Tomatoes are one of the most popular plants to grow in the vegetable garden. With the right care and a few helpful tips, your tomato plants can produce delicious, ripe fruit. The trick to growing great-tasting tomatoes is to choose the best varieties, start the plants off right, and control problems before they happen.
Start here with these time-tested tomato growing tips to harvest a juicy, bountiful crop this year.
8 Things You Can Do To Get More Tomatoes This Year
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Choose the Right Tomato Variety
The two main categories of tomatoes are indeterminate and determinate. Indeterminate tomatoes fruit continuously throughout the season, while determinate tomatoes ripen all at once. Determinate tomatoes are great for making sauce or drying, and because they tend to reach a smaller size at maturity, they're better for container planting. Indeterminate tomatoes, which include many heirloom varieties, are better for continuous harvests all summer long.
Another consideration is how long your tomatoes will take to ripen. Tomatoes are divided into early-season, mid-season, and late-season categories. In colder climates, look for early-season tomatoes that have been bred to grow well in cooler weather.
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Provide Proper Soil Conditions
Make sure your soil can provide the proper conditions for tomatoes before you plant. Tomatoes prefer slightly acidic soil with a pH between 6.2 and 6.8. You can check soil pH at home or get a soil test from your local extension agency. A soil test will also find any nutrient deficiencies.
Work compost into the soil before planting tomatoes. You can also side dress plantings with compost mid-season to add nutrients. Another option is to apply a nitrogen-rich fertilizer like fish emulsion every two weeks during the growing season, starting with planting time.
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Don't Crowd Tomato Seedlings
Give tomato seedlings plenty of room to branch out by thinning the seedlings to one strong plant per cell or small pot. Snip weaker, smaller seedlings in favor of the best grower to give tomato plants enough space. Crowded conditions inhibit their growth, which stresses plants and can lead to disease later on.
Transplant tomato seedlings into their own 4-inch pots shortly after they get their first set of true leaves.
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Plant at the Right Time
Plant tomatoes outdoors once any danger of frost in your growing zone has passed and soil temperatures are at least 60 degrees. It's best to wait until night temperatures are above 50 degrees to plant tomatoes outside. Harden off tomato seedlings grown indoors to help them adjust before planting.
You can plant early-season tomato varieties sooner than mid-season or late-season varieties, but be sure to have frost protection like floating row cover or clear plastic sheeting on hand in case of a late frost.Continue to 5 of 13 below.
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Provide Lots of Light
Tomato seedlings need strong, direct light. Unless you are growing them in a greenhouse, your best option is to use some type of artificial plant lighting for 14 to 18 hours every day.
To keep seedlings from getting leggy, keep the young plants only a couple of inches from fluorescent grow lights. You will need to raise the lights (or lower the plants) as the seedlings grow. When you're ready to plant them outside, choose the sunniest part of your vegetable garden as their location.
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Water Deeply Every Week
Water tomato plants deeply and regularly while the fruits are developing. During hot, dry spells, they may need more. If your plants start to look wilted for most of the day, give them a drink.
After the fruit begins to ripen, you can ease up on watering. Cutting back on water will coax the plant into concentrating its sugars, which makes for better-tasting fruit. Don’t withhold water so much that the plants continually wilt and become stressed, or they will drop their blossoms and possibly their fruit.
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Turn a Fan On
Tomato plants need to move and sway in the breeze to develop strong stems. That happens naturally outdoors, but if you start your seedlings inside, you need to provide some type of air circulation.
Create a breeze by turning a fan on them for five to 10 minutes twice a day. Another option is to ruffle the tomato plants by gently rubbing your hand back and forth across their tops for a few minutes, several times a day.
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Bury the Stems
Plant your tomato plants deeper than they're planted in their pots. Bury them all the way up to the top few leaves. When planted this way, tomatoes are able to develop roots all along their stems. More roots make for a stronger plant.
You can dig a deep hole or simply dig a shallow trench and lay the plant sideways. It will quickly straighten itself up and grow toward the sun. Just be careful not to drive your tomato stake or cage into the buried stem.Continue to 9 of 13 below.
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Mulch Tomatoes After the Soil Has Warmed
Hold off on putting down mulch until after the ground has had a chance to warm up. Although mulching conserves water and prevents the soil and soil-borne diseases from splashing up on the plants, it also shades and cools the soil. Once temperatures remain warm, you can add a layer of mulch to retain moisture.
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Give your tomato plants some support when they're 10 to 12 inches tall. Use tomato cages, string trellises, wooden or metal stakes with ties, or other strong supports to keep plants upright. Indeterminate tomatoes typically need stronger supports than determinate varieties, but stakes or cages can help determinate tomatoes stand up straight once they bear fruit.
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Remove the Bottom Leaves
After your tomato plants reach 2 to 3 feet tall, remove the leaves from the bottom foot of the stem. These are the oldest leaves, and they're usually the first to develop fungus problems.
Because these leaves sit close to the ground, they can easily come into contact with soil-borne pathogens. Removing them can prevent fungal diseases. Spraying weekly with compost tea can also help.
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Remove Suckers for More Tomatoes
Remove suckers that develop in the crotch joint of two branches. Pinch or prune them off when they're three inches long or smaller. They won’t bear fruit and can take energy away from the rest of the plant. You can root tomato suckers in water to grow additional plants.Continue to 13 of 13 below.
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Pinch Tips to Encourage More Fruit
Pinching off the tips of the main stems in early summer will encourage indeterminate tomatoes to put their energy into flowering. It shouldn't be a problem getting determinate tomatoes to set fruit unless poor weather conditions cause blossom drop. Pinching is also a handy trick toward the end of summer when you want the last tomatoes to hurry up and ripen.
How to Harvest and Store Tomatoes
When to harvest tomatoes depends on whether you planted early, mid, or late-season tomatoes. Early-season tomatoes mature in 40 to 70 days, mid-season in 60 to 70 days, and late-season tomatoes in 80 to 100 days from planting.
Tomatoes are ready to harvest when fruits are good-sized and fully colored. The skin should be smooth and shiny, with a supple yet firm feel. They'll come off the plant easily. If you have to pull hard, that's a sign the fruit isn't quite ready.
Tomatoes that are fully green when harvested will never ripen properly, but you can use them in recipes as green tomatoes. To let immature fruit ripen further, wait until the fruit is mostly colored and twist or snip the fruit from the vine. Let ripen in a paper bag on the counter. Waiting until fruit is fully ripe can mean giving up a portion of your harvest to pests like squirrels.
Store tomatoes at room temperature. Refrigerator temperatures will keep any unripe fruits from ripening properly. However, fully ripe tomatoes can be put in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days, but they'll taste best when brought back up to room temperature before eating.
Should you put Epsom salt on tomatoes?
Not unless a soil test indicates your garden has a magnesium deficiency. Epsom salt is thought to prevent blossom-end rot in tomatoes, but this is a myth. Blossom-end rot is caused by a calcium deficiency, not a magnesium deficiency. The additional magnesium in Epsom salt can contribute to blossom end rot by preventing plants from absorbing calcium.
What does hydrogen peroxide do for tomato plants?
Some recommend hydrogen peroxide to control tomato plant diseases, but this is another garden myth. Studies have shown that hydrogen peroxide is not effective at controlling disease in tomato plants. Hydrogen peroxide can burn leaves at high concentrations, so it's best to avoid this unproven folk remedy.
Are coffee grounds good for tomatoes?
Gardeners often recommend adding coffee grounds to the soil when planting tomatoes to add nutrients and acidify the soil. Coffee grounds do contain elements like carbon and nitrogen that can benefit plants. However, a quality fertilizer contains more nutrients than coffee grounds can provide. Coffee grounds don't acidify soil, either. Instead, test your soil first and use a soil acidifier if needed.
Tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum). University of California, Davis, Vegetable Research and Information Center.
Blossom End Rot. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Horticulture.
Conserving Water Through the Use of Mulch in Our Landscapes. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.
Steps to Prevent and Manage Tomato Leaf Spot Disease. Home and Garden Information Center, University of Maryland Extension.
Blossom Drop in Tomato. Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities Extension.
Using and Storing Tomatoes. Clemson Cooperative Extension.
The Epsom Salt Myth. North Dakota State University.
VegNet Vol. 13, No. 17. Ohio State University Extension.
Coffee grounds, eggshells and Epsom salts in the home garden. University of Minnesota Extension.