The Best Advice for Growing Tomatoes

Homegrown tomatoes win the taste test over supermarket impostors time and time again. And, since growing tomatoes is so easy, there's no reason to miss out on the taste sensation. Here's some advice to get you off on the right foot.

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Why Grow Tomatoes?

That’s an easy question when you consider how tasty, nutritious and healthful they are. And growing tomatoes is easy. Tomatoes have evolved over thousands of years to survive with no care at all. Of course, the fruit will be more plentiful and look more appealing if you follow this advice. Read about 5 ways to successfully grow tomatoes.

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Decide Which Kind to Grow

The easiest way to do this is to determine how you will use your tomatoes. Will you use your tomatoes:

In sauces and soups? Try Roma and other oblong, thick-walled tomatoes that can stand up to cooking.

On sandwiches and burgers? Slicing tomatoes are perfect for that.

For salads and eating out of hand? Cherry tomatoes and grape tomatoes both fill the bill. Many avid gardeners grow a range of tomatoes so they have options in the kitchen.

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Start Some from Seed

Growing tomatoes from seed is a cinch. It not only saves money, it gives you the chance to grow some unusual varieties you don’t find at the nursery. You can reach back and grow some heirlooms from days gone by (the taste on some is sensational!), or try the latest disease-resistant varieties developed by science. All you need is a seed tray, some soilless seed-starting mix and seeds. Follow package directions and—voila!—within 6 or 7 weeks, you’re ready to transplant outdoors. Here are some pointers on how to start seeds indoors.

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Find Your Spot

Growing tomatoes is really about growing conditions—and making sure those growing conditions are to the tomato plant’s liking. That means a rich, well-drained soil amended with compost. It also means lots of sunlight: at least 6 hours a day, preferably more. Note: Tomato plants can burn out in the South, so consider a shade screen during the hottest part of the summer.

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Lend Your Support

Some tomatoes need more support than others. That’s because some tomato plants grow taller than others. There are two distinct growth habits: determinate, which grow to a certain size, then stop; and indeterminate, which grow until frost cuts them down. Determinate tomatoes take up less space, ripen their fruit all at once, and can get by with a stake or a small cage. Indeterminate tomatoes are more vigorous growers and ripen their fruit over time. They can get very large, so you’ll need a heavy-duty cage anchored securely in the ground. Learn how to make a rustic rebar plant cage for your tomatoes.

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Mulch, Mulch, Mulch!

A lean soil devoid of nutrients and beneficial microbes can put your tomato plant on life support. Additionally, dry soil zaps a tomato plant’s reserves and hinders fruit production. A good organic mulch can help solve both problems. The mulch keeps the sun from baking and cracking the soil, and it adds nutrients and feeds beneficial microbes as it breaks down. Straw is a great mulch for tomatoes—keeping mud from splashing up on plants and fruit when it rains and possibly causing disease. You can also use compost, shredded leaves or grass clippings from an untreated lawn (apply lightly so they don’t build up heat underneath, and keep away from plant stems). Need to know more about mulch? Check out this guide.

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Water Smarts

Tomatoes do a lot of growing over the summer and need a steady supply of water to be at their most productive. Ideally, plants should be watered at their base, keeping foliage dry and disease free. Overhead watering should be done in the early morning so the foliage can dry before nightfall. A soaker hose or drip irrigation are two efficient ways of delivering water to the roots without a lot of evaporation. Learn how to install a drip irrigation system.

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Container Gardening

Growing tomatoes in containers is convenient because you can place the containers near the door or by a water source. It also creates gardening space on hard surfaces such as patios, decks and balconies. In addition, just like with raised beds, you can create a perfect soil mix for tomatoes. Make sure the pots are big enough to support root growth—a 10-gallon pot should be sufficient in most cases. And consider using varieties tailored to container growing, such as ‘Patio’ tomato. Discover a dozen vegetables you can grow in pots.

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Tomato Problem 1: Splitting

Splitting—or growth cracks—occurs on extremely rapid fruit growth. It happens when there’s a lot of rain and high temperatures, or when a dry spell is followed by a deluge of water from rain or irrigation. Avoid it by watering regularly when the weather is dry and by mulching soil to keep it evenly moist.

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Tomato Problem 2: Catfacing

This happens when fruits are scarred and malformed at the stem end. The cavities often extend deep into the flesh, making the fruit all but worthless. It is believed catfacing is the result of flowers or flower buds being disturbed during fruit formation by cold weather or hormone-type herbicide sprays. Large-fruited tomatoes are most susceptible, so consider growing smaller varieties of tomatoes.

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green tomato
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Tomato Problem 3: Blossom-end Rot

This ugly affliction causes fruit to develop tan to black spots at the bottom of the fruit. It’s caused by a calcium deficiency. A soil test will tell you if there is a lack of calcium in the soil or if the plant simply is unable to utilize existing calcium because of some environmental factor. Fluctuating soil moisture, heavy applications of nitrogen, and injury to plant roots are all factors that contribute to blossom-end rot. Test the soil for pH. It should be between 6.5 and 6.8. If it’s lower than that, work fast-acting lime into the soil so plants can uptake calcium more easily. You can also add crushed eggshells to your compost and work that into the soil annually.

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Happy Harvesting!

If you take a little care and follow these tips when growing tomatoes, you should have a bumper crop of tomatoes to harvest. Enjoy them—they’re good for you! And share them with friends, family and homeless shelters. When frost approaches, extend the season by covering plants at night with sheets, removing them in the morning. And you can also harvest unripe tomatoes to make the famous fried green tomatoes (not as healthy as a fresh tomato, but consider them a late-season indulgence). Here are even more tomato-growing tips!

Luke Miller
Luke Miller is an award-winning garden editor with 25 years' experience in horticultural communications, including editing a national magazine and creating print and online gardening content for a national retailer. He grew up across the street from a park arboretum and has a lifelong passion for gardening in general and trees in particular. In addition to his journalism degree, he has studied horticulture and is a Master Gardener.