Growing Tomatoes

Red tomatoes on a vine in PA

Growing tomatoes at home can be a fun and easy way to save money, especially if you have a green thumb. Tomatoes are hearty vegetables that can grow in most climates and produce rich, succulent fruit with very little effort on your end.

In this guide, we’ll cover what you need to know to grow your own tomatoes.

Planting tomatoes seeds

If you are starting your tomatoes from seed, the timing of your planting will be a bit different. Aim to plant the seeds with enough time for them to germinate, sprout and mature before you plant them outside.

To plant the tomato seeds, purchase some potting soil and fill a container or tray with the potting soil. It doesn’t have to be a deep container — even a shallow tray will be fine for tomato seeds. 

You can purchase plastic pots or packs to plant them, or use something you have lying around your home, such as an egg carton.

Once the container is full of potting soil, poke a hole in the soil with your finger no deeper than the first joint in your finger. Then, place the tomato seed in the hole and cover it up lightly with potting soil.

To initiate the seed’s growth, water the tomato seed lightly.

Try to keep the soil in direct sunlight as much as possible. You can cover it with some clear plastic to keep the humidity high as well. 

Make sure to keep on watering the soil lightly whenever it dries out. The soil doesn’t need to be more than damp, but it does need to be moist consistently for the tomato seed to germinate.

You’ll soon start seeing a baby tomato sprout emerging from the potting soil.

Transplanting tomatoes seedlings

After the tomato sprouted, you’ll want to let it grow a little bit to establish a root structure. If the seedling is planted with its own space to grow, you won’t need to transplant it until it grows its own root cube. 

However, if the tomato seed was planted with other tomato seeds in its own space, it should be planted earlier so that its roots aren’t in competition for limited space.

As long as the roots have room to grow, you’re fine to keep the tomato in its container. 

If you notice that the tomato seedling is drying up fast, this may be a sign that it’s time to plant it in a larger container. You can transplant a tomato however many times you’d like before planting it in its final destination.

To transplant a tomato, pinch the bottom of the container as you gently pull the sprout up. If the seedling is very small, you can turn the pack upside down as you do this for each sprout so that the plant and its early root structure fall out into your hand. 

If the tomato is rootbound, meaning that the roots are tightly wound together forming the shape of whatever container it was in, then you’ll want to gently rip the roots apart once before transplanting the tomato into its next container.

After you have transplanted your tomato, water it in and make sure it gets some sunlight for continual growth.

Planting tomatoes outside

Whether you are growing your tomato from seed, or you purchased a young tomato plant from a local garden center or greenhouse, eventually you’ll want to plant it outside.

To plant your tomato, gently squeeze the bottom of the container and pull the plant out of its pack.

Then, use a trowel or your hand to remove soil from where you’d like to plant it. 

If the soil is hard and packed down, consider using a tiller to break it up, or just push a shovel in the soil a few times to break up the clumps.

Best soil type for tomatoes

You can check your tomato plant’s tag for specific information regarding soil needs.

You may need to mix in some potting soil or other soil additives to get your soil to the ideal consistency.

When to plant tomatoes outside

Choosing when to plant tomatoes outside is an important consideration. If you plant them too early, there’s the risk of a late frost killing them off.

As a general rule of thumb, typically if you wait until after Mother’s Day you’ll be fine to plant tomatoes outside. That being said, in Central PA we have had late frosts later than Mother’s Day, so make sure to check the forecast for your area in the spring to make sure that there isn’t a deep frost on the horizon.

In some cases, planting tomatoes outside before Mother’s Day is definitely doable. Some annuals are just more hardy than others, so you’ll want to consider the hardiness of your tomato, too. For example, the Bubblegum Supertunias that Homestead Gardens sells can often be planted outside as early as mid to late March, which is well before Mother’s Day.

It depends on the plant’s size, maturity, hardiness (did the greenhouse you purchased the plant from “harden it off”?), and spring weather.

Where to plant tomatoes

Once you have your tomato, you’ll need some soil and a spot to plant it. If you’re going to be planting it directly outside from the pack you purchased it in, you have the option of planting the tomato in the landscape, in a hanging basket, or in a pot. A tomato will do great in any of these locations.

Sunlight requirements for tomatoes

If your tomato receives too little or too much sunlight exposure, it will likely still live, but may not grow as abundantly and could require more care.

There are general sunlight requirements for all tomatoes. For specific sunlight requirements for the variety of tomato that you purchased, make sure to check the plant tag.

Best temperature and humidity for tomatoes

Most areas have plenty of temperature swings, so an easy way to determine if your growing area will work for tomatoes is to check your USDA growing zone.

A tomato will grow well in most USDA growing zones, but the length of its season will vary depending on the region.

Watering tomatoes

One of the most important factors to keeping your tomato looking healthy is to diligently water the tomato plant throughout the summer. 

For tomatoes, you’ll know they need water when the top inch of soil is dried out. To check, you can stick your finger into the soil down to the first joint in your finger. If it’s moist, no need to water the tomato plant. If it’s dry, you’ll want to water it in.

Be careful that you don’t overwater the tomato. A tomato plant can be susceptible to diseases if it gets too much water. 

If you planted the tomato in a container, make sure that it has holes in the bottom for excess water to escape. Otherwise, the water can collect at the bottom of the container and cause root rot, or other diseases.

Fertilizing tomatoes

Another important factor for plant health is keeping your tomato fed with nutrition.

If the tomato is planted in the ground, you can lessen the amount of fertilizer it’ll need by building up the soil with compostable material in the year(s) leading up to your planting. Otherwise, you’ll want to fertilize the tomato throughout the summer. 

A good rule of thumb for fertilizing tomatoes is to give the plant a water-soluble fertilizer every third watering. This rule helps to account for the change in temperature and weather throughout the season. For example, in May you won’t be watering your tomato plant as much as in the heat of the summer in August. So feeding the plant every third watering helps to provide tomatoes what it needs throughout the season, no matter the weather conditions.

It’s also recommended to plant the tomato with a slow-release form of fertilizer to feed the plant slowly throughout the summer. You can add this in with your potting soil in a pot.

Growing tomatoes in a hanging basket

If you’re growing tomatoes in a hanging basket, you’ll want to make sure you don’t overfill the basket with plants. Plants will generally fill in the space you give them, so if the hanging basket isn’t packed full when you first plant it, that’s great.

The more tomatoes you plant in your hanging basket, the more you’ll need to water the hanging plants. In general, if you have more plants competing for water and soil, it’ll take more maintenance to keep the hanging basket looking beautiful.

If you’re watering your tomatoes in a hanging basket, you can check if it needs water by lifting the basket from beneath. If the basket is noticeably light, it could use some water. 

You’ll know you overwatered your tomato in a hanging basket if water comes dripping or streaming out the bottom of the basket where the holes are.

Growing tomatoes in a pot

As mentioned above, be careful you don’t plant too many tomatoes in a flower pot.

The answer for how to care for tomatoes grown in a pot will vary according to the size of the pot. In general, make sure that it has plenty of room to grow and has adequate sunlight exposure where the pot is placed.

A tomato that is planted in a container, whether it’s a pot or a hanging basket, will need to be watered more than tomatoes grown in the landscape, since they won’t be able to pull natural water from the ground.

Growing tomatoes in the landscape

Choosing tomatoes for your flower beds or other landscaping is a great choice. They make for great borders and can help add beauty to your yard.

Since you’re planting them in a permanent spot, you’ll want to be extra careful when planting tomatoes in the ground outside. Make sure that there’s little chance of frost and that the tomatoes are in a spot that matches their sunlight needs.

If you do have a late frost, and your tomatoes are already in the ground, you can cover them overnight with a bucket or sheet to protect them in most cases.

How to get tomatoes to bloom

If tomatoes are not blooming it could be for a variety of reasons. 

First and foremost, ensure that the plant is getting enough water, fertilizer, and sunlight. If tomatoes are not given the basic necessities, they’ll resort to growing only what they can, which may mean not producing flowers.

Outside of that, tomatoes can sometimes get diseases that prevent them from blooming or stops their blooms.

Deadheading and pruning tomatoes

You can deadhead your tomatoes to promote future blooms.

For some varieties, this isn’t necessary and the plant will continue blooming just fine without any deadheading. For other plant varieties, the spent blooms can look ugly so you’ll want to snap those off or cut them back.

Cutting back or pruning your tomato plant can be healthy for the plant. You shouldn’t need to do this more than a few times throughout the summer. It can be good to do this if the plant is overgrowing its area, or overpowering another plant in a container.

Common diseases for tomatoes

A tomato is more susceptible to common diseases, such as downy mildew or root rot when it isn’t cared for properly. That being said, even tomatoes that are given the correct care can fall victim to some diseases.

Consult with your local garden center if you notice that your tomatoes have a disease.

Overwintering tomatoes

While it is possible to overwinter your tomatoes, this is not common for tomatoes.

A tomato is an annual, meaning that it lives for one growing season and then dies. If you’d like to grow a plant that comes back every spring, you’ll want to grow a perennial.

Pest control for tomatoes

Typically, natural predators are enough to take care of bugs and pests that eat at your tomatoes. For example, ladybugs will eat aphids and can help control them.

However, in some cases, you will need to take extra measures to kill off plant pests. Again, consult with your local garden center for a specific solution to your pests.

Companion plants for tomatoes

There are many other plants that grow great with tomatoes. These are what we would call “companion plants.” This means that if they are planted together they will generally complement each other with their colors and growing styles.

When looking for companion plants for your tomatoes, look for plants that have similar growing needs. This is an easy way to find plants that grow well. For example, if two plants love the sun, require similar fertilizer needs and one is taller while the other is a spreader, they will probably be great companion plants in a pot or hanging basket.

Varieties of tomatoes

There are many varieties of tomatoes. In general, their growing needs will be consistent across these varieties, but it’s always best to check the plant’s tag to make sure there isn’t specific instructions for your variety of tomatoes.

Propagating tomatoes

It’s possible to propagate tomatoes. 

To do so, you can cut off a small piece of the plant and put it in water for a week or so. Soon, the tomato should start growing fine roots.

Eventually, you’ll be able to plant the tomato cutting into soil.

For some varieties of tomatoes, propagating and then selling your cuttings as plants once they are established is illegal. Make sure there isn’t a patent on the tomato variety before you would do this.

Some annuals, such as sun coleus, can be propagated just by placing the cutting directly in potting soil.