Tomatoes are often the very first vegetable most gardeners try to grow, and who can blame them—there’s nothing like the taste of a freshly grown, ripe tomato from your own garden. While there can be challenges, overall, tomatoes are a pretty easy plant to grow—they’re a good (and tasty!) choice for new gardeners of all ages, and an ongoing favourite for more seasoned gardeners. In this post I’ll discuss some of the general rules for growing tomatoes and then demonstrate exactly how you plant a tomato plant.
Rules for Growing Tomatoes
Tomatoes do have some specific needs though, and the first is a spot to grow that gets at least 6 hours of direct sun. This is a plant that likes heat and sun—the more the better (as long as it’s well hydrated). If you have a shady yard, tomatoes are not the plant for you.
Tomatoes are heavy feeders, and like a good rich soil. This means feeding your beds or pots with compost or manure. You can also supplement with a liquid fertilizer during the growing season, but be careful with any that are high in nitrogen—they promote leaf growth and what you want is fruit. Plants grown in pots will almost certainly need supplemental fertilizer during the growing season.
Many varieties of tomato grow quite large, so you need to allow enough space for the plant and the roots to spread out. Tomatoes can be grown in a pot but make sure that the pot is big enough to support the plant’s root system and is heavy enough (pot and soil) that it won’t blow over in the wind. Good air circulation for the plant itself is important for preventing diseases, so make sure you space the plants out adequately (i.e. allow enough space between plants so that when they’re fully grown they aren’t touching each other, or at least aren’t touching each other much. I’ve had success growing plants a foot or so away from each other in rows, but then made sure that there was a lot of distance between the rows to allow for air circulation).
Tomato plants need to be watered well (i.e. thoroughly and only when needed) just like other plants. Read this article for my tips on how to do that.
Tomatoes can grow to the height of a tree (depending on the variety) but don’t have a thick enough trunk to support themselves. Read this article for tips on how to support tomato plants.
And, to keep them manageable and to increase fruit production, most varieties benefit from being pruned. Read this article for instructions on how to prune tomato plants.
How to Plant a Tomato Plant
I highly recommend that new gardeners not plant tomato seeds (which, by the way, needs to be done indoors, well in advance of warm enough weather to put a tomato plant outdoors). There are all sorts of things that can go wrong with seedlings and it’s easy and not that expensive to buy some seedlings that a professional or fellow gardener has already grown and hardened off. Once you get the hang of growing tomatoes outside then it is fun to grow your own from seed, but that’s a whole other process. This post is focused on how to plant a hardened off tomato seedling.
So, find a good spot to grow your tomato (minimum of 6 hours of direct sunlight, enough space, good rich soil), and dig a hole. The depth of the hole depends on the size of your baby tomato plant. If you’ve bought plants cell packs (those black plastic containers that hold four or six plants) they’ll be smaller than ones grown in 4″ pots like the one in my example. Either is fine, but read through the rest of the instructions and then judge for yourself how deep of a hole you need to dig:
If you like, you can add whatever magic potion you prefer to the bottom of the planting hole. Some gardeners swear by a spoonful of powdered milk (tried it and didn’t see any difference), a banana peel (I don’t see the point), chicken poop fertilizer (might be good if mixed well into the soil so it doesn’t burn the roots), and other ingredients. My method is to add a spoonful of an organic fertilizer called Spanish River Carbonatite and mix it in with the soil—it’s supposed to improve yield, nutrients, and boost the sugar content of the tomatoes, making them even tastier.
Get a nice healthy tomato seedling (aka baby tomato plant) and pop it out of the pot. If the roots are all wound around each other (what we call being “potbound”) gently rip them apart a little bit so that they spread out instead of going in a circle. The roots on my demonstration plant aren’t potbound so I would not disturb them.
Place the plant in the bottom of the planting hole. Now, tomatoes are a pretty interesting plant in that all of the little nubs on the stem will actually sprout into roots if they’re placed below ground (this is not the case with a lot of other plants—they’ll just rot).
I bury my tomatoes deeply in order to get more roots established. If your tomato seedlings are leggy (i.e. they weren’t grown with enough direct light and have long flimsy stems) it’s especially important that you plant them deeply. You can actually even lay them down in a horizontal trench (instead of a vertical hole) with just the top set or two of leaves sticking out, and they’ll still grow.
There are two schools of thought about the leaves that are below ground. Some gardeners say that you should remove the leaves before backfilling the hole with soil so that they don’t rot. Other gardeners say not to, as the wound where you pinch off the leaf is open, and could get infected or rot. I fall into the do not remove the leaves below ground camp—it’s what I’ve done for as long as I can remember and it doesn’t seem to have a caused any problems.
The next step is to backfill the hole with soil and press it in so that your baby tomato plant is nice and secure.
Water the plant well. Congratulations, you’ve planted a tomato!
I like to install plant supports at this stage, even though the plants don’t yet need them, and also lay down a layer of straw mulch. The mulch helps keep bacteria from splashing up on the plant when it rains or when you water it—splashing bacteria is one of the common ways that tomato diseases spread, so it’s wise to do what you can to prevent it. And of course, you’ll want to label the plant so that later in the summer you’ll know what the variety it is.