How to plant tomatoes that thrive with the tips & planting tricks I've used over 20+ years of gardening for healthier tomatoes that produce more.
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According to the groups that track these kind of things, tomatoes are the #1 vegetable planted in backyards across the country. I think that's because they give a lot of bang for the buck, with one plant producing enough tomatoes to eat fresh all season (and more if it's grape or cherry tomatoes!).
Plus, almost everyone loves the flavor of sun-ripened tomatoes. Yum.
While it's true that tomatoes grow like weeds (Ever try composting? The one reliable thing that will come up after you try to use it in your garden are tons of tomatoes...), there are some things you can do when planting and growing them to get an earlier and longer harvest on healthy plants.
Over the years on AOC I've written about tomatoes generally, such as starting plants from seeds, when slugs attacks, dog attacks, how to get them to ripen earlier, and ripening them at the end of the growing season.
Throughout that time I was trying a lot of ways to plant, grow, and get ripe tomatoes in my zone 8, maritime Northwest garden. That's because gray summers are not unheard of here in Oregon and tomatoes like it sunny and warm.
For gardeners in my area, getting a ripe tomato by July 4th is the goal, which is kind of crazy, since we can't reliably plant them without protection before the first week of May.
I'll go on record as saying I've done it twice - both times setting the plants out in early April with major coverings and water in bottles or Wall-o-Waters to warm them. AND planting one of the ultra early varieties. (Spoiler - they weren't that tasty, but they were ripe, lol.)
I don't worry about that date anymore, I simply try to get at least some varieties to ripen by the end of July. And by the time September rolls around, I know I'll have a harvest like the tomatoes in the photo above.
Now been planting tomatoes for more than 20 years (Yikes! How is this possible?) and I'm happy to share the planting and growing tips and tricks I've learned through the years that reliably result in large plants that produce fruit early and consistently.
Some are tried-and-true techniques and some I just stumbled upon by accident, but all result in healthy plants that produce what we're all after - juicy and delicious ripe tomatoes.
First, though, let's answer a few basic questions about growing tomatoes.
What is the best time to plant tomatoes?
In USDA plant hardiness zones 8 and 9 like mine, we start seeds as early as mid-January indoors. For zones 3 or 4, wait to start seeds indoors until mid- to late March and early April.
Do tomatoes need full sun?
Yes, they will need a full 8 - or more - hours of sun to produce the most. Anything less and you will not get the same amount of fruit (though you will get some, so go ahead and still plant a few, if that's your only option!).
For planting outside, wait two weeks after your last frost date. Err on the side of later if you won't be providing any cover - the soil should be 58 to 60 degrees with nighttime temps close to 50 degrees pretty consistently.
BIG WARNING: For some reason, you will see tomato seedlings at garden centers WAY earlier than they should be planted. They will usually be small with brownish leaves and weak looking because it's early April and there are still light frosts that they don't like. These plants will take forever to bounce back - if they even do - and you don't gain anything by planting these early. So steer clear of these and don't let the stores tell you when you should be planting!
How often should you water tomato plants?
There is no absolute rule to this, as it depends on how hot and dry your weather is. A good rule of thumb I use is to supply water deeply once every four to five days at the height of summer if there's no rain (about 1 inch of water, or 1 gallon of water, every 5 days).
Remember, with tomatoes deep root system, they prefer a slow, deep irrigation semi-regularly rather than light, daily irrigation. This is why soaker hoses or drip irrigation is the best way to water tomatoes.
Raised beds or in-ground?
I use raised beds in our garden as part of my easy care design, but to be able to plant your tomatoes out as soon as possible it's almost essential that they be in a raised bed or container of some sort. Even if it's just raised rows in a traditional bed (that you don't till) it will help, because the ground will be dryer and warmer.
Can you grow tomatoes in pots?
Yes, but you'll want the biggest container possible. The bigger your container, the more soil it will hold and the more soil you have, the better it will hold water and provide more available nutrients for your plants.
How far apart do you plant tomatoes?
If you plan on staking your plants, space them about 24 inches apart.
How to Plant Tomatoes that Thrive
1. Prepare your soil.
Add a 2-3 inch layer of compost, preferably one that contains some additional natural fertilizer (I buy a load of "barnyard compost" from our local garden product company that has added chicken and cow manure).
Optional: Use a garden fork to turn in the top layer in places - you don't have to do a total turn over of the bed, just enough to mix it up a bit here and there and then smooth with a rake. (Update: I no longer do this, preferring to simply layer the organic materials to disturb the soil as little as possible - and minimize weeds - similar to Charles Dowding's methods.)
2. Lay a soaker hose down or drip system.
Watering at the roots and keeping the leaves dry will promote deeper roots and minimize leaf disease like mildew. Snake the soaker around the bed and hold it with garden staples if needed. Consistent, even watering is the key to tomatoes with less blossom-end rot, less splitting and more evenly sized. Here's the type of soaker hose I use - round, not flat.
3. TIP: Cover the bed with red or black plastic and cut holes for plants at your desired spacing.
Red plastic "mulch" has been shown to increase ripe tomato yield by 20% (read more here) and black plastic helps to warm soil and deter weeds. Either of these will work to help maintain even soil moisture, which is good for the plants and helps prevent blossom end rot (along with calcium in the soil).
I'm all about the ripe tomatoes, though, so red plastic has been a part of tips to get earlier tomatoes.
With soakers and a plastic mulch, you will only need to water once every 4-7 days, depending on the weather. You can space tomatoes 2 to 2-1/2 feet apart when they are trellised.
4. TIP: Water seedlings well before planting.
I've read that one of the best ways to ensure the success of newly planted vegetable (or flower) starts is to water them well in the pots about 30 minutes to an hour before planting. So I water them first and then start preparing the holes to give them the best chances to thrive.
Note: my home-grown seedling in the photo above is pretty lanky and doesn't look all that healthy - it doesn't matter as much with tomatoes (peppers are a different story...) because we can bury all the stem and it will grow roots, creating a really healthy plant. Moral? Don't throw out sad looking tomato starts because you think you did something 'wrong' - you'll be surprised how well they do for you!
5. Dig a trench or deep hole for each plant.
You want to bury the stem as far as possible (preferably up to the first leaves), so dig the deepest hole you can.
For extra long stems like these transplants, I use the trench method - dig a trench about 6 inches down and to one side of where you want your tomato to be.
6. Add about a 1/3 cup of organic fertilizer.
Sprinkle it on the bottom of the hole or trench and mix into the soil (or use the recommended amount on the package).
7. TIP: Plant your tomato seedlings DEEP.
Why? Not only do healthy tomatoes have deep roots, but roots will grow all along the stem when it comes in contact with soil! That's why we don't have to worry about lanky transplants - all that stem will become a wonderful, deep root system to support a big plant with lots of fruit.
With a trench dug about 5-6 inches deep for taller tomatoes, place the root ball at one end and the leafy top ending at the point you want the plant to grow (in this case, through your hole in the plastic). If using a regular hole, place the root ball at the bottom and fill in around stem with soil, up to the first set of true leaves.
8. Firm soil around tomato.
Mound the compost/dirt right up to and around the stem, to encourage rooting.
Note: I'm going to be honest and say it's not as easy to plant in and around the plastic - just be careful not to tear it and remind yourself that the plastic will make your watering life easier, and your plants healthier.
9. TIP: Stake and tie tomato stem.
Insert a stake and loosely tie the stem to it as high up as possible to keep the tomato off the ground and away from critters and standing water. I didn't do this for many years, thinking the tomato cages were enough support, but the year that I started staking the transplants, the tomatoes got a better start and were stronger.
10. Trellis the tomatoes with whatever system you choose.
Be careful to avoid the soaker hose and gently lift the seedling through the cage or onto the trellis.
Pictured above is the cage system that we used for years - we would add ties to all the flimsy cages and hold it all together with the stakes on the corners of the raised beds. This kept them from flopping over when full and loaded with fruit, but it was clunky and made it a bit hard to harvest.
This is the system I now use in our new farmhouse garden:
Cattle panels attached to t-post fence stakes with zip ties in long, narrow beds. The tomatoes are trained up the panels with...wait for it...bungee cords! It's SUPER easy to maintain and make pruning and harvesting a breeze (plus, nicer to look at, right?). I'm forever grateful to my aunt who showed me this system. (You can see more of these beds in tomato planting video that accompanies this article.)
These are the 10 basic steps to plant your tomatoes to thrive, and if you live in a warmer climate than I do here in the Pacific Northwest, you can call it done. BUT, if your weather will still be on-and-off rain for the next month like ours (with occasional lows into the upper 30s in the first weeds of May) you'll want to provide some protection. Following is the method I've devised to help the tomato seedlings along.
NOTE: Wall O Waters work great for a few plants, but when you've got a lot planted like my big beds it takes too long to fill all the little water channels (ask me how I know...). UPDATE: I see that they aren't available anymore and the few I could find are pretty expensive. So even for a small number of plants, I recommend my technique below.
How To Protect Tomato Transplants For Healthier Plants
1. Fill gallon jugs with water (you can see an example in the photo above with the caged tomatoes), attach the cap and place around your tomato bed. These act as little solar 'heaters' providing just a bit more warmth after the bed is covered.
2. Cover the tomato cages with a spun row cover (I use something similar to this cover).
Simply clip the cover to the cages with wooden clothespins and make sure all the sides and tops are covered. I use rebar pieces to hold the sides down on top of the soil, but rocks or pieces of wood will work as well. You want to make sure it can't be blown off in the wind.
3. Check the seedlings occasionally to make sure all is well (and bait for slugs if you need to!).
When the weather is starting to warm up, you can gradually 'wean' the plants from the cover by opening the top for a week or so before removing the cover completely when your nightly lows are staying in the 50-60 degree range.
To give you an idea of how much the plants like this cover (similar to the way broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower do), here are some photos of the tomatoes later in the season:
Tomatoes in June, 1-1/2 months after planting:
This row-cover method may not win any beautiful garden prizes, but you can't argue with the results I've had even in the nastiest of spring weather (sometimes hail, frost, and LOTS of rain) - you can see the larger green plants growing happily under the covers.
Tomatoes in July, 2-1/2 months after planting:
By mid-July the covers have been off since late June and the tomatoes are growing strong and are full of green tomatoes. We'll get some early tomatoes in just a few weeks! (You can see a full mid-July tour of our previous raised bed vegetable garden here).
Not quite July 4th, but this is more doable and I love it how simple it is!
So - how do you plant your tomatoes? Any tips to share?
This article has been updated - it was originally published in May of 2014.
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