growing a better tomato, seed to harvest

tomato-collageIT’S TAX TIME THIS WEEK, THE DATE IN MY AREA to start tomatoes indoors from seed for their toasty-warm six-week headstart. As my friend Andrew says, might as well do something fun on April 15, something that pays you a return. For those just sowing now, a detailed refresher course on how…for those transplanting or doing it soon, all the other tips you’ll need to grow great tomatoes this year:

Start with dark green, stout transplants equally high and wide, preferably about 4 inches in each direction.  (My step-by-step for growing your own includes many tricks; you can also shop locally for seedlings or by mail.)

Plan to grow a mix of heirlooms and hybrids for a little insurance: Heirlooms are beautiful, delicious and a critical part of our genetic heritage, but sometimes they lack the disease-resistance (often labeled VFN) of hybrids. I like to mix it up.

Remember that even with hybrids rated as having VFN resistance, the word “resistance” is the operative phrase. It means less-susceptible, not immune. There is no substitute for good cultural practices, whatever variety you begin with.

Identify a full-sun spot outdoors where your tomatoes will grow. Now pick another such spot, and preferably a third. You will need more than one area for tomatoes, since crop rotation is one of the key lines of defense against tomato various diseases that can overwinter in the soil. (No other Solanaceous cousins, no potatoes, eggplants, peppers or tomatillos, can go there in the off years, either.)

While your transplants shape up, prepare the soil: Start with a soil test, or at least a simple pH test. Tomatoes like a pH of about 6.5 (6.0-6.5 or so is fine). In acidic soils like mine, the addition of lime is recommended, at the rate of 5-10 pounds per 100 square feet worked into the top 6 or so inches.

High-quality finished compost is the best amendment you can add to support great tomatoes. Work in a 2-to-3-inch layer each year.

An all-natural organic fertilizer that’s balanced or has a slightly higher middle number (not one high in Nitrogen) can also be incorporated according to package directions.

Decide how you will support the plants, to keep them up off the ground, for best health.

Staked plants will ripen faster crops of generally larger fruit. Stakes must be at least 1 inch thick and 6 feet high, inserted a foot into the ground.  Remember: Staked plants require a commitment to ongoing pruning, keeping the plant to one or two main stems of vine-like, not bush, habit. All small suckers that develop in the crotches between the leaves and the main stem must be removed. I do not have the energy for this, so I cage my plants, but here’s the encyclopedia of tomato-pruning if you wish to stake (or trellis) and prune.

Caged plants are easier to care for, and in the longterm may produce heavier yields (because they have more branches and stems). I bought myself a set of lifetime cages that also fold; you can make excellent cages from concrete reinforcing wire (6 feet of it makes a 22-inch cage). Stabilize each cage with a stake and twist-ties, unless the cage has inground legs.

Another advantage of cages: You can use them as mini-greenhouses should late or early frosts come, by having clamps and reusable pieces of clear, heavy plastic cut to wrap each cage. Some expert growers always put the plastic on in the first weeks to reduce negative effects of wind on young plants.

Harden off your transplants over the last week in your indoor care with daily trips outside to enjoy a taste of what’s to come, returning them to a protected place at night.

After all danger of frost is past, it’s planting time. Hurrying doesn’t help, and it can hurt.

Plant deep, at least to the level of the original seed leaves, or even to the topmost couple of pairs of leaves. (More on how, and how deep, here.) Water in well, applying first of two doses of liquid feed; see below under “Douse each plant’s root zone,” for details.

Space plants at least 2 feet apart in each direction; 3 or more would be much better, as air circulation is another disease-preventive tactic. Caged plants need wider spacing than staked, and indeterminate varieties more than some determinate; plan accordingly.

High-quality woven polypropylene landscape fabric, such as is used on greenhouse floors, is an excellent, porous, weed-preventive measure. It can be reused for many years. Staple it to the ground with earth staples.

On top of that, a layer of clean straw or some other organic mulch will further reduce splashing of spores and other woes up from the soil onto the plants.

Snip off any flowerbuds that set until the plant is settled in and growing strong, after it reaches perhaps a foot tall or so.

Tomatoes will rely on you to team up with the heavens and provide consistent moisture, consistent being key here. Ideal is the equivalent of an inch of water throughout the entire growing area; half again as much in the heat of summer. Remember: an inch of rain (which is what you are simulating) is a lot of rain, and takes a long time to apply. Use soaker hoses or a drip system, not the end of a hose. If you must use a sprinkler, use it in the morning, so that foliage can dry by day, and don’t work in the garden while the foliage is damp.

Douse each plant’s root zone with a liquid feed twice during the growing season. Some growers swear by doing this at transplant time and again when the first flowers appear; others say transplant and first fruit. Just remember to do it while they are in their run-up to adulthood and you will be fine. Powdered seaweed fertilizer or fish emulsion diluted in water according to label directions are two non-chemical possibilities.

Be vigilant about watching for tomato hornworms and their telltale droppings or first signs of their chewing damage. The droppings are easier to see than the green caterpillars, who normally start their eating at the tops of plants. Pick them off and destroy them.

Sometimes, despite all this love, tomatoes fail to set fruit. Assuming you did not give the plant too much Nitrogen, it may be weather-related: Nighttime temperatures that remain above 70 or temperatures below 50ish interfere with pollination. Fruit set can also be hampered by over-feeding with Nitrogen or by irregular watering.

And then there are the other tomato mysteries: cracked fruit, green shoulders on fruit, black spots on one end or the other. Here’s the scoop on what might ail you later this growing season (though the chances are greatly reduced if you followed all the tips above).

And one more thing: Please, don’t grow your tomatoes upside-down, as is the fashion started by at least one recent gimmick product. Yes, they’ll grow if you follow the instructions, but why would you bother, why spend the money? The tomato experts at Rutgers agree with me on this one, by the way. I think there’s enough upside-down in the world without us adding to the dizzying picture, no?

  1. Maureen says:

    Hello, I wish I would have read your comment concerning the new “Upside Down” tomato gadget. I bought one and put two tomato plants in as per instructions. It’s been a month and some leaves look yellow and others look very dark green and the plants just don’t seem to be growing. Although, I do see a few blossoms beginning. I guess I’ll just wait and see if I get any tomatoes. Thanks for your tips.

  2. Maureen says:

    Margaret, How often should you fertilize your zucchini, broccoli, cucumber and lettuce plants? I started all of these from seeds indoors. I put miracle grow on once so far in May when I transplanted outdoors. Thanks

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Maureen. I prep the soil well before planting like this (lots of compost and an all-natural organic fertilizer made of meals and manures). I don’t use chemical liquids (or other chemical fertilizers), but prefer to provide a good rich soil. So I think if you are going that route you should follow package directions…and this fall and again next spring think about starting to build up the soil and skip the chemical stuff next year. See you soon again I hope.

  3. Paulette says:

    Has anyone ever had good tomatoes that have been grown in Florida?? I seem to have no luck. Hints to good growing in very warm climates appreciated…

    1. margaret says:

      @Paulette: If I remember correctly, Tomato Growers Supply Company (an online seed source for many years) is in Fort Myers, Florida…and they say they pre-trial everything they sell. I’d start there and call their customer service department with your inquiry. Nothing like first-hand info!

  4. karen fredenburg says:

    re: the upside-down tomato planter–what a pain! i planted one this spring. first, try to stick a seedling through the hole and then put the stem into a half-split stiff foam circle without breaking the stem. then once you’ve hung the planter from a hook, try to fill it with potting soil–mixing in some fertilizer “evenly” as you fill. meanwhile the planter is swinging around and the unside-down seedling is in danger of being broken off. then the directions fail to tell you that a solid plastic ring must be fitted on the top of the planter, which cannot be done without detaching the planter from the line it’s tied to! scream to a family member to come and help you, assuming there is someone home. haul the assembled planter up and secure the line. then water the soil through a small hole in the top, for twenty minutes with a dripping water source (a hose). then keep the plant watered which, as someone noted, means water drips down on the plant itself. i can’t wait to see how this all goes over the summer. (i planted tomatoes in traditional ways, as insurance!)

    1. Margaret says:

      @Karen: Exactly. MUCH easier to plant things in harmony with gravity and without all the contraptions. Thanks.

  5. Pam says:

    I was wondering if any body has the right info on keeping deer away from my potted tomatoes. This is my first year of growing my own, I didnt realize the plants would grow as large as they did. I placed them on a small space upstairs to begin with and had to move them down stairs where we get deer. These are hierlooms and one plant has about three small tomatoes and the other has none. They appear to be very healthy, no bugs or holes in the leaves. I hope I can keep them growing like this, I live in the SF bay area so weather is great for growing. But afraid of the deer. Please help.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Pam. Your best and “organic” or food-safe tactic will be to protect them with some kind of physical barrier, so the deer cannot get close enough: a fence built of stakes and mesh, for instance. I reuse rolls of heavy mesh and tall poles for extra protection as needed in areas outside my fence, to create temporary barriers to browsing. There are sprays and such, but ugh, why not avoid all that? And this is cheaper in the long run, as you can re-use it year after year. You might even have screening or something on had that you can recycle into the barrier?

  6. Nancy says:

    Tomatoe seed drying-from great plants- What is the process for saving and drying your seeds for next year?
    I saw it somewhere and cannot find it.
    Thank you so much for any help before these tomatoes are gone.


    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Nancy. The person who’s the real expert and an old friend, Amy Goldman, can tell you the best directions of all. Visit her seed-saving instructions page. She’s the queen of heirloom tomatoes (which are the only ones you can save reliably). Hope to see you again soon.

  7. Lyn says:

    Spider Mites, Yuk! I live in Texas and this year I had to fight spider mites on my tomatoes. Does anyone have an organic way to prevent them? Interesting side note. this year after hurricane Ike Galveston, TX has tomatoes growing everywhere and they are producing fruit. They are growing in flower beds, yards, vacant lots ect. Some think the seeds must have blown in from Cuba when the hurricane hit Galveston.
    I will appreciate any advice on preventing spider mites.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Lynn. Water-stressed plants and dusty areas will be most susceptible to mite infestation, so keep an eye on watering. Also, spraying the infested plants with water from the hose-end sprayer, or misting thoroughly with horticultural soap or oil or both may help. Use of pesticides to control other insects (which I never do anyhow) often kills off the natural predators of mites, so that’s another reason nt to use chemicals. Hope to see you soon again.

  8. Ron says:

    I’m against cats in the house and garden and fishin in the rain. Slices of cucumber in an aluminum pan supposedly repulse pests. My slugs seem to feast on the offering. Comment?

  9. Joye says:

    I love your website. just wanted to let you know that after 55 years of planting Tomatoe’s Last year was the best. I put dryed banana peals broken up in the bottom of each one and they were the bigest ones ever. one slice fit on a sandwish. so I am ready for this year crop.

    1. Margaret says:

      Thanks, Joye, and welcome! Hilarious about the banana peels. You never know what the secret is until you try everything. :)

  10. Charlene Quint says:

    My first visit to your very interesting site. I am on my fourth year using the Self Watering planters from Gardeners Supply, They are wonderful. I even converted some of my pots to self watering. I believe they are more reasonable then the earth boxes. I highly recommend Gardener’s Supply for all there products. Thought I would just past this on to you.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Charlene. I have not tried the self-waterers or earth boxes, but I do use other products from GS and they are in my Resources list, yes. Thanks for the tip on the planters, and hope to see you again soon.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Rachel. I like something the size of a whiskey barrel, and then there’s room for a basil plant and some parsley, too. Almost a whole recipe for tomato sauce!

  11. Rachel S says:

    I have to disagree with not growing tomatoes upside down. I found that I had alot of luck growing cherry tomatoes last summer with one of those planters. It helped me save space, it was easy to maintain and the fruit were delicious. It was a Mother’s Day gift last year so it didn’t cost anything.

    Why wouldn’t you recommend growing with it?

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Rachel. I hate gimmicks, I suppose, and especially more plastic things we have to buy to do some project or other. It’s easy to end up with a garage full of them. :) I am glad it worked for you and that the space-saving aspect was good.

  12. theresa says:

    Dear Margaret,
    I am sending this note with appreciation for all I am learning from your site and to tell you my Hydrangeas are actually coming in beautifully ! I have a tomato plant
    which I purchased that has developed rot and split open on the bottom, not pretty ….
    I wonder if it is too late to spray the foliage with a calcium spray recommended for
    disfigured tomatoes /bottom rot etc. please advise . I do have cherry tomatoes which seem to be doing nicely . Thank you so much .

  13. Iliana Okum says:

    Hello Margaret,

    I look forward to this very helpful site and the may wonderful photos of your garden.
    You inspire me to do more in my garden.

    Thanks for all the references for how to handle the many pests and diseases that attack tomatoes—who knew it could get so complicated. My tomatoes are okay—still waiting for most to ripen. The first one did have a spot–the rest look pretty good right now.

  14. ellen says:

    Re “Identify a full-sun spot outdoors where your tomatoes will grow. Now pick another such spot, and preferably a third.” – Does that mean 3 separate places in the same year?
    Also, I have read its imperative to plant tomatoes 50 ft from the drip line of any black walnut trees, due to jugalan toxicity.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Ellen. It means you need three such spots because they need to be rotated (not planted in the same space) again for three years. Yes, you are also right about black walnuts, which are allelopathic for some crops including tomatoes, I believe.

  15. Paula Howard says:

    I am a first time vegetable grower. I have started tomato seedlings and they are about ready to be transplanted. I plan on using large white buckets (empty joint compound containers) for lack of a planting area in my yard. I will be drilling holes in the bottom of the containers and adding cleaned pebbles in the bottom for draining. Assuming this would be alright, should I put more than one plant in the bucket? What other information should I have? I have Burpee Tomato (Rainbow Heirloom mix) seeds. Paula Howard

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Paula. No, one plant per pot maximum in the case of that size bucket, and put LOTS of holes in the bottom (or a few large ones with screen over them to keep the soil in) for very good drainage. The pebbles are not as important to my mind as the holes, and you don’t want to reduce soil volume for the root system to enjoy, so a little pebbles are fine but not lots. You will need some kind of support in each pot — a wire cage, a stake, something to support the plants, which will be all different sizes and habits because it’s a mix of varieties (and I don’t know which are in it).

  16. Nell Jean says:

    Can we further clarify the 3 spots issue? On the off seasons, the other two spots where tomatoes are not growing, plants like peas and marigolds should be growing. Margaret can explain the technical aspects better than I. We have root-knot nematodes in the deep south. Crop rotation is imperative unless you turn to containers, as I have.

    1. margaret says:

      Good point, Nell Jean — and each geographic area has its challenges, you’re not kidding. Legumes like peas or beans would be good for the following year, as you say, or maybe root crops after something like tomatoes, too, and then maybe a leafy one after that. I think it makes good sense, sort of basic garden sanitation not to let anything build up, but I have fewer and fewer ideal full-sun spots to rotate through as the trees and shrubs here cast more shade now that they are old!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, George. Aren’t you in a hot, dry zone? It’s hardy in USDA Zones 3-8 and I think it can sulk in the hot/dry end of the range or warmer. Not sure where you are located exactly.

  17. Nancy says:

    Thank you for all the information! In the past I have had good tomatoes through simple dumb luck and am now trying to learn how to do it right. Several basic questions: When you say an inch of water (rain) through the growing season, I don’t understand what this means. Last year I put in a drip system and ended up giving each tomato 3 gallons of water every other day–under black plastic. How do the two measurements relate?
    I live in northern Montana. My vegtables grow in 2′ tall, 4×8 raised beds. Last year I had a PH of 6.5, this year they all tested at 7.5 with very low nitrogen, medium phosphorus and low potash. After reading a lot, my plan is to add sphagnum moss to lower the PH as much as possible now, add sulfur that will break down over the warm months with the microbes in the soil and slowly change the PH (I read that it doesn’t break down during the winter), add blood meal to increase the nitrogen as quickly as possible now, add Camelia-Azalea-Rhododendron fertilizer for slow release nitrogen and other macro and micronutrients. Is this a good idea? Am I overdoing the nitrogen while worrying about not having enough? Would a fish eulsion soak be good, bad or ugly on top of this. Last year I have the tomatoes alfalfa meal and the fish emulsion.
    The polypropelene fabric takes care of weeds. Does it also help stop the transfer of bacteria, etc. up to the plants?
    Thank you for your help! Nancy

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Nancy. So many variables in this equation — the soil type (clayey or sandy etc.), how much surface area you are covering, and so on. I think the easiest way to explain is that you want to soak the root zone thoroughly, and when an inch of water is applied (such as from rain or sprinklers, assuming it doesn’t come in 20 tiny outbursts through the week but one or two good soakings) the soil will be moistened down a few inches or so (again: depends what kind of soil, how deep the water will penetrate).

      There are complex calculations on the math between inches of water over what surface area and their gallon equivalent (see what I mean in this Arizona Extension bulletin pdf), but rather than all that, what about just using your fingers/hand to reach into the soil around each plant and see whether it’s well-moistened in its root zone? I don’t grow under plastic because I think it interferes with soil health (and makes figuring out whether the soil is in in need of more water even harder as you can’t see or feel it). I sometimes use it to pre-warm an area before planting, but remove it after

      As for all the amendments, you really need to connect with your local Extension in your county and get help with that before applying tons of things. I do NOT recommend peat moss, which is a non-renewable resource that is in short supply because of over-harvesting, and also a poor substitute for good compost. The more compost you can add the happier your plants will be, and the better your soil can utilize nutrients and moisture.

  18. Nancy says:

    Thank you, Margaret, for the information. I need to learn how to and start composting. This is the year to do it and I’ll start with the sources you listed on the March 1 post.

  19. Alex says:

    Thank you for this! I am attempting my first ever vegetable garden this year and I am overwhelmed to say the least about what to plant and where. Great website!

    1. margaret says:

      You are welcome, Alex — and hello! Nice of you to say hello. The what goes where is hard, and even now after so many years I fail to control myself and run out of room, so don’t be hard on yourself! :)

  20. Nixus00 says:

    What a great post! very thorough as well. I would like to add maybe one or two additional ideas to help your readers out:

    Companion planting is a great safeguard for growing an excellent crop. Might I suggest coupling your tomatoes with Marigolds and Basil. I’ve actually written an article on my site that deals exclusively with companion planting and its’ many benefits. If you’re interested, here’s the link:


    It goes into explaining the uses of Basil and Marigolds as companions for the tomato, as well as a few other examples. I hope this helps. Have a great weekend. I’ll check out the site again sometime soon!

  21. Dan Gallagher says:

    As far as Upside-Down tomatoes, I had very good success in 2010 as an experiment for condo/apartment gardening with a second floor balcony as a way to save space and have a home grown tomato. I called mine, Uplanders Downunder and they can be grown and quite productive. Too productive in my case, 5 gallon buckets had plastic handles that couldn’t handle the August production. Had to fabricate on the fly, make shift wire handles to finish the season. It is a method that can be used but I would recommend a soilless mix, similar to a Mel’s Mix and cherry tomato or small slicing varieties. Is it for everyone no, better production right side up but is a space saving technique or method that takes more care and diligence but I believe, worth a try to some gardeners.

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