Learn how to plant tomatoes the right way and your plants will thank you with an abundant harvest. These tomato planting tips will help you grow big, healthy plants…and plenty of tomatoes!
Yup, it’s that time of year again – time to plant tomatoes! Tomatoes are one of the most popular vegetables to grow in the backyard garden, and with good reason. Have you ever bit into a store-bought tomato and thought you accidentally ate the cardboard packaging? Most grocery store tomatoes taste awful for the simple reason that they’re grown to be hard as a rock. Growers want them to withstand shipping conditions without bruising, and grocery stores want them to stay fresh for a long time. Hence the cardboard tomato.
But in the backyard…well, you can walk outside, pick a ripe tomato, and bite into it with the juice dripping down your chin. Not that I’ve ever done that. Er, no, of course not….
The secret to growing great tomatoes begins by preparing the garden soil and planting them properly.
How to Plant Tomatoes
Tomatoes prefer a neutral soil pH, so have your soil tested and try to get it to around 6.5 – 7.0. If the pH is too low, tomatoes are more prone to blossom end rot because the pH prevents them from absorbing the proper amount of calcium from the soil. That’s why getting your soil tested is a must; a soil test and the accompanying information really helps prevent a lot of problems before they start.
They’ll grow just fine in containers, raised bed gardens, or garden beds. Add plenty of compost and well-aged manure to the soil and mix it in before planting tomatoes.
Do not plant tomatoes outside until all danger of frost is past. If a frost does threaten, cover tomato plants with blankets, sheets or newspapers overnight.
Once you’ve chosen your location (full sun, right?) and the varieties to grow in your home garden, it’s time to plant tomatoes.
Dig the planting hole so that when you set the plant’s roots into the hole, some of the stem is covered. I know that this is going to go against everything you’ve ever learned about planting vegetables and flowers, but hear me out. Tomatoes are unusual in that new roots develop off of the stem portion that’s underground. I like to pinch off the lower set of leaves and place those at ground level to encourage additional root formation.
Remove the tomato plant from the pot or container by gently tapping the pot and using your hand to cup or catch the plant as you remove it. Set it into the planting hole, and replace the soil.
Plant tomatoes at least 24 inches apart or more. Most of the Cooperative Extension websites recommend 24-36 inches or more apart. You need good air circulation around the plants to prevent diseases, and tomatoes can grow very tall and wide.
Fertilize with a water-soluble fertilizer when you first plant tomatoes. Missouri’s Cooperative Extension site recommends 10-52-17 fertilizer, but to be honest, I’ve never seen one with those numbers. It’s clear they’re recommending a fertilizer with a high phosphorous (middle number), so if you can’t find a special tomato fertilizer, look for one with a higher middle number.
Staking tomato plants keeps them from sprawling all over the place. You can either use wooden stakes with cloth ties, or tomato cages. I prefer the cages for big tomatoes like Beefstake or Early Girl. Buy them early, because they tend to sell out from the garden centers once summer arrives!
Organic Pest Control for Tomato Plants
Cut worms seem to love tomato plants. Cut worms snip the tender stem right in half. To prevent cut worm damage, take a paper or Styrofoam cup and cut it in half. Place the ring with both ends open over the plant to make a little collar. This keeps the cut worm from crawling towards the stem. They hit the collar and give up. You can also fold newspaper sheets into a thick collar about an inch tall and use masking tape to close the collar off. Place it around the stem, leaving a few inches between the paper collar and the stem.
Another pest on tomato plants is the tomato horn worm. If you’ve never seen one, they’re ugly nasty things. Here’s a picture of one I took in my garden a few years ago. The white things on it are the offspring of a parasitic wasp. This is disgusting, so if you have a weak stomach, move on. The parasitic wasp stings the horn worm and lays its eggs on it. They hatch and eat the worm from the inside out. Nature can be downright NASTY.
Parasitic wasps are, however, nature’s answer to the ugly horn worm. Another organic method to repel tomato horn worms are marigolds. I’ve had success with this method. Plant marigold seeds or plants around your tomato bed. I grow my tomatoes in a raised bed, and simply set marigolds out every foot or so on the edges of the bed. Not only do they keep the horn worm away, they also add color and attract pollinators. That’s a win-win in my book!
A portion of this year’s beefsteak tomato harvest.
I’m growing Beefsteak, Early Girl and Sweet 100 tomatoes this year. My neighbor grows many heirloom varieties, and I hope to buy some tomatoes from her to try them out. Last year she had Black Crimson, which was delicious. I enjoyed it in salads.
Are you growing tomatoes this year? If not, try it – if you have a sunny area, all you need is a large one gallon container, soil and a tomato plant. And a marigold or two. And then it’s on to tomatoes this summer!