Tomatoes are a staple of many summer gardens, but are often seen as a fairly challenging plant to grow. While they do require a good amount of care, many people end up making them harder than they need to be by making small, easy to fix mistakes. With these 16 tomato growing secrets we hope to shed some light on the finer points of growing tomatoes and fix these problem areas many gardeners have. By learning these tips, you’ll be better equipped to grow tomatoes and have the knowledge to get the biggest harvest you’ve ever had.
1. Tomatoes Need Light
The first and most important thing to keep in mind when growing tomatoes is light. Tomatoes are light hungry, and if you want them to produce edible fruit you need to provide them with an abundance of it.
Look to get at least 8 hours of bright sunlight per day, but more is often better. It takes a lot of energy to produce big tomatoes, so you need to make sure your plant is getting enough of it. Lack of sunlight is one of the biggest reasons tomato plants fail.
If you’re growing indoors, you likely need to supplement with grow lights. Most grow lights don’t provide the same intensity as the sun, so look to get closer to 10 hours when using them. Otherwise, you risk a failed harvest of your plant.
If you only follow one of these tomato growing secrets make it this one. It’s the most important, and without enough light it won’t matter how great you care for your plant. It simply won’t have enough energy to properly grow.
2. Start With a Large Enough Container
If you’re growing indoors, you want to make sure that you use a large enough container to provide ample space for growth. We recommend at least a 12” container which provides a good amount of space for growth. It’s okay to plant a seedling in this large of a container, just make sure you’re getting enough water and nutrients near the plant.
If you’re growing directly into the ground this is still applicable. You want to choose a sunny area that has enough space for your plant to grow. Many gardeners try to plant their tomatoes in tight spots with lots of obstacles, and this can stifle root growth. Give your tomatoes lots of room to grow and breathe and you’ll be rewarded with healthy plants for it.
3. Keep The Soil Warm
Warm soil is also another big factor in tomato growth, especially in the early stages of growth. Tomatoes grow best in warm soil, so making sure the temperature is high enough before planting is essential.
Soil temperature is key at every point in a tomato plant’s life. From germination, to growing, to bearing fruit, having warm soil is going to help at every step. Cold soil will often lead to slowed growth, or no growth at all.
This also means that you need to be wary of how soon you plant your tomatoes if doing so outside. Planting too soon, before the temperature has time to warm up, can stunt your plant’s growth and lead to less than stellar results. In most places, late spring to early summer is the optimal time to plant outdoors. This gives the soil ample time to warm up after the winter months.
4. Start Them Indoors
If you want to start growing earlier than your climate would otherwise allow, starting your tomatoes indoors is a great option. This gives you more control over the initial environment when your plants are at their most fragile.
It also means you’ll already have partially grown tomatoes when you’re able to move them outdoors. That means you’ll be able to harvest that much sooner than if you waited.
When growing tomatoes indoors, you want to follow all the standard care guides. In particular, make sure your plants are getting enough sun and that their soil temperature remains high.
5. Give Them Space
You should always make sure that your tomato plants have adequate spacing between them. When growing in containers, you generally only want a single plant per container. If directly in the ground, give about 2-3 feet of spacing between each plant.
Without proper spacing tomatoes are more likely to succumb to disease brought on by poor air circulation. They also have a hard time getting enough nutrients as they have to compete with neighboring plants. Proper spacing is essential, and trying to grow too many tomatoes in a small space often leads to less, not more at harvest time. Remember that while the plant might appear to have enough room above ground the soil structure below is even larger.
6. Plant Them Deep
Planting tomato seedlings deep is another tomato growing secret that can help grow strong tomato plants. This is because a tomato will root all along any submerged part of the stem. Planting them deep gives them ample opportunity to grow lots of strong roots.
Generally, you want to plant a fresh seedling about 6-8” deep. This is applicable to both indoor and outdoor plants.
It’s also okay if you end up submerging some leaves towards the bottom of the stem. The tomato will actually end up growing roots all along the stem, so it ends up being beneficial. These roots then help the plant better take in moisture and nutrients from the soil, a key factor in big tomato growth.
7. Add a Layer Of Mulch
After planting, most gardeners will add a layer of mulch around their tomato plant. This helps lock in moisture, provides nutrients as it decomposes, and helps prevent certain types of common disease.
A layer of straw mulch is often recommended, but any sort of organic matter will do. You should look to do this regardless of where you grow your tomatoes. It’s just as applicable to ground grown ones as it is to container grown.
8. Stake Them Early
Staking your tomatoes early is essential to getting strong growth all season long. Not staking your plant makes them more susceptible to weather damage, and makes them an easier target for pests and disease.
It’s best to figure out how you’re going to stake them before planting. It’s much easier to set up some stakes or trellis early as once the plant starts to grow it becomes that much more difficult.
Having support for your tomato plant is essential for long term health, as well giving it something to help protect it from the weather. Stake your plants from the start and you’ll save yourself a lot of work down the road.
9. Don’t Walk On The Root Zone
Once you’ve planted your tomatoes, avoid walking too close to them where the roots grow. This “root zone” should be avoided by anything heavy enough to compress the soil, which includes you.
Tomatoes grow best when their roots are loose and able to grow freely. Everytime you walk on the soil it compresses a bit. Do this enough, and it will also compress the roots.
This can lead to problems with your tomatoes not being able to get enough nutrients or water. Keep the soil and roots loose by avoiding walking on the soil nearby.
10. Lots Of Water
During the peak of summer your tomato plant is going to need a lot of water. You’ll likely need to water it everyday, and sometimes multiple times per day.
You should make it a habit to check your tomato plant everyday and water as needed. It’s important to check the soil as you don’t want it to completely dry out. If the top inch of the soil is dry it’s a good time to give your plant some water.
Depending on the temperature, you can also mist the plant throughout the day to give it some extra hydration. This is a good idea on very hot days as this heat can stress your plants. Misting helps keep the plant hydrated without the risk of overwatering.
11. Keep Them Fed With Phosphorus Rich Fertilizer
While feeding is important for tomato growth, to get those big, red fruits you need to be doing so with a phosphorus rich fertilizer. Phosphorus helps encourage fruit growth and is often prioritized by tomato growers. That’s not to say the other nutrients aren’t important, but going a little heavy on the phosphorus can help lead to larger harvests.
There are a lot of commercial fertilizers on the market that will work, but our recommendation is to look for tomato specific fertilizers. These are generally balanced in a way that leads to healthy plant growth as well as large fruits. In any case, you’ll be feeding them a couple times over the growing season. Don’t neglect this step, proper nutrient intake is essential to a successful tomato harvest.
12. Companion Grow
Companion growing is the art of growing multiple plants close together that mutually benefit each other. Certain plants can help encourage growth in neighboring plants by helping to increase nutrient intake, control pests, and increase overall plant production.
The list of companion plants for tomatoes includes lots of herbs like basil, garlic, and parsley. These are generally plants that don’t compete for nutrients with the nutrient hungry tomato plant and won’t disrupt its growth. They also provide some protection against pests. Many pungent herbs will actually deter pests, which can help prevent pest and disease related issues on the nearby tomato plant.
13. Protect Them For Critters
Tomatoes are a favorite for a variety of larger wildlife like squirrels and deer. Protecting them from these critters is crucial, otherwise you may find a lack of fruit come harvest time.
Putting up chicken wire or similar obstacles is usually a fairly simple step to stop the majority of larger animals. There are also some commercial sprays available that are sold to keep squirrels and other animals away. These can work effectively, but often have to be reapplied to remain as a deterrent.
14. Keep an Eye Out For Pests
Like all plants, tomatoes are a target for certain bugs. This includes aphids, moths, and certain beetles, all of which see your tomato plant as a tasty snack.
The best way to prevent pest damage to your plant is to be diligent in watching your plants for signs of distress. There are lots of signs of pest problems like holes in the plant, slowed growth, or discolored leaves. If you notice any of these signs you should investigate further to see if bugs are the cause of the problem.
If you do discover pests have taken a liking to your plant, check out our guide for natural ways to get rid of them.
15. Encourage Beneficial Insects
Not all insects are bad however, some are essential to the growth of your tomato plant. Bees, as an example, don’t harm your plant and are actually beneficial to it.
Bess helps with pollination; as they visit your plant they naturally help to move the pollen around the flowers. This is what allows your plants to actually bear fruit.
Many gardeners will often have nearby flower gardens that are built to attract bees. This ensures that you have a healthy dose of pollinators visiting your garden, and that your tomato plants are properly pollinated to bear fruit.
16. Prune If You Like
There’s a lot of debate on whether pruning your tomatoes is necessary. Some will claim doing it often helps with growth, while others say you should do so sparingly if at all.
The truth is that, for a healthy plant, pruning is up to personal preference. You can absolutely prune it for aesthetic purposes, but it isn’t a requirement.
That said, you should definitely be pruning back any parts of your plant that are dying or have already died off. This helps prevent diseases and pests as these parts of the plant are often the weakest and most vulnerable. You can also prune back areas where you notice pests to help stop them spreading to the rest of the plant.
Tomato Growing Secrets
There’s a lot that goes into tomato gardening, and that’s part of the reason why it’s such a fun plant to grow. There’s something special about trying new things each year to see what effect it has on your plant’s growth. Hopefully these tomato growing secrets have taught you something and have given you something new to try this growing season.
If you grow tomatoes, we’d love to hear about them. Send us details of your grow, and which of these tips you put into practice.