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How to Grow & Care for Tomatoes

Updated on April 5, 2018
Diane Lockridge profile image

Lockridge is an avid reader who enjoys learning about beautiful garden plants. Among other things, she has worked with a florist.

Potted tomato plants are a fairly commonly item sold in grocery stores, nurseries and home centers alike. Their prevalence is likely do to several things, their inexpensiveness, successful harvesting, and the fact that a summer salad just isn’t complete without a tomato (or two).

Visit The Old Farmer’s Almanac for a specific list of dates of when to start planting seeds indoors, and when the plants can be set outside, based on your location.

How to Grow from Seed

Moisten seed-starting mix, and place it in the selected container.

Set two or three seeds in container.

Cover the seeds with additional moistened soil. Press the soil down lightly, to ensure good contact between the seed and soil.

Cover the seeds with a plastic sheeting (or a greenhouse top) to help retain moisture.

Place planted seed pots in a warm location until you see sprouts. Once the seeds have sprouted, remove the covering and move the pots to a sunny location or under grow lights.

Water the soil until it is moist but not saturated.

Thin out the seedlings (so you are down to only one seedling per pot) by cutting back the unwanted seedling to the soil line. Select the largest or healthiest seedling.

Fertilize once the second set of “true leaves” appears about twice a week.

Transplant small plants to larger pots before placing them outdoors, but don’t allow the roots to grow too much and become “pot bound”.

Acclimate your young plants to the outdoors gradually over a several days. Set the plants outdoors in an area protected from the wind, with filtered sunlight. Increase the amount of time per day, starting with a few hours on the first day, to overnight before putting the plant in the soil.

Transplant plants outdoors once the seedlings are at least 3 inches tall, and all threat of frost is past. Nighttime temps should be consistently over 50 degrees F.

Expect to harvest mature tomatoes in about 8 weeks.

How to Plant Tomatoes Outdoors

Select a location that will receive at least 8 hours of direct sunlight, and that has the proper soil qualities. Tomatoes prefer slightly acidic soil.

Prepare the soil by tilling down at least 8 inches.

Add 2 to 3 inches of compost or organic material to the soil, and mix it together with the original soil.

Create a low, broad mound with the soil about 4 feet wide.

Dig a hole that is a few inches deeper than the depth of your seedling. Space seedlings out according to package recommendations; although the distance may seem ridiculous, it is intended to provide ample space between mature plants.

Remove the seedling from the pot, loosen roots gently, and plant the seedling into the soil mound so that only the highest leaves are above the soil line.

Press soil firmly around the seedling.

Water in the new plant to a depth of two inches.

Fertilize soil, and add a layer of compost or straw to keep moisture levels high, and weeds at a bay.

Water plants as the soil dries out.

Supporting Growing Tomato Plants

Tomato plants are susceptible to breaking if not properly supported. The type of support your plant will need depends upon the type of plant you have. For example, determinate varieties tend to grow neatly and compact, whereas indeterminate varieties tend to sprawl out. Consult your seed packet or product packaging for specifics.

Stakes

For small plants, insert a 1x1 inch stake about 7 inches into the ground near the base of the plant. For larger plants insert a 2x2 inch stake.

Trellises

Create your own trellis by lining up stakes. For smaller varieties, use 1x1 inch stakes spaced 4 to 6 feet apart; run a length of twine spaced every 6 inches. For larger varieties use a 2x2 inch steak spaced 6 to 8 feet apart; run a length of twine spaced 12 inches apart.

Gently tie the stems to the stakes as the plant grows. Since new growth is very tender, use something soft, such as fabric or nylons or garden twine. Attach the growth to the stake just above flower clusters, as the flowers and fruit may become damaged.

Cages

Small bushy determinate tomato plants thrive in store-bought tomato cages, which are shaped like a cyclone. Set the cage over the plant within 10 days of planting the tomato outside. Push the cage down until the bottom ring is near the soil line.

Picking Tomatoes from the Vine

Ripe tomatoes will be slightly soft and very red with a possibly some yellow remaining around the stem.

If a tomato falls from the vine before it is fully ripe, place it in a paper bag (with the stem attached, if possible) in a cool, dark place. Don’t place the tomato on the windowsill, as it may rot.

Avoid refrigerating fresh tomatoes, as it may spoil that “fresh from the garden” taste and texture.

Considerations/ Tips

Although this article recommends using seed-starting trays, any small container with drainage holes will do, including common household items such as egg cartons or a yogurt container.

Rotate pots daily if growing them on a windowsill. Frequent rotation will allow the plants to grow upright, instead of pointed in the direction of the light.

As your tomato plant grows, it will develop “suckers” which sprout from side stems. While you may allow a few of the first few suckers to grow, you’ll need to prune off excess suckers to maintain the overall shape and health of the plant. Snap off the sucker with your fingers, right where the sucker and the main stem meet

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