Tomatoes are probably the most popular vegetables grown in home gardens. But, while tomatoes are easy to grow (and they often self-seed like crazy) they are prone to many problems. If you don’t plant them in the right place, you might not even produce a half-decent crop.
There is no doubt that location is the key to successful tomato crops. Tomatoes need fertile, well-drained garden soil with a pH between 5.5 and 7.0. If your soil is too compact or there is heavy clay in your soil, you’re going to struggle. They also need full sun and at least 8 hours of sunlight every day.
Where do I put tomatoes in my garden?
You need to plant tomatoes where they will be happy and thrive.
Tomatoes prefer soil that is slightly acidic. If there is too much nitrogen in the soil, the foliage will likely be lush and vigorous but the plants won’t produce much fruit.
Horticulturists advise testing the soil to determine its lime and fertilizer requirements. But if you don’t have a soil testing kit, a good rule of thumb is to dig in about 2.5 lbs of a complete fertilizer like 10-10-10 for every 100 square feet of any garden bed.
The horticulturists at Cornell University advise that growing tomatoes in fertile loam that is high in organic matter usually produce the highest yields. On the other hand, lighter soils that warm quickly and drain well often produce earlier harvests.
While they agree that tomatoes will tolerate soil with a pH as low as 5.5, they do their best when the pH is between 6.0 and 6.8.
Where do tomatoes grow best?
Tomatoes grow well in warmer climates, but they will tolerate some cold. Normally, you will need to wait until late spring or early summer to plant tomatoes outside in the garden.
If you decide to grow them indoors, you’ll need a sunny window sill or a protected spot on your porch or deck.
Different varieties do better in different regions, so choose carefully.
But it isn’t only about location. For instance, often people choose a location carefully and then find that their plants aren’t setting fruit.
This may be because the flowers haven’t been pollinated or because it’s simply too hot. It may also be because gardeners have used the wrong type of fertilizer or too much of it.
How to Choose the Best Spot to Grow Tomatoes
Every home garden is different, but if you scout around yours, you’ll be sure to find the perfect spot to grow tomatoes.
Step 1: Location
Find a nice sunny spot where the seedlings will get strong, direct sunlight. If you grow them on a slight slope, it’s best if they face south or south-east.
Step 2: Soil Conditions
Buy yourself a soil kit and check the soil. If it’s less than perfect, don’t panic. There are steps you can take to improve the soil as we advise below.
But generally, make sure your soil drains well and is high in organic matter.
Step 3: When & Where to Plant
If you live in a colder climate, it might be a good idea to start seeds indoors where you can control the room temperature. If you do this you will need to allow 6-8 weeks for the tomato seedlings to grow.
If you plant directly in your garden, dig down about one foot and mix in lots of compost or manure. Let it break down for a couple of weeks before planting.
Are tomatoes an easy plant to grow?
Growing tomatoes isn’t difficult but they need the right conditions. This includes the site location and the soil.
Because there are so many different types, you will also need to know whether you will need stakes or cages to support them.
Determinate or Indeterminate Tomatoes?
There are two basic types, determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes stop growing when they get to a certain height and flower and set their fruit quite quickly.
Indeterminate tomato varieties flower and produce fruit throughout the growing season. The plants also continue to grow so you will need to cage or stake tomatoes unless you cut them back regularly.
Tomatoes from Seed or Tomato Seedlings?
You can grow tomatoes from seed quite easily, or you can grow them from tomato seedlings which you will find at your local garden center.
Tomato seedlings are generally a good idea for the smaller garden. Even though seeds will last if properly stored, one packet of seeds will produce more young plants than the average home vegetable garden can handle.
How Much Water Do Tomatoes Need?
While your young plants are growing you need to ensure they get a consistent and even supply of moisture. This will help to prevent blossom end rot (see below).
If they get too much water the ripening fruit can start to split.
A reliable rule of thumb is to ensure that the developing plants get at least 1 inch of water every week. According to the University of Minnesota Extension, 1 inch of water will wet sandy soils to a depth of about 10 inches. Even in quite heavy clay, it will wet up to 6 inches of soil.
This can be supplied by an irrigation system if there isn’t sufficient rain. It’s best to use a soaker hose rather than overhead irrigation. This is because wet leaves are more prone to fungal diseases.
Also, remember that tomatoes don’t like waterlogged soil.
Tips to Grow tomatoes
If you’re growing tomatoes for the first time, a good place to get tips is from a cooperative extension in your area. There are hundreds of these, mostly attached to universities. For example:
- University of California Cooperative Extension
- University of Minnesota Extension
- University of New Hampshire, New England Extension
- Cornell University Extension in New York
- Kansas State University Research and Extension
- Michigan State University (MSU) Extension
- Utah State University Extension
- University of Arizona Cooperative Extension
- Washington State University Extension
Choose a Variety Suited to Local Conditions
There are hundreds of different types of tomatoes. But the trick is to choose varieties that suit your local climate and garden site.
Some types of tomatoes will ripen in less than two months while others need three months of consistently hot weather to produce fruit. Some species are less than a foot high at maturity, while others will sprawl as much as 25 feet if you don’t cut the plants back.
You also have a choice between a multitude of shapes, colors, and sizes, from tiny cherry tomatoes to great, big beefsteak tomatoes.
All the university extensions mentioned above have some sort of online fact sheet or growing guide that will give you important tips that apply to local conditions. And of course, there are many more in other areas.
Tonic for Tomatoes
You can make a great tonic for tomato vines that are past their prime. All you need is a bucket of nettles and half a bucket of comfrey leaves.
Cover with boiling water and leave overnight. The next day, water in and around your tomato plants, and dig the blanched leaves into the soil.
Compost & Mulch
Contrary to popular belief, you can continue to grow tomatoes in the same place for years if you consistently dig compost and tomato leaves deep in the soil between plantings.
Mulching your tomatoes is also a good idea because it helps to conserve moisture in the soil. You can use any type of mulch including straw that doesn’t contain weed seed, peat moss, or wood chips. Tomato leaves also make an excellent mulch.
Blossom End Rot
A fairly common problem with tomatoes, blossom end rot looks like dry, sunken spots on the bottom (or blossom end) of tomato fruit. The tissue breaks down quickly and the affected area becomes black and leathery.
It is most common on the first fruit of the season and is caused by too little calcium being absorbed by the root systems of the plants. Ironically, this can happen even if there is enough calcium in the soil.
Calcium is transferred into the plant when there is an ample supply of moisture. But, according to a Blossom-end rot of tomato tip sheet from the MSU Extension, if moisture levels aren’t consistent, the calcium might settle in one part of the plant.
They advise doing a soil test to check calcium levels. They also say that using fertilizers that are high in superphosphate and low in nitrogen reduces the chance of blossom end rot.
Choose 4-12-4 or 5-20-5 combinations.
If any of your tomatoes get blossom end rot, remove all the infected fruit. Rest assured that it won’t spread to unaffected fruit on that plant and it won’t spread to other plants as fungal diseases do.
Tomatoes are a popular plant to grow in home veggie gardens, but your success will hinge on where you plant them and how you care for them. So choose wisely and you will soon be enjoying the fruits of your labor.