or fence. Find stretchy, weather-resistant plant ties at your local gardening store. This is a great method for heavy vining tomatoes that need more support. Bonus: Vertical tomato plants tend to be less affected by dampness and pests.

Pruning Perfection

Many master gardeners recommend pruning your tomato plants to make them more manageable.  This may result in a reduced yield of tomatoes in a bush plant, but not usually in a vining tomato.  Never prune a plant that is shorter than 18” tall – and prune in the morning for the least amount of shock to the plant. Don’t splash water on a newly pruned plant to avoid disease forming.

Grow With It

If your tomato plant reaches the top of the trellis, don’t panic. Simply tie it loosely at the top and let it keep growing until it falls forward naturally, then continue to secure it loosely to the trellis on the way down. More tomatoes for you!

Milk Medicine

Dark spots on your plants’ stems might be an indication of stem ailments like blight or rot. Spraying your plants with milk can help to ward off some forms of rot naturally. 

Walking on Eggshells

Blossom end rot is a particular issue tomatoes suffer when they cannot get enough calcium from the soil. The blossom end begins to sink in and forms a dark spot of decay. Be careful not to over fertilize plants with a nitrogen rich fertilizer. You can avoid this issue by crumbling up eggshells and dropping them into the hole before you plant each of your tomato plants.

Flower Power

Most tomato plants tend to produce clusters of buds that lead to flowers after about four to six weeks. 

You Don't Bring Me Flowers

If pollinated by bees or insects, a tiny, green fruit will follow each flower. If flowers aren’t “setting”, they may not be getting pollinated. Consider planting flowers such as marigolds nearby in order to attract bees.

Being Green

Once the green tomato forms, it will take a few more weeks for it to ripen and turn its final color. 

Sun Worshippers

When trained vertically, a healthy tomato plant can produce a curtain of juicy, colorful fruits. The larger the tomato, the more sunlight and heat they need to ripen, so beefsteak and large heirloom tomatoes can benefit from 9 to 12 hours of sun a day if possible.  

Savory & Sensitive

Unlike store-bought hybrids that are bred for ease of shipping, heirloom tomatoes can have thinner skin that may bruise more easily. The superior flavor of tomatoes grown from heirloom seed outweighs any extra TLC and careful handling they might require.

Bye Bye Birdie

If your tomatoes are under attack from birds or garden pests, you can clip fruits that are almost mature off the vine when they’re green and they’ll ripen on your windowsill. Store tomatoes at room temperature for best flavor.

Ta-Da! Tomatoes!

Whichever variety you’ve chosen to grow, there’s no denying how good a tomato fresh from the garden tastes. When the skin turns glossy and the tomato feels slightly firm, you’ll know it’s time to harvest and eat!