Tomato Growing Tips

Jul 20, 2017
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Tomatoes are the ultimate backyard vegetable, and growing tomatoes is easier than you might think. These tips on how to grow tomatoes should help you to take care of your most delicious plants.

There are a multitude of reasons to have a backyard vegetable garden, but for many of us, the only reason we garden at all is to raise our own tomatoes. Who can blame us?

Is there anything better than a fully ripe tomato eaten while it’s still warm from the garden? Tomatoes annually rank as North America’s number one home garden crop. No vegetable has received more attention from plant breeders and seed savers, which gives us lots of varieties to choose from. After much consideration, you probably have narrowed down your choices and even planted your tomatoes. If you haven’t planted them yet, learn how to grow tomatoes from seed and when to plant tomatoes with our post “Tomatoes from Seed the Easy Way.” 

Tomato Varieties: Type Casting

Tomatoes have two types of growth: determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomato plants stop growing at a certain size. They tend to set and produce all their fruit at once over a 2 to 3 week period. Often called bush tomatoes, they can be planted closer together and do well in a container.

An indeterminate tomato plant will keep on growing and producing fruit until it is killed by frost. These plants get quite large and will need some kind of support. Whether you use a trellis, stakes, or cages is up to you, but supporting them is necessary to keep the plants from sprawling on the ground.

For information on even more tomato varieties, see “Tomato Trials.”

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Tomato Plant Care: Use Mulch

Don’t forget to mulch! It helps to conserve moisture and keeps soil-borne disease spores from being splashed up onto the plants. There are many good mulches to choose from—black plastic, straw, shredded leaves, grass clippings, or a thick layer of newspaper. Red plastic has been found to increase fruiting by 12-20%.

Tomato Plant Care: Pruning Tomatoes

To pinch or not to pinch, that is the big question. Most gardeners remove some of the suckers that form between the main stalk and the side branches during the early growth of their plants. But just how much should you prune them, if at all? Pruned plants bear earlier and have larger tomatoes, but they also have fewer of them. Overpruning can cause sunscald—a yellow sunburned patch that eventually blisters. Unpruned plants yield about twice as much fruit as pruned ones do, but it will take longer for the fruit to ripen. You definitely do not want to prune determinate varieties or you will have only three fruit clusters. Since determinates bear fruit only on the ends of their branches, never clip them off, or you won’t get any fruit at all!

Pruning also affects flavor. The more foliage a plant has, the more photosynthesis is taking place, which produces more sugars in the fruit. The excess foliage shades the fruit and insulates it from summer heat, making it ripen more slowly and improving the taste. Of course, if the foliage on your plants is so thick that no fresh air can reach the center of the plant, then by all means, pinch off a few suckers. If your indeterminates are reaching for the stars, you can top them above the highest blossoms to keep them in bounds and encourage green fruit to ripen.

Tomato Plant Care: How Much to Water

Tomato plants need 1 to 2 inches of water per week. Uneven watering can set the stage for blossom-end rot and may also cause fruits to crack open. Stressed plants remove calcium from the fruit and send it to the shoots to keep the plant growing. Along with uneven moisture, excessive nitrogen and high soil acidity contribute to blossom-end rot.

Tomato Plant Care: Feeding

Most gardeners have a secret or two up their sleeves. One man I know treats his plants to crushed eggshells in the planting hole, another uses a handful of bonemeal, and someone else swears by a pinch of Epsom salts. If you must fertilize, side-dress the plants with compost or a dose of liquid seaweed or fish emulsion. Stay away from high nitrogen fertilizers unless your plants have yellow leaves. Too much nitrogen will cause lush foliage growth but give you little or no fruit. If the leaves on your plant are purple, they are calling for more phosphorus. This is the most important nutrient for fruit production.

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If all this advice seems daunting, take heart: Tomatoes are really one of the easiest vegetables to grow, and even the worst home-grown tomato tastes better than a store-bought one. For more important facts on planting and growing tomatoes, check out the tomato plant page.

This article was originally published in 2015 and has since been updated.

About This Blog

Get inspired by Robin Sweetser's backyard gardening tips. Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer's Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. She and her partner Tom have a small greenhouse business and also sell plants, cut flowers, and vegetables at their local Farmer's Market.

Reader Comments

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tomato horned worms

How can I prevent getting tomato horned worms? Or is there no avoiding these nasty bugs

tomato pests

Please see our page on Tomato Hornworms and good luck!

pine needles

I have a pine tree over my garden and the pine needles fall in the garden what will they do to the garden and what should I put in the garden to solve the problem.

Too much nitrogen

So what can be done to help promote tomatoe blossoms when the soil has too much nitrogen?

Too much nitrogen is a tough

Too much nitrogen is a tough situation to remedy quickly. Look for fertilizers high in potassium and phosphorus but with no extra nitrogen. Mulch with pine bark or sawdust to increase soil acidity and encourage micro-organisms that use up nitrogen as they decompose the wood fiber. Most importantly, get a soil test so you will know how to proceed next year.

bugs

i have these bugs that i can only describe as looking like transformers...they are a geometric shape with long legs, they fly and they are stinging my tomatoes. some tomatoes are totally ruined. i don't use pesticides....can you help me get rid of these horrid bugs?

Stink Bugs

It sounds like you may be dealing with stink bugs, which are a common and very damaging fruit and vegetable pest. Try introducing beneficial insects that prey upon stink bugs or stink bug eggs into your garden. Common beneficial insects include ladybugs, praying mantises, and assassin bugs. Ladybugs and praying mantis eggs can be bought at some gardening centers and online.

Growth of tomato

I have a big beef tomato plant. It's not much bigger than when I bought it. What is their growth rate?

Tomato infested?

My tomato plant is growing! Unfortunately it looks like the upper leaves are developing white spots on the underside and top side. Can I correct this before it kills the plant? There are no visible bugs and it is a potted plant on a south facing balcony.

Tomatoes are subject to a

Tomatoes are subject to a large number of fungal diseases so without seeing the plant it is hard to guess. It could be insect damage or sunburn. If the spots are fuzzy, powdery mildew could be the culprit. If the spots have brown edges it might be sequoia leaf spot. Send a picture to your local cooperative extension office and they could better diagnose it since they know what diseases are lurking in your area.

Brown "tails" on my tomatoes

This is my first year with a decent crop of tomatoes, YAY! I am worried because there are brown extensions from the bottom of the fruit. It is easily detached like its not part of the tomatoes. Could this be a pest? Does it harm my tomatoes? If so, what is the procedure to get rid of it?
Thank you kindly

If the tails are small and

If the tails are small and dry I think they might just be be a leftover piece of the blossom that hasn’t fallen off. If they can be brushed off without damaging the fruit, do it. Otherwise, if there is no rot associated with it, I’d just leave them on and let nature take its course. They should eventually fall off on their own.

Tomato plant

My tomato plants have a vine formation on there leaves but are blooming and have fruits looks nice and green

dying tomato plants

Why would my tomato plant leaves suddenly turn silver and the plant start dying?

Could it be powdery mildew?

Could it be powdery mildew?

When is it too cold?

Hi, this is my first time growing tomatoes. I have 4 plants and I have a lot of fruit on them, all sizes, but it's getting ready to get colder and they are still green and i don't know when I should pick them. Tomorrow night it will be in the 40's. What is consider too cold?

You need to cover your plants

You need to cover your plants if the temps. dip down into the low 30s. When you have several cold nights in a row you may want to pull the plants up with the attached tomatoes and hang the plants upside down in the garage or a shed. The tomatoes will continue to mature on the plants. If you don’t pull the plants you can pick the green tomatoes and put them in a brown paper bag with an apple to ripen.

I have beautiful tomato

I have beautiful tomato plants about 5ft tall with a few green tomatoes but absolutely no blossoms. I see by the other questions/comments on this site that I have experienced "tomato blossom drop". Will the plants produce additional blossoms or do I need to start over with new plants?

Poor fruit set is often

Poor fruit set is often caused by a plant putting too much energy into growing lush foliage. High nitrogen fertilizer encourages this type of growth instead of promoting flowering. Environmental factors such as high or low temperatures, not enough sun, and dry conditions also set the stage for blossom drop. You can try to correct these conditions by watering deeply, mulching, and using a fertilizer that is high in phosphorus and potassium - the P & K on the label. Your plants should continue to produce blossoms that will hopefully set some more fruit for you so don't give up on them. If you have room it might not hurt to plant a few more as backups!

Someone please help me this

Someone please help me this is my first time trying my hand at gardening. Some of my tomato plants are doing great others are wilting and the leaves are rolling up like a tube shape. Thank you.

Hi Ripcord, Some tomato

Hi Ripcord,
Some tomato plants have what is called a wilty gene that causes them to curl but not usually into a tube shape. Have you looked inside the tubes to see if there are any insects in there? Sometimes aphids will cause severe leaf roll.

How exactly do you top an

How exactly do you top an indeterminate tomato plant. I've got some that are going on six foot. I've got stakes but an wondering if it would be more efficient to start doing this? Also, some of my flowers are starting to turn spotty black. Will they still fruit or is this a blood/bone meal issue too? Thanks for your help and great article.

Hi Shannon, I let my plants

Hi Shannon,
I let my plants grow much taller than 6 feet high before I even think about topping them. I usually only do that near the end of the season if there are lots of green tomatoes and I want the plant to concentrate on ripening them instead of making more fruit.
The black spots on your blossoms could be caused by septoria but it usually affects the leaves also. It can be seed borne or carried by other nightshades. It can winter over in plant debris too which is why it is important to clean your garden well each fall.

what is bone meal and blood

what is bone meal and blood meal?

Hi Tambo, Blood meal is dried

Hi Tambo,
Blood meal is dried cow blood collected from slaughterhouses. It is very high in nitrogen. Bone meal is ground up bones, also a slaughterhouse by-product. It is a good source of phosphorus. If the thoughts of spreading them in your garden makes you queasy you can substitute alfalfa meal or soybean meal for the blood and rock phosphate or manure for the bone meal.

Is there any advice you can

Is there any advice you can give me regarding the tomato leaf miner (tuta absoluta)? It absolutely decimated my greenhouse crops. They should be producing until winter, but now I'm gonna have to get rid of the dead plants and make a second crop and I really want to try and prevent the moth from doing as much damage. Aside from pheromones, which I'll be getting soon, what other measures can I take?

Renata; I know very little

Renata; I know very little about greenhouses but the one thing I have done that has had the best results with keeping my tomatoes safe from those moths is to do away with all lights anywhere near the plants. There is a light about 60 feet away. A 30 to 40 dollar bug zapper would help but put it away from your plants but in view of them. Good luck.

I grow mostly heirloom

I grow mostly heirloom indeterminate plants. I prune them at the bottom so they have no leaves below 8 or 9 inches which I believe helps reduce fungus. I don't prune at the top unless they get to about 5 feet tall. I have the plants in sturdy cages with a 6 foot rebar to stabilize it against strong winds. I usually get a good crop, barring disasters, but I do a lot of work. When I was a beginning gardener I planted the tomatoes and left them alone in a sunny field. They grew as much as Mother Nature allowed, spread all over the ground when they got too heavy and I got a good crop then too. Go figure.

Question: The past couple of

Question:
The past couple of years my tomatoes will start to turn black around the top of the tomatoes where it meets the vine before the whole tomato is ripe... What's happening and how can I stop it? Should I just pick the fruit while green and store till ripened? It doesn't seem to get the black or rotten spots if picked early.

Thank you in advance ~ Renee

Are you watering from the

Are you watering from the top? If so, it could be collecting there, causing the rot.

Do you mulch your tomato

Do you mulch your tomato plants? It may be uneven moisture issue that mulching can correct.

Hi Renee, I have never seen

Hi Renee,
I have never seen what you are describing! It could be late blight, especially if it affects the stems themselves. There are any number of bacterial rots or fungal diseases that could be causing your problem. Could you take a picture of it and send it to your County Extension Service? They may be able to identify the problem and help with a cure.

I have a 7foot tomato plant

I have a 7foot tomato plant that have at last count 58 tomatoes it has potato type leaves I got the seed from parks and it was labeled hybrid early girl.everyone keeps telling me it's can't be a early girl they don't have that type leaves .The one I saw in the picture the farmers almanac appeared to have potato leaves ,what's your thoughts ?

I have Early Girl Tomatoes

I have Early Girl Tomatoes and Jet star Tomatoes. Both are indeterminant varieties, meaning that they will continue to grow until weather, or something else, kills them. My tomatoes are about 5-7 feet tall each also. The sole reason Early Girl tomatoes are called "early girls" is because they set fruit earlier than most plants.(hence the word "early") In addition, Potatoes, eggplant, and tomatoes share similar features within their growing patterns, so it does make sense that you may see "potato leaves" on a tomato plant.

Hi Gail, Early Girl is a

Hi Gail,
Early Girl is a hybrid plant and most potato leaved plants are open-pollinated. I think you have something that was either mislabelled or is a mutant of some kind. Whatever it is it sounds very prolific!

Please I need help?! My

Please I need help?! My tomato plants are about 5-6 ft high and there blooms are falling off I do have green ones but I thought I would have a lot more blooming what's wrong? Again please help!!

Have you applied Bone Meal

Have you applied Bone Meal and Blood Meal? If not do so ASAP. There are other things but that is the first that comes to mind. Good luck.

Hi Julie, Blossom drop often

Hi Julie,
Blossom drop often occurs if they are not getting pollinated. It also happens if the temperatures are too high - over 90 or too low - under 55. Nutrient deficiencies can be a factor as can water - too much or too little - and other environmental stresses.

We are first time tomato

We are first time tomato growers, after years of our parents doing it. We have several german johnson and several purple cherokee plants. But that's all we have...plants! Lush and green with a few blooms, but no fruit! What, if anything, can we do? Thanks!

Hi Jennifer, It sounds like

Hi Jennifer,
It sounds like too much nitrogen. It will cause you to have a beautiful plant but not much fruit. 

Good tips--it never even

Good tips--it never even occurred to me to prune my tomatoes!

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