Tomatoes have to be the number one vegetable – or fruit, to be exact – for home gardeners. And most people can relate to growing tomatoes at home.
It may be a parent, neighbor, or family member, but most of us know at least one person who is almost too invested in growing tomatoes.
And if you have not guessed it yet, I am that guy. And as a consequence, I get questions about how to grow tomatoes all the time.
It may be from people passing in the street catching a glimpse of our indeterminate Black Prince Heirloom tomato plants towering high or visiting guests marveling that their children are allowed to pick as many tomatoes as they can eat fresh off the vine.
So here is my attempt to give the beginner home gardener five tips that do not involve pH levels, pest control, or soil quality. I will assume you buy soil and seeds or young plants at your local nursery and plop them in a pot or garden bed.
And needless to say, you expect a bountiful harvest of fresh, juicy tomatoes.
1. Proper spacing and airflow means healthy tomato plants
When you grow tomatoes, you want to harvest plenty of healthy fruits. You are not growing a plant; you are growing fruits.
It may seem obvious, but I see it all the time. Lush green plants overflowing with strong dark-green leaves in a virtual jungle of criss-cross branches and side stems.
To harvest lots of fruits, you need to give your plants space for the sun to reach all parts of the plant and for air to flow and circulate around the plants freely.
And yes, this means cutting off – or pruning – the plant when you start seeing flowers and fruits forming. Do not let tomato plants grow into each other. Give them space, and do not be afraid to trim or prune branches if you cannot see the whole plant.
2. Watering tomato plants made easy
Watering tomato plants can be made easy or complicated. And truth be told, good watering habits fall somewhere in the middle.
To keep it simple, if the weather is hot, you must water more often. But rarely more than daily.
And avoid giving your tomato plants a little bit of water every day. Instead, water thoroughly but less frequently. And water slowly to allow the soil to absorb the moisture.
How often? Use the old finger-knuckle trick. Insert your finger in the soil, and if it is dry two knuckles deep, it is time to water.
The goal is to be consistent in your watering. You want the soil to be evenly moist to avoid shocking the plant.
Many problems with fruits, like pests and blossom end rot, can be attributed to poor watering habits. Letting the soil dry out prevents the plant’s roots from absorbing calcium from the soil, and you end up with inedible fruits.
Letting your tomato plants dry out also increases the risk of stressing the plant, exposing it to pests and diseases. Aphids, leaf miners, and tomato hornworms are just three examples of pests you want to avoid.
My best tip is to use the finger-knuckle trick and to water thoroughly and slowly at the base of the plant when it is time to water.
The good news is that established tomato plants are quite resilient. Finding your tomato plant with limp, life-less leaves does not have to mean the end.
Shield the plant from the sun and water thoroughly. Now wait, and more often than not, your plant will bounce back. But needless to say, it is better to remember to water.
Related: Tips for watering tomatoes
3. Nutrition, fertilizers, and feeding your tomato plant
You must feed your plants if you want a rich and plentiful harvest. It does not have to be complicated, and you can get good results by adding compost or a balanced fertilizer (NPK 10-10-10) every 2-3 weeks.
Start when your plant feels established and shows at least three sets of true leaves.
Read the label for instructions on dosage and application, and it is always a good rule to start by giving half the recommended dosage and then work your way up to the recommended application amount and schedule.
True leaves are simply leaves that look like tomato plant leaves. True leaves should not be confused with the first leaves or cotyledons that appear early when the seed germinates and sprouts those, you guessed it, first generic-looking leaves.
Even though tomato plants are hungry feeders and respond well to feeding, starting slow will avoid shocking the plant. It is hard to remove nutrition when it has been given.
4. Support your tomato plants early
Tomato fruits are heavy. And regardless of whether you are growing indeterminate or more compact growing determinate tomato varieties, you should support your plants before they need it.
Let’s start with the taller indeterminate tomato plants that keep growing and produce fruit all season. You need tall stakes or trellises that will dwarf the plant when you first put them in place.
It may look funny, but trust me, your plants will catch up to the stakes, and you will have healthier plants and no torn branches to worry about.
And while you are at it, support your determinate tomato varieties. These plants will not grow as tall but are still tall enough to need support. And get the support in early; here stakes, cages, or trellises work great.
What about smaller cherry tomato-type plants? It is always a good idea to place a stake at the center of the pot. Cherry tomato plants produce smaller-sized tomatoes, but these clusters of small tomatoes get heavy. A centrally positioned stake will allow you to use string to support fruit-laden branches later.
5. Prune, don’t be greedy
We already covered how vital spacing and air flow are to grow strong, healthy plants. But pruning also plays a part when your plants start to develop fruits.
As you get to the end of the season, you will see plenty of green and ripening tomatoes on your plants. And then, you will see new branches forming buds and new flowers.
At this stage, you have a decision to make. You can cut the new growth or be greedy and let all new flowers develop fruits.
If you live in a four-season climate, I strongly recommend you prune these new branches and let the plant use its energy to develop and ripen all the fruit already on the plant.
But sure, if you live in a tropical climate, there should be enough time to keep these new branches. Just remember to feed the plant.
So there you have it – five tips I guarantee will make a difference if you grow tomatoes at home.
If you want more tips, check out the article Guide to growing tomatoes like a master gardener, where we give a bit more detail to bring you to that level where the neighbors start to talk about you as well.