Tomato Growing FAQs: Grow Your Own Delicious Tomatoes
One of the first articles on my blog was The Basics of Growing From Seed. In that article I wrote, “the experience of growing a sweet, luscious Summer tomato from seed is one I want everyone to have.” A homegrown tomato is truly a beautiful thing and I hope this FAQ article helps you grow your own tomatoes and put those lusicous gems on your table!
To begin, I’d like to say that there is nothing wrong with buying tomato seedlings from your local nursery BUT I highly encourage you to try growing tomatoes from seeds. There are literally thousands of varieties to choose from, including tasty heirlooms that can be hard to find at a nursery. Also, tomatoes grow easily from seed. I think you’ll be surprised how fun and rewarding it is to grow your own tomatoes from seed.
When should I start tomato seeds?
Tomatoes are a warm, hot weather vegetable, so plan to be harvesting your tomatoes in the Summer months, but you do have choices when it comes to when to start them. Most seed packets say to start your tomatoes INDOORS six weeks before your last frost date. This method will take extra energy—making a spot indoors, finding enough light for your seedlings, etc. but ultimately you’ll have tomatoes earlier in Summer. You can also start your tomatoes later as well (anywhere from March-May) but I recommend looking up planting charts for your garden zone. My fellow zone 10b gardeners, you can see my personal seed schedule if you are a blog subscriber. I started my tomatoes March 1st this year (2020).
Don’t know your garden zone? Read here→ What is your gardening zone?
It is important to use a seed starting mix that is specifcally made for starting seeds. You’ll have better germination rates and increase your chances of success. I discuss four different seed starting options HERE including our DIY Seed Starting mix.
When and How do you transplant tomatoes?
Every year you’ll carefully watch the weather to see when to plant out your tomatoes. The goal? Well, you want all danger of frost to have passed, soil temps around 60 degrees F, and ultimately no nights below 50 degrees F. Cold temperatures can stunt your seedlings which would defeat the purpose of starting your seeds early anyway. Make sure you harden off your seedlings when transitioning them from any indoor growing to outdoors, and get them adjusted to colder night temps. I made a sample, 10-Day Hardening Off Schedule just for you!
When transplanting tomatoes, your soil should already be prepped and healthy so you can just dig a hole and add your plant. You can read How To Amend Garden Beds Organically for more information on soil prep between seasons, but I highly encourage you to at least add some good compost—high quality compost is key if you want to grow your own tomatoes.
Important transplanting tip: Bury your tomato stems! This goes for all tomatoes, not just leggy seedlings. Tomatoes are able to grow roots right off their main stem, so if you bury the stem deeply—up to the first set of leaves—-it can promote a larger root system and stronger tomato stem. This is also extremely helpful for leggy tomato seedlings (which are discussed below). Now, some gardeners recommend burying 2/3 of the total tomato when transplanting (removing any necessary leaves) but I personally don’t do this.
Mycorrhizae for strong tomato roots!
In addition to compost, you might want to look into mycorrhizal fungi if you want to grow your own tomatoes. Mycorrhizae are fungi that form a realtionship with plant roots and help to create a larger network underground that will benefit the health of your plant. Personally, I add mycorrhizae by using a granular product that you sprinkle directly into the planting hole at transplant time. Get 15% off your mycorrhizae purchase from Plant Success Organics with my code: randi15
What are Determinate versus Indeterminate tomatoes?
To put it simply, these are two ways to describe the growth habit of tomatoes. Seed packets or product descriptions will typically list if a tomato variety is either determinate or indeterminate.
Determinate tomatoes grow to a determined size, and then produce all their fruit at once. They can still grow large, but tend to have more of a bush habit instead of a vine habit.
Indeterminate tomatoes can go crazy and will continue to grow and produce fruit until they are killed by frost. An easy way to remember it is that their lifespan is essential “not determined.”
There are benefits to both types of tomatoes. For instance, if you are growing in a smaller space, you might want to grow a determinate tomato (a lot of patio or container tomatoes are determinate), but indeterminate tomatoes can be vigorous producers that can potentially provide you with tomatoes all season long. I grow both, and mainly use the “determinate” and “indeterminate” designations simply as a guide as to how I should provide support for my tomato, and if I should plan to have another tomato seedling ready when my determinate stops producing.
Tips for Growing Tomatoes on a Patio?
It is completely possible to grow your own tomatoes on a patio—as long as it is sunny. Sorry, but tomatoes need sun to really grow and taste good! Choose the largest container you can comfortably fit in your space. A fabric grow pot (like this one) will work for patio growing and is budget friendly. Make sure it is food-safe (for growing edibles) and has drainage holes.
Purchase a good-quality potting mix, container mix, or raised bed soil.
Most pre-packaged mixes contain some sort of fertilizer or compost, but I would also sprinkle in some organic plant fertilizer and/or mycorrhizae in the planting hole (you can buy my favorite one HERE and use code: randi15 for 15% off).
I also have found that compost is highly beneficial. I would add enough compost in your container to be a little less than 1/3 the total volume. You can buy a bag of organic compost at most local nurseries, but if you can’t find it that’s okay too. Most container mixes already contain some compost.
Once you have healthy soil, transplant your tomato seedling. I recommend growing tomato varieties that are listed as “container” or “patio” varieties—most will be determinate as I discussed above. Here are some varieties that I have seen online for containers and small spaces:
And a whole page of Bush Tomatoes HERE.
Help! I have Leggy Tomato Seedlings!
When seedlings get “leggy” that means their stems are getting long because they are trying to reach light. My first move would be to get them more light. My second move would be to up-pot them to a larger container where you can bury the stems (remember the transplant tip above about burying tomato stems?). I’ve got a video below that shows how I up-pot my tomatoes.
Last quick tip: get them a light breeze—maybe a small portable fan, open a nearby window, or a cozy area outdoors during the day if it is warm enough. Providing a slight breeze will strengthen your seedling stems as I discuss in my Tips For Stronger Seedlings article.
Have you tried epsom salts on your tomatoes?
Yep! And I’m sad to report that I was not impressed with the results (or maybe I’m happy because that means less work!). Using epsom salts as a foliar spray or soil additive has been said to do so many things—increase fruit set, enhance plant vigor, improve flavor, and so much more. I’m sorry to report that I don’t think this is necessarily true. Epsom salt is magnesium sulfate, so the only time epsom salt might help your garden is if your soil is magnesium deficient. I’ve tried epsom salt as both a foliar spray AND watering into my soil with no significant increase in the health, production, or vigor of my plants. If your soil is healthy and balanced then adding more of anything isn’t necessary. As someone who typically wants to have a low-maintenance garden, I would focus on building healthy soil rather than using epsom salts.
What about burying a fish, eggshells, and aspirin in your tomato hole at planting time?
Have you heard about this? Yep! Another one of my garden experiments last year was testing out this theory I’ve heard about from other gardeners. Last Summer I buried a fish head, eggshell, and aspirin in the planting hole with tomatoes in one of my beds. Sadly, the resulting tomatoes were no more spectacular than all my other tomatoes. The idea is that the fish head breaks down and provides nitrogen and nutrients, the eggshell provides calcium to prevent blossom end rot, and the aspirin is supposed to help the tomato build immunity from diseases.
Again, I feel like a party pooper, but I think your time is better off spent focusing on building your soil health over time and even choosing tomato varieties that are known to perform well in your climate. Those two factors alone should be enough to get you fantastic tomatoes.
Should I prune my tomatoes?
These are really hard questions because there are lots of ways to grow tomatoes. So…I am just going to share what I have experienced and what I prefer.
I don’t prune my tomatoes. I’ve tried, but it never really gives me the results that I would need to change my mind. It is generally believed that you shouldn’t prune determinate tomatoes anyway because they only grow to a certain size, produce a set of fruit, and then they are done. I just have found that pruning tomatoes has not resulted in increased yields and so the time I would devote to it could be utilized elsewhere. Now, if you live in a humid area, you can prune the bottom sets of leaves off your tomato plants to promote better airflow. Humid and crowded environments are a breeding ground for disease. The most interesting thing I have learned about growing tomatoes in super hot and dry climates, is that pruning off the bottom leaves can actually be detrimental to your tomatoes! Here in my area of Southern California, I don’t prune or trim leaves because they actually protect my tomato fruit from sun scald. They also protect the stem from becoming scalded and can help keep the plant cool. Interesting, right?!
There are a couple exceptions I make for pruning tomatoes:
1) If I want to grow tomato companion plants at their bases, I’ll prune off the bottom sets of tomato leaves to let my companion plants fill in and protect the stem of the tomato. Some of my favorite companion plants for tomatoes are: basil, marigolds, borage, and sweet alyssum.
2) If I am growing an indeterminate tomato that has become downright unruly, I’ll prune some of the suckers and excess branches to just help keep tidyness in the garden.
How Do I feed my tomato seedlings?
I’ve got a full video tutorial on how I feed my seedlings (below), but you have different options in regards to the type of fertilizer you want to use. In the video I use a mixture of fish and kelp, but I have also used just kelp, seaweed, fish, and even an organic all-purpose vegetable fertilizer (water soluable preferred). You can begin to feed your tomatoes once the first set of true leave have developed (as pictured above).
What Tomatoes Should I Grow?
Besides thinking about space and growth habit (as mentioned in the above section on determinate vs. indeterminate tomatoes), my best advice is to start by writing down how you like to eat and use tomatoes. From there, choose tomatoes that are well-suited for those uses. Here are some examples from my own, personal list:
Fresh for salads/snacking: Sungold, Juliet, Lucky Tiger
Tomato sauce: San Marzano, Costuloto Genovese, Rosso Siciliano, and sungold for my FAVORITE homemade cherry tomato sauce (recipe picture below).
Sundried tomatoes: Black Vernissage, Lucky Tiger, Principe Borghese.
Want to know where I buy seeds? See my source list→ Where I buy seeds
Lastly, consider your climate when choosing tomato varieties. In humid, tropical environments some tomatoes can be unhappy. On the other hand, cool and coastal environments can struggle to grow large, meaty tomatoes. I always recommend doing some research on what grows well in your area.
What are some good companion plants to grow with tomatoes?
Intermixing flowers, herbs, and vegetables in the garden is a MUST in my opinion. I also practice companion planting—which isn’t necessarily foolproof but it does have its merits. Some great ideas for plants to grow with tomatoes are:
Marigolds – the smell can confuse pests and their bright color can attract pollinators which will increase your fruit set. Mariogld also made my list of 10 Heat Loving Vegetables & Flowers to Grow From Seed.
Basil – The distinct and strong aroma of basil is another way to deter pests from your tomatoes. You can grow any variety, but ‘spicy globe’ stays small and rounded—perfect for a border.
Borage – A top favorite flower of bees, this edible flower is also said to deter tomato hornworms. Borage leaves are slightly spiky and can be irritating to the skin, but that’s also what can make it irritating to soft bodied pests too. Borage is such a wonderful garden addition that it made my list of Top 10 Flowers for a Potager Garden. Warning: borage will self-seed readily all over the garden.
Sweet Alyssum– while it can be invasive in our mild climate, I have had success growing sweet alyssum at the base of my tomatoes. Why? Sweet alyssum is said to attract lacewings insects which are highly beneficial for a garden. Alyssum is also a favorite for bees and will act as a mulch for your tomatoes—helping your soil retain moisture and stay cool in the Summer. I typically just buy a six-pack of sweet alyssum at my local nursery instead of starting from seed.
Dahlias– One of my favorite flowers! They actually have many of the same growing requirements as tomatoes, so they grow well together! Check out my Tips for Growing Magnificent Dahlias.
What is the best way to cage or support tomatoes?
In the past, I have used those classic tomato cages that you find at the nursery—you know, the ones that look like cones. I personally don’t feel they provide enough support for the majority of large and vining tomatoes, but I have so many old ones that I re-use them anyway.
When choosing a supporting structure for your tomatoes, go large. Personally, I am beyond excited to make some tomato cages from some wire mesh rolled in a circle as discussed in this article on Tomato Staking Techniques from the Master Gardeners. I think they will be large enough and provide much more support than I’ve ever had for my tomatoes.
A second way I am planning to support my tomatoes, is on my cattle panel trellis. I will be growing indeterminate cherry tomatoes and training them to grow on the arch to form a tunnel (trellis pictured above). I love these trellises!!! If you would like to build your own, check out DIY Garden Arch: How to Build a Cattle Panel Trellis. New (April 2022 update)! Sam and I created a new trellis for our indeterminate tomatoes. Check out our Unique Tomato Trellis Design.
Third, we have done a multi-string method that works well. This method is more high-maintenance, but it is inexpensive for us. We have upcycled gazebo pieces strapped to the outsides of our beds (we don’t like them touching the soil) and a bar across the top. With this “frame,” it’s possible to attach strings and train our tomatoes to climb the strings. You simply tie a knot around the base of the tomato and gently wind the tomato around the string. I don’t single stem train because I prefer to let my tomatoes grow more wild. View my short example video below.
How much space do tomatoes need?
This all depends on the variety you are growing. In general, it’s better to give your tomatoes too much space than too little space because airflow is important to warding off many diseases. Most tomatoes need at least a foot of space between them at a minimum—but this also can depend on your choice of trainging, cage, or support.
What do you feed your tomato plants throughout the season?
Good news! I garden very simply, and don’t typically feed my tomatoes after the intial bed prep/transplanting. The one thing we do Every. Single. Time is top our beds off with compost. This is truly the main way we build healthy soil. If you would like to learn how to make your own compost at home, I encourage you to read my Beginner Composting Series but also know that you can buy bags of compost at your local nursery as well.
Besides amending our beds with compost each season, there are some optional steps you can take. Start by reading Amending Your Soil Organically but there are a couple other (optional) things I do for tomatoes:
Sprinkle some mycorrhizae in the planting hole when transplanting. I’ve been using mycorrhizae in my garden for the last few years and am really happy with it! In fact, I included a whole explanation of its benefits in Tips For Stronger Seedlings. You can find the brand I use HERE.
Lastly, if I feed my plants anything during the growing season, I will use a fish & kelp fertilizer (or even just fish or just kelp). Compost tea or worm tea (made from worm castings) are other good options. This is especially something I would do if there was a lot of rain recently, as rain can flush out nutrients in my raised beds.
Help! My tomatoes are rotten on the bottom!
Do not panic. There is a common condition that tomatoes can form called Blossom End Rot. It cannot spread through contact through other tomatoes and is usually a result of inconsistent watering or temperature fluctuations. Read: Blossom End Rot~Identification, Control, and Prevention.
Can you grow tomatoes as perennials?
I’ve heard you can! My only issue with this is the effort, maintenance, and space that would be required. Since I am a small space gardener, I really try to maximize the space and time that I have by focusing on growing vegetables in the season where they taste the best and perform well. That being said, if it sounds like something you want to try, why not?!
What’s an easy way to preserve tons of tomatoes?
During the height of tomato season it is really easy to feel overwhelmed by the amount of tomatoes that end up sitting on your kitchen counter. Canning, making and preserving sauce, and dehydrating can involve a lot of time that we don’t always have at the moment, so here’s my answer for you: FREEZE your tomatoes! This process literally takes 5 minutes because you freeze your tomatoes whole—no blanching or peeling required! For full instructions read How & Why to Freeze Tomatoes.
Don’t forget to check out The Basics of Growing From Seed if you want to start your tomato seeds!
⇓ Have more tomato questions? Ask them below! Are you growing tomatoes this year?⇓