How to Grow Tomatoes

This popular, versatile fruit is easy to grow right in your backyard.

ripe tomatoes on a branch
Kohei Hara / Getty Images

No backyard garden is complete without tomatoes, one of (if not the) most popular fruits in the world. In 2017, more than 15 million tons of tomatoes were produced in the United States. Perhaps that number is so colossal because nearly anyone can grow tomatoes.

Aside from how easy it is, there are plenty of reasons to grow tomatoes at home. For one, store-bought fruit can’t even come close to the flavor you get from homegrown tomatoes. In addition, tomatoes complement other garden plants well, boosting the overall success of your garden. Read on to learn how to pick great cultivars to grow, get tips for avoiding common diseases, and discover how to get the most out of your tomato harvest this season.

How to Plant Tomatoes

After you get an idea of which tomato varieties you want to work with, decide on your growing location — in the ground, raised beds, containers — and whether seeds or starter plants are right for you.

Growing From Seed

Growing tomatoes from seed is a great way to experience unique varieties because there are a lot of options with specialty tomato seeds. While it’s possible to sow seeds directly into the ground, most gardeners choose to start their tomato seeds indoors. The recommended time frame to start is between 4-8 weeks before the last chance of frost has passed in their area. If you do this, be sure to give you seeds warm soil and bright lights, so they will be strong and ready to transplant to your garden. 

Growing From Starter Plants

You can find a nice selection of tomato plants at most garden stores. Local or specialty stores will likely have even more varieties and heirloom options, so you might ask around or make a few calls to see who has the best options. Make sure to go early; the best varieties will get sold out early in the season. If you get your plants early, before the last chance of frost has passed, then keep the plants in a warm but sunny location. When ready, plant directly into the ground, about 1 to 2 feet apart. Water thoroughly.

Tomato Plant Care

If you start by giving your tomatoes good soil and a sunny location, nearly all your work is done.

Light

Tomatoes do best in about 6 to 8 hours of sun a day. Some varieties, like cherry tomatoes, do fine on less sun. If you’re growing in a container and it has limited sun exposure, consider a cherry variety.

Soil and Nutrients

Tomatoes grow well in wide range of soils, but they do prefer loamy, well-draining conditions. Add organic matter to the garden area where you want to grow tomatoes and other veggies. This will help your plants thrive.

Water, Temperature, and Humidity

Water your tomato plants regularly. Instead of an overhead watering system like a sprinkler, consider using a soaker hose or watering by hand directly at the roots. Try to water in the morning before it gets hot during the day.

To set fruit, tomatoes need consistent temperatures at night, usually between 55 and 75 degrees F.

Common Pests and Diseases

Despite being a low-maintenance plant, tomatoes (like any plant) can create some challenges for the gardener. Two pests to watch out for are aphids (small insects on the underside of leaves) and tomato hornworms (caterpillars). For either of these, use a natural method of elimination by picking them off by hand and putting them in soapy water. Stay on it, and even check a few times a day, to try to eliminate the problem immediately. 

With diseases, really pay attention to the color of the leaves. Blight can cause spots on your plants, and there are other bacteria that can cause leaf discoloration. If you notice your plant looking abnormal or not growing as it should, try to diagnose the problem right away instead of waiting. Take photos and share with your local extension or even online in gardening groups. People are often very happy to help. There could be other small issues that pop up with tomatoes, but so long as you watch the overall health of your plant, you should be good. 

Tomato Varieties

Close-up of Ripening Roma Tomatoes on the Vine
Ripening Roma tomatoes. GomezDavid / Getty Images

As you probably know from strolling through any grocery store or farmers market, there are so many tomatoes to choose from. Between specialty heirlooms and new cultivars, there are literally hundreds of tomatoes you can grow. Enjoy this part of the garden process and do some research on the type that best fits your gardening goals. Here are the main types of tomatoes you’ll find, and you can further research about specific varieties or cultivars within each type.

  • Cherry, grape, or pear tomatoes: If you like the idea of pulling tomatoes right off the vine and eating them in the garden, then all of these within the “small tomatoes” family will work great for you. Grape tomatoes tend to be the smallest and sweetest. Pear tomatoes usually come in shades of yellow and orange. Then, cherry tomatoes probably have the most options; these are popular in salads, on skewers, and are eaten plain.
  • Plum tomatoes: Also known as Roma tomatoes, these oblong fruits are popular in a lot of sauces and pastes. They don’t have as much juice as traditional tomatoes, so gardeners especially like them for canning and cooking.
  • Globe tomatoes: These are great all-purpose tomatoes and the most common you’ll find in grocery stores and farmers markets. They are medium in size and have a lot of great uses, including salads, sauces, and slicing for sandwiches. They come in many colors and options, so pay attention to the specific variety name and read about it to see if it meets your needs. 
  • Beefsteak tomatoes: These are the largest tomatoes available and can easily grow to be 2 pounds or more. They are also popular in sauces, salsa, and for slicing.

How to Harvest and Preserve Tomatoes

High angle close up of person picking cherry tomatoes on a farm.
Mint Images / Getty Images

You’ll often know when it’s time to harvest your tomatoes just by their size and color. In a matter of a day, tomatoes can go from green to bright, bold red (or orange, yellow, or green) depending on the variety you’re growing. Try not to let tomatoes get too ripe on the vine. If you need to pick them when they’re not quite their ideal color, no worries. Just set them out on your counter. Let them ripen and use when ready. 

If you use your tomatoes right away, great. You can never go wrong enjoying them while they’re fresh. However, if you’re looking to can or preserve your tomatoes, gather them up and prepare as desired. Depending on whether you’re making salsa, tomato paste, spaghetti sauce, or anything else, you’ll likely find tips from other gardeners or recipes to try. Follow guidelines as listed and all best practices for food preservation methods like canning and freezing

Saving Tomato Seeds

If you find a particular tomato variety you love, be sure to save some of the seeds for next year. Just pull a few out of the tomato itself and leave them in a dry location. Be sure to label the specific variety you saved, and jot down any important notes to keep in mind when you plant next year.

View Article Sources
  1. "Tomatoes." Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, 2018.