We have a love affair with growing tomatoes. That first taste of a perfectly ripe, fresh off the vine, sun-warmed tomato is pure awesomeness!
We'll take you through growing tomatoes from planting to harvest without chemicals, plus companion plants and organic fertilizer tips to give you tons of tomatoes.
- Growing Tomatoes – From Planting to Harvest
- Choosing the Right Tomato Seedlings
- Where to Grow Tomatoes
- How Close Together Can I Plant Tomatoes?
- Plant deep after risk of frost is past.
- Mulching Tomatoes
- Tomato Trellises and Supports
- Best Companion Plants for Tomatoes
- How Much Water do you need to Grow Tomatoes?
- Dealing with Pests and Diseases while Growing Tomatoes
- Harvesting and Storing Tomatoes
- Pruning Tomato Suckers
- Tomato Fertilizers
Growing Tomatoes – From Planting to Harvest
If you're starting tomato seeds, please see “Grow Tomatoes from Seed” for tips to produce healthy seedlings ready for the garden.
When you're ready to plant tomatoes in the garden (or a container), here are the main steps from planting to harvest.
- Start with healthy young plants.
- Choose a growing location with full sun (at least 6 hours of sun) and a soil pH between 6.2 and 6.8.
- If soil is cold, heat it up by covering with landscape fabric or black plastic mulch. Soil temp should be at least 60F (15.5C) in the daytime.
- Amend the garden soil in the planting hole with organic matter and calcium.
- Plant tomato seedling deep after risk of frost is past. Tomatoes will grow a new root system from the buried stem.
- Mulch plants to maintain even soil moisture, prevent diseases, and keep fruit clean.
- Install a trellis, stake or cage to provide support for the plant.
- Add tomato companion plants to help with pests and diseases, and improve pollination.
- Water regularly and deeply at ground level, about 1 inch per week.
- As the plant gets larger, remove the bottom leaves.
- Harvest ripe tomatoes and store at room temperature.
Choosing the Right Tomato Seedlings
Avoid big plants in tiny pots, and tall, floppy plants. They are probably root bound (too many roots in not enough space). This causes stress to the plant.
There are two main types of tomatoes (based on how they grow).
Determinate tomato varieties grow to a certain size and stop, and tend to ripen all their fruit around the same time.
Indeterminate tomatoes (most heirlooms) will keep growing until frost and ripen fruits over a longer time period. Mine easily reach 6 feet tall. (See tomato supports below.)
Where to Grow Tomatoes
Tomatoes prefer full sun (at least 6 hours), although plants in extremely warm areas may benefit from some afternoon shade.
Frost kills tomatoes, so don't try growing tomatoes too early. If soil is cold, use landscape fabric or plastic to cover it and warm it up.
Tomatoes like warm weather, so northern growers can improve growth by creating a microclimate for their plants.
Block excess wind from your plants. Use a wall-o-water, or create you own heat trapping wall with old vinegar jugs filled with water.
How Close Together Can I Plant Tomatoes?
If you train your tomatoes to a single main stem up a string trellis, you can plant as close as 15″ apart (37.5 cm). When using other supports or cages, plant 2 feet (60cm) apart. Give unsupported indeterminate tomatoes 3 feet (90cm) between plants.
Plant deep after risk of frost is past.
Prepare a planting hole or trench that is deep enough to bury two-thirds of the tomato stem. Soil temp should be at least 60F in the daytime and 50F at night before planting tomatoes.
Tomato plants grow new roots from the buried stem. Less plant above ground also means less chance of wind damage.
In your planting hole, add:
- a scoop of compost or rotten manure
- a handful of crushed eggshells or 1/4 cup diatomaceous earth for calcium
Loosen any tangled roots as you gently remove the seedling from its pot. Set the seedling in, cover with dirt, and water well.
We lay down wet newspaper and cover it with straw after the tomato plants are well established. Don't mulch with straw until you are sure your soil is warm.
If it's a cold year, I'll put down black landscape fabric over the straw. I get cleaner tomatoes, more even soil temperature and moisture, and very few weeds. Some folks use black or red plastic mulch for soil warmth.
Tomato Trellises and Supports
Put up a trellis or tomato cage when you first plant your tomatoes, to avoid root damage later on. Make sure whatever you use is well secured. High winds can destroy a tomato patch.
A trellis lets more light and air get to the tomato plants, and makes fruit easier to harvest.
You can read about my system, as well as several other trellis options, in the post “5+ Terrific Tomato Trellis Ideas for Easier Picking and Cleaner Tomatoes“.
Best Companion Plants for Tomatoes
For tomato companion plants, the book Great Garden Companions:
- Queen Anne's Lace
- Any tall Aster family flower
The Vegetable Gardener's Bible recommends:
- bush beans
- cabbage family
- head lettuce
- pot marigold as good companions
They suggest avoiding planting pole beans, dill, fennel and potatoes near tomatoes.
I plant my companions at the end of tomato rows. Planting them next to every plant makes harvest awkward.
Experiment! See what works best in your garden!
How Much Water do you need to Grow Tomatoes?
Tomatoes need about an inch of rain water or equivalent per week. If rains fail, watering plants at ground level is best. Overhead sprinklers may spread fungal diseases.
Lack of water, too much water or irregular watering can cause blossom end rot and cracking.
For more on blossom end rot, check out “7 Steps to Stop Blossom End Rot & Get Rid of Black Bottomed Tomatoes“.
Dealing with Pests and Diseases while Growing Tomatoes
I believe a good offense makes the best defense in the garden. When you are growing tomatoes that are not stressed, pest and disease problems are small.
Many fungal diseases spread up from the soil, so if you remove the bottom leaves of plants, it slows the spread. Mulch also helps to prevent disease spread from the soil.
If tomato hornworms or pecking birds are a problem, try a floating row cover to keep them out. Tomatoes are self-pollinating, so they can still set fruit, but keeping bees out may mean a smaller harvest.
See “Tomato Flowers But No Fruit” for tips to improve fruit set.
Harvesting and Storing Tomatoes
Once your tomatoes turn red (or their expected color), remove them from the vine and enjoy.
Store tomatoes at room temperature, as refrigeration makes them bland and mealy.
Don't rip or tear the stems when picking – this stresses the plant and opens the path for disease and insect damage. Most tomatoes will have a little knob in their stems, about 1/4 to 1/2 inch above the tomato, where the stem will snap easily in two, releasing the tomato from the plant.
I don't remove the stem until I'm ready to use the tomato, because sometimes pulling the stem off leaves a big hole.
If you're growing tomatoes and they aren't turning red, see”4 Reasons Your Tomatoes Aren't Ripening“.
For those who want to collect seeds from their tomatoes for next year's garden, see “How to Save Tomato Seeds“.
Pruning Tomato Suckers
I don't know how many texts I've read that say pinch all your tomato suckers because they don't produce fruit. This is incorrect.
Now I prune to manage growth and train the plants, and don't worry about suckers.
The Natural Food Garden recommends bone meal or rock phosphate in your planting hole to boost fruit production. They also recommend top dressing the plants with several inches of well aged manure midway through the season.
For more information on compost tea, check out The Field Guide II for Actively Aerated Compost Tea.
Biochar dosed with fertilizer helps create long lasting soil fertility.
Music really can help plant grow. Pipe in some classical music while you're working in the garden (before 10 am is best).
See the article “Music for Plants” for more information.
Comments and questions are always welcome. Don't forget to take a peek at our other Gardening articles.
Originally published March 2014, last updated May 2020.