Man picking ripe tomatoes in garden

There is nothing like the taste of a homegrown tomato. They’re juicy, yet have a subtle burst of sweet and tart flavors. The flavor of store-bought tomatoes, which are harvested before they ripen, does not rival homegrown tomatoes by any measure.

Not surprisingly, tomatoes are the most popular crop to grow in the garden. They are somewhat temperamental, though, and it’s helpful to learn about their likes and dislikes to produce a bumper crop. Many tomato varieties grow well in pots, so even the most space-constrained gardeners can sow tomatoes.

Selecting the Variety of Tomato

There are so many different types of tomatoes. The best choice depends on how you plan to use them, what grows well in your area, available space, and desired flavor. Asking local veteran gardeners which varieties have thrived for them is probably the best way to get some pointers. Also, your local garden store may have experts who can offer advice on the best varieties for your region.

Grape and cherry tomatoes ripen more quickly than larger varieties and are a big hit with kids. Romas are great for stews, sauces, and tomato paste, while heirlooms are known for their rich flavor and are excellent in salads and sandwiches. Beefsteaks produce large fruit and are ideal for burgers and sandwiches.

Either start your plants from seed in the spring or buy seedlings at a nursery. Whenever possible, choose organic plants.

Preparing Beds & Fertilizing the Plants

Tomatoes love organic matter, so amend your soil with compost before you plant them. When planting, add some organic tomato fertilizer into the hole. After your plants have started producing fruit, apply fertilizer every two weeks throughout the growing season to help keep them happy.

Some of the ailments your tomatoes might encounter throughout the growing season can be tied to nutrient deficiencies, so adjust your fertilizing regime accordingly. For example, a calcium deficiency in the soil causes blossom-end rot.

Getting your plants off on the right foot goes a long way to mitigate ailments, but keep a keen eye on your plants for issues that may arise. It is usually more effective to address pests, deficiencies, and disease right away.

Tomatoes growing on vine that is staked up.
Staking up your tomato plants early in the season will help you later when the heavy fruit appears. Image: Manfred Richter from Pixabay

Planting Your Tomatoes

Find the sunniest location in your garden or on your balcony for your plants. They like full sun, so the more sun, the better.

Tomato plants also love heat and are not cold hardy at all. Do not plant your seedlings in the garden until the risk of frost has passed. To be safe, wait a week or two until after the last frost date in your area and delay planting if you see cold temperatures in the weather forecast. When in doubt, postpone planting unless you have a reliable way to protect the plants from the cold.

Plant spacing depends on the variety and how much you plan to prune throughout the growing season. As a general rule, 18 inches is usually enough for most varieties if you prune, while 24 inches is better if you bypass pruning. If you select a compact or dwarf variety, 12 inches is likely sufficient.

When transplanting your starts into the garden, bury the stem up to the leaves. Tomatoes can grow roots up the stem, and this approach helps the plant develop a robust root system for a more vigorous plant. Remove any leaves that are touching the soil by breaking them off at the stem.

Applying mulch around the base of the plant helps maintain soil moisture, add organic matter, and mitigate weeds. Grass clippings, compost, and straw are all good choices, but there are many options.

Staking Up Your Crop

Without help, your plant and fruit will end up on the ground. Staking tomatoes early in the growing season can save some headaches later when the plant has already become unruly. You can take different approaches, depending on how many plants you have and if you plan to use the support system for multiple years. Tomato cages or stakes are simple and work well for relatively small plants. In recent years, stringing tomatoes has become popular with many growers.

Pruning Unneeded Leaves

It’s easy to have plants with many leaves but very little fruit, but pruning can make a dramatic difference. Periodically remove any leaves that are touching the soil because this can cause fungal issues in your plant. Likewise, remove all “suckers.” These are offshoots that grow at a 45-degree angle from the main steam.

Watering Tomatoes

Tomatoes need about an inch of rainwater or the equivalent from irrigation per week. Keep in mind that tomatoes do not like having wet leaves, so water them at ground level. A drip irrigation system is ideal. Irregular watering can cause the fruit to crack because the fruit shrinks slightly when water-deprived and then expands quickly after a heavy rain.

Enjoy Your Harvest

Avoid putting tomatoes in the refrigerator because it degrades the flavor and alters the texture. The sky is the limit with ways to prepare tomatoes, and there are lots of new ways to try them, such as pan-searing, pickled, on skewers, or stuffed. After you enjoy fresh garden tomatoes, it will be hard to go back to eating store-bought ones.

Originally published on June 1, 2021, this article was updated in May 2023.

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.