It can be overwhelming to think about everything you need to grow tomatoes. However, if you take it step-by-step and follow an ordered list, you’ll be growing tomatoes in no time.
So, what do you need to grow tomatoes? There are 7 important steps that you need to grow tomatoes: 1. A sunny spot, 2. Good soil, 3. Seeds or transplants, 4. Proper spacing, 5. Supports, 6. Watering method, 7. Protection. With all of these things in place, you will be ready to grow tomato plants that will produce a good harvest of fruit.
Of course, spending a little more time up front to do things right will prevent common problems, saving you time later on.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at each of these 7 steps and give some tips on what to do and what to avoid when preparing to grow tomatoes.
Let’s get started.
What Do You Need To Grow Tomatoes?
To grow tomatoes and get a good harvest, you will need the following:
- A sunny spot (tomato plants need full sun, meaning at least 7 to 8 hours of direct sunlight per day).
- Good soil (tomato plants need well-draining soil with a slightly acidic pH of 6.2 to 6.8).
- Seeds or transplants (tomato seeds to start your own plants indoors in late winter to early spring, or transplants purchased from a nursery or garden center).
- Proper spacing (to prevent competition, leave 18 to 24 inches between tomato plants and 4 to 5 feet between rows).
- Supports (stakes, cages, or trellises to help support tomato plants as they climb).
- Watering method (a hose, sprinkler, or drip irrigation system).
- Protection (against pests, disease, cold, and intense sunlight).
Let’s start at the beginning: choosing a sunny spot for your tomato plants.
A Sunny Spot For Tomato Plants
The first thing you need for growing tomatoes is a sunny spot for them to live. Tomatoes are tropical plants, so they like warm weather and lots of sun!
According to the University of Idaho Extension, tomato plants need at least 7 hours of direct sunlight per day. Otherwise, they won’t be able to generate much (if any) fruit – although they might produce green growth and grow tall, even in partial shade.
In the Northern Hemisphere, a south-facing location has the best sun exposure during the day.
Avoid choosing a spot too close to a building (like a house, garage, barn, or shed) that will shade the tomato plants during most of the day.
Also, pay attention to any nearby trees. What looks like a sunny spot in late winter or early spring may be totally shaded when deciduous trees get their leaves back in late spring or summer.
Making a sun map of your yard can help you to figure out where the sun goes and when. You can learn more about how to make a sun map in this article from The Kitchen Garten.
Good Soil For Tomato Plants
Finding a good spot for tomato plants depends on sunlight, but also soil quality. After finding the sunny spots, choose the one that has soil with a good consistency and the right pH.
The ideal soil is a mix of sand, clay, and loam. It is well-draining, and has plenty of organic material in it.
Sandy soil drains quickly – possibly too fast to hold enough water for your plants. Sandy soil has coarse, gritty pieces that feel rough to the touch.
Clay soil drains slowly – perhaps slowly enough to drown plants and cause root rot. Clay soil has small, fine particles that feel smooth to the touch. It tends to stick together, especially when wet.
It is a great idea to get into the habit of mixing compost or aged manure to your soil every year. In addition to adding organic material to the soil, compost and aged manure provide nutrients for plants.
Soil pH & Nutrients
According to the University of Georgia Extension, the ideal soil pH for tomato plants is 6.2 to 6.8 (which is slightly acidic). You can find out the pH of your soil with a soil test (you can learn how to do a soil test and how to adjust pH in my article here).
If a soil test reveals a lack of nutrients in your soil, you might need to add some fertilizer. However, there are a few things to remember before you do so:
- Match the fertilizer to your soil – for example, if you already have lots of nitrogen, you can try a low-nitrogen fertilizer.
- Follow the instructions on the fertilizer package – otherwise, you risk burning plants by adding too much fertilizer at once (over fertilizing).
- Add fertilizer with water – don’t fertilize plants in dry soil, and water it in after you use it to avoid burning plants.
- Ensure enough calcium – this will prevent blossom end rot of the fruit. Lime (calcium carbonate) is one source of calcium that will raise soil pH; gypsum (calcium sulfate) is another source that is pH neutral.
Tomato Seeds Or Transplants
Now you have the perfect sunny spot with good soil for your tomato plants. It’s time to get something to plant there!
You have two options:
- Buy tomato seeds and start your own plants (a little tricky for beginners, but even if you fail, you can still buy transplants).
- Buy tomato transplants from a nursery or garden center (a little more expensive, but more foolproof for beginners).
If you decide to buy your own tomato seeds to start plants, you might want to start them indoors. Unless you live in a warm climate, planting tomato seeds directly in the ground may not work out well.
As mentioned earlier, tomatoes are tropical. Without protection, a frost will kill them – and even temperatures in the 40’s Fahrenheit can damage them.
The time you start tomato seeds indoors will depend on the frost date in your area (you can find it with this tool from the Old Farmer’s Almanac).
To learn more about starting tomato plants from seed, check out these articles:
- How long tomato seeds take to germinate (6 to 11 days, depending on soil temperature and moisture).
- Why tomato seeds fail to sprout (seeds that are too old may fail to germinate).
After your tomato seedlings grow to the right size (or after you buy established plants), it is time to transplant them outside into the garden.
Proper Spacing For Tomato Plants
Before you transplant tomatoes into the garden, it is important to make sure each plant has enough space. When plants are crowded together, they end up competing for water and nutrients in the soil (and diseases spread more easily!)
- Leave 18 to 24 inches between plants (this assumes that they have support – more on this later).
- Leave 4 to 5 feet between rows (this leaves enough space to water, prune, pull weeds, and harvest).
You can use plant labels to mark off the spaces where you want to plant your tomatoes. Another option is to simply use supports (such as stakes) to mark the spot for each plant.
Supports For Tomato Plants
You can install supports after transplanting tomatoes, but I think it is better to do it before you transplant. That way, you can avoid hurting the roots of your plants when you drive the support into the soil.
There are a few different options for supporting tomato plants, including:
- Stakes – a wooden, metal, or plastic pole that is driven into the ground. As tomato plants grow, you use twine to tie them to the stake at intervals (perhaps every 6 to 12 inches of growth). Often used for taller indeterminate tomato varieties.
- Cages – a metal or plastic cage that surrounds a tomato plant, keeping it contained to a small area and giving it a place to grow. Often used for shorter determinate tomato varieties. (You can find steel tomato cages (5 feet high) online from Ace Hardware.)
- Trellis – a lattice made of wood, metal, plastic, or rope/twine that gives tomato plants a place to climb.
When choosing twine, you have a few options:
- Jute Twine – the cheapest option, but generally not as durable as other types of twine.
- Sisal Twine – more durable than jute, but a bit more expensive.
- Nylon Twine – probably the most durable (and the most expensive) twine, per foot.
In addition to twine, there are lots of other things you can use to tie tomatoes.
Watering Method For Tomato Plants
Once your tomatoes are transplanted into good soil in the perfect spot, you will need to water them. The best way is to water deep, so that the water gets down into the soil.
This encourages the plants to grow an extensive root system, which makes them healthier and more resistant to heat and drought.
Watering in the morning is best, since it will still be cool and the sun won’t evaporate the water quickly (which is likely to happen in the afternoon).
There are a few different methods you can use to water your tomato plants:
- Hose – this is the most basic method, and also the most time-intensive method. Watering with a hose gives you a lot of control over how much water each plant gets. However, you might get annoyed if you have to stand there watering all the time (especially if you plant lots of tomatoes!)
- Sprinkler – this is a more automated watering method, but it wastes a lot of water. Some of the water will wet the ground nowhere near your plants. Another problem is that a sprinkler gets the leaves of your tomato plants wet, which opens up the door for diseases.
- Drip Irrigation – this method is both automated and water-efficient. Just turn on the hose and the drip irrigation system will keep plants watered by dripping water into the soil. You don’t have to stand there watching, and you don’t have to get the leaves of your plants wet. The only downside is the time and effort required to set up a system.
Protection For Tomato Plants
Tomato plants are pretty tough, but there are some hazards that they face in the garden, including:
- Intense Sunlight
Let’s take a look at each of these hazards and how to protect your tomato plants them.
There are numerous pests that pose a threat to tomato plants at various stages.
For example, cutworms will sever tomato plants at the stem, causing the entire top of the plant to fall over.
Aphids will suck the liquid out of leaves and stems, and leave behind sticky honeydew that can attract sooty mold (a type of fungus).
Various worms (young moths) also eat tomato plants, including:
- Tomato hornworms
There are lots of diseases that affect tomato plants, including:
- Bacterial Wilt
- Fusarium Wilt
- Verticillium Wilt
- Early Blight
- Late Blight
Some of these diseases can spread between different plants in your garden. For example, late blight (Phytophthora infestans) can spread between tomatoes and potatoes (in fact, it caused the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840’s).
A good way to prevent disease in your tomato plants is to choose disease-resistant varieties. For example, here is a list of blight-resistant tomato varieties.
Cold is another threat to tomato plants. Without protection, tomato plants will succumb to frost.
Temperatures in the 30’s or 40’s can damage to tomato plants, even without a frost or freeze.
Luckily, there are ways to protect tomato plants from cold, including:
- Cloche – a cloche is a clear plastic or glass cover that acts as a mini greenhouse to trap heat in the soil and air underneath. This is best for protecting young tomato plants after you transplant them outside.
- Row Cover – a row cover is a lightweight fabric that protects plants from cold. It can be used to cover an entire row of young tomato plants from spring frosts, or wrapped around a taller tomato plant when fall frosts loom.
One final threat to tomato plants is intense sunlight. Without the shade provided by leaves, tomato fruit can develop tough white or tan spots on their skin (caused by sunscald).
To avoid this, you can use shade cloth to protect tomato plants from intense sunlight during the hottest part of the summer.
Shade cloth comes in various grades – higher grades will block more sunlight (up to 90%). You can learn more about shade cloth in my article here.
Now you know what you need to grow tomatoes, along with the steps to take and what to look out for.
You might also like to read my article on when to pick tomatoes (to optimize for ripeness).
You can use mulch around tomato plants, as long as you choose wisely and apply it correctly – you can learn more in my article here.
I hope you found this article helpful. If so, please share it with someone who can use the information.