Every gardener grows tomatoes. Even folks who don’t have the time or space for a garden, are growing tomatoes in pots on their patio or deck. So we’ll be looking at how to grow the best tomatoes from seeds and seedlings, as well as growing tomatoes in containers.
We love tomatoes in pasta sauce, in salads, and salsas, on pizzas and tomato sandwiches, and fresh in the garden, with or without salt. Eat ’em like an apple, or pop those juicy sweet candy, grape and cherry tomatoes practically by the handful. Bottom line…
There’s nothing like fresh homegrown tomatoes.
So let’s be sure to make the most of our precious summer growing time to get the best possible tomato harvests.
Great Seeds for Great Tomatoes
Top tips for tasty tomatoes begins with great seeds. The best seeds produce the best tomatoes. Johnny’s Seeds is a favorite source of quality seeds amongst the GardensAll community.1)https://www.johnnyseeds.com/
If you’re a seed saver, then save the seeds from your best tomatoes, and dry and store them accordingly. Also, be sure to save the seeds from your best heirloom tomatoes to be sure they’ll “come true”*.2)https://www.gardensall.com/tips-storing-seeds-short-long-term/
*”Come true”, for seeds means that you’ll get the same kind of tomato as the originating plant versus taking your chances with a hybrid.
How to Grow Tomatoes from Seeds
We love tomatoes and strongly favor those homegrown beauties. You know, the type that will rarely make it to the produce section in the grocery store. It’s no surprise that tomatoes are by far the number one crop grown by home gardeners.
Given the wide range of tomato varieties, garden shops are limited as to how many types of transplants they can sell. Plus, most vendors sell few or no organic plants.
This is why so many of us organic gardening aficionados grow our own tomato transplants from seed. It’s a joyful enterprise to raise up a tomato garden from seed to harvest.
86 percent of America’s backyard gardens, include tomatoes.
~National Gardening Association3)https://www.mnn.com/your-home/organic-farming-gardening/stories/infographic-home-gardening-in-the-us
Growing Tomatoes from Seeds
Once you get your seeds sown in your indoor plant trays, you can work on your soil, which we cover next. But first, if you need a guide on growing tomatoes from seeds, here’s how we do it.
1. 10×20, 48 count cell plant trays
We start our seedlings in standard 10″ X 20″ plant trays with 48-count cell packs. This sized cell holds enough medium to get the first batch ready for potting up into 3″ pots.
2. Fill plant tray cells with Organic Black Gold Seedling Mix.
Our favorite seed starter is the organic “Black Gold–Seedling Mix”. It’s organic and does an amazing job of retaining moisture and promoting root development.
3. Fill each cell with soil mix.
4. Place seeds on top of soil in cells.
5. Sprinkle enough additional soil on top to lightly cover seeds.
6. Mist seeds with water.
After filling each cell with the mix, we place the seeds on top and then add a top dressing of the mix.
Don’t compress the soil with anything more than mist. The one time we compressed the material into each cell with a trowel handle, what seedlings germinated grew poorly. It sure pays to read the instructions on the bag.
After seeding and watering, we place the trays in our mini indoor greenhouse on top of a heat mat. Often, we’ll cover the top of the tray with a clear plastic lid that’s made for such a purpose.
Once we see sprouts, the cover is removed as a precaution against damping off. Damping off is a fungus causing rotting of roots and stems that can occur when the soil is too wet.
T-5 lights are used first, but once the seedlings begin to show their true leaves, we put the tray under cooler LED grow lights.
7. Warm T5 lights
8. Change to cool LEDs lights and remove heat mats
The advantage of the LED grow lights is that they put out a lot of light but not much heat. We avoid leggy seedlings when placing them closer to the light source. At this point we turn off the bottom heat mats.
9. Clip to base to thin at ~2″
Once the seedlings attain a height of 2″ (or so), we thin them. Clip to the base of the weakest, less vibrant seedlings. Do not pull out else you’ll disturb the roots of the remaining healthier seedlings. Toss the clippings onto your compost pile.
10. Transplant at ~3″ tall into 3″ pots
When the seedlings reach ~3″, usually just a week or so after thinning, it’s time to transplant into 3″ pots. We use the peat pots but sometimes the plastic type.
11. Begin hardening seedlings at ~5″ – setting plants outside to sun above 60 degrees
After the seedlings grow to 5″ or so, and we can see roots coming out of the pots, we begin the process of hardening off as the frost-free growing season approaches. Usually, we set the entire tray out if temps are above 60 degrees.
As the weather warms, they’ll wind up in a cold frame. From there, it’s off to the major leagues and getting selected for planting in the garden itself, with ready row covers just in case of frost or colder temps.
You can gift or sell any extras you have.
Sell Extra Tomato Seedlings at Market
Tomato plants are always a popular item at Farmers Markets. There may be stiff competition, but less so if you’re selling organic and exotic varieties of tomatoes.
We often have extras to share with friends and sometimes sell at our local farmers market. The leftover “Black Krims” were a popular sales item last year.
As mentioned in the intro, it’s hard to find a lot of different organic varieties at any regular garden store. We figure offering folks an organic heirloom variety that they come to enjoy and save the seeds for next year, is something of a service.
Selling tomato plants can result in easy and profitable sales for market gardeners.
When to Plant Tomatoes
Plant tomatoes after the last frost and when the soil is between 64-82℉.
Most people plant tomato seeds indoors 4-8 weeks before planting outdoors. If you have a long growing season and prefer to plant them directly into the ground, just be sure to do so after the last frost.
Okay now do you want the real dirt on tomatoes? That’s it. It’s in the dirt.
Good tomatoes start with good seeds in good dirt.
It’s All in the Soil
Start with live dirt. It’s a whole secret world under those plants. The soil ecosystem is what holds it altogether and is the first source of life for your tomatoes. If you have good soil in your garden area and good “home-grown” compost, chances are you’ll have good tomatoes too.
If you have poor soil and no seasoned compost, or need a shortcut for growing tomatoes in pots, we recommend:
The soil ecosystem is what holds it altogether and is the first source of life for your plants.
Here’s a video of Coleman prepping one of our tomato raised beds.
Where to Buy Good Garden Soil
If you’re short on time or muscle and have Amazon Prime, you can have your order delivered to your door for free. We use this often, because we’ve discovered that it saves us a lot of time and gas.
For large batches of soil or manure, we load it in our pickup truck or trailer hitched to the truck. However, we hear from folks in our gardening community who are no longer as physically able or agile, so for those, direct to the door deliveries can be most helpful.
Home deliveries can cost more but save on time and effort.
Home deliveries—especially of heavy and bulky items—can save driving to and from the home stores, lugging dirty soil bags from store to car, then from the car to the garden. Let UPS deliver large things straight to your garage door (free shipping with Amazon Prime), and from there it’s straight to the garden or into the pot!
Home deliveries are especially good for those with disabilities.
When ordering online, just compare the retail price against your local homestore price plus the time and gas you’ll save. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t.
Just beware, not all compost is equal and even some organic compost has been found to be bad and toxic..
Best Soil = Best Tomatoes
Tomato soil must be alive with a presence of microorganisms and life giving minerals, healthy and free from any disease, especially fungal disease. If you give your tomatoes the best growing environment and conditions and avoid overcrowding, they’re less likely to become diseased.
Feed your soil with compost tea.
However, if you notice any tomato plant ailing, such as leaves yellowing or with brown spots, apply a remedy immediately. You can read about tomato diseases here.
For more on the types of tomato fungus and remedies, visit Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Extension.4)https://njaes.rutgers.edu/pubs/fs547/
Tomato blight is the #1 enemy of tomatoes.
The Best Soil for Tomatoes
The best soil for tomatoes is full of oxygen, neutral, non-acidic soil with a pH of 6.5-7.0. Interestingly…
The ideal pH range for tomatoes is identical to what’s best for the human body: 6.5-7.0 pH.
Test the texture of your soil by scooping a handful, squeeze it, and let it run through your fingers. Is it soft and fluffy? If so, that’s a good sign. If you can you mold it in your hands, then you’ve got clay soil, and will need to amend it or bring in good soil.
A plant’s environment begins with healthy soil.
Soil is your plants’ home environment.
- Good soil is soft and fluffy and sifts easily through your fingers.
- Clay soil molds into clumps.
Humans thrive in healthy environments, and it’s the same thing with plants.
Test Your Soil
Even if you think you have good soil, it may not have the right pH balance for growing the best tomatoes. It’s worth saving your crop to make sure that your plants’ most important environment is the right one for best growth.
Best to start your plant off right than to lament a bad crop after months of growing and tending them.
Soil Test Kits
There are many different kinds of soil testing. You can often get it tested for free through your local ag extension service, however, you may have to wait awhile to get the test results.
You can also get your own soil testers. There are many soil test kits and testing methods available to choose from, as you can see with this sampling:
We use one similar to this one by Environmental Concepts 1662 Professional Soil Test Kit with 40 Tests.
It takes a few more minutes than the strips or probe, but we’ve found it to be more reliable for this price range. This type of soil tester has many favorable reviews as well.5)https://forums2.gardenweb.com/discussions/1604994/comments-on-cheap-soil-ph-meters6)https://www.gardenmyths.com/soil-ph-testers-accurate/
We also have an article on soil testing methods, if you want to explore that further.
Best PH Soil Level for Tomatoes is 6.5-7.0
Invest in Your Garden Soil
If your soil is not optimal, you’ll need to either import soil or work in good amendments and a load of earthworms. Add in well-rotted compost with microorganisms, and some cow manure.
As famous market gardener and author, Jean-Martin Fortier advises: to invest in your soil is to set your garden up for success.
For our small garden, we still need to bring in some extra soil in spring. Especially if we’re building new raised beds as planned for this year. Filling those will take more soil than our straw bale gardening and will deplete our compost supply quickly.
Warmer days in spring but before the last frost are a good time to begin assessing and improving your soil health.
If you’d like to raise your own earthworms, a lady in the GardensAll community showed us her technique for worm farming. You can also buy worm “farms” and also “worms” on Amazon, or something simpler and cheaper such as a partially buried composting bucket.
Our homemade 3-bin compost system has become our worm refuge.
Local Sources of Manure
If you don’t have your own farm animals, you can look for a nearby farm source for horse, cow or chicken manure. You’ll usually need to load it and haul it home yourself.
Mix Manure with Straw
Once home, you’ll want to mix it with a bit of straw to help it break down in a looser mixture. If not, you can buy bagged cow manure from your local home store, feed and seed store, or on Amazon.
As indicated earlier, just check the price of to-your-door deliveries against your local prices. We’ve found 20 pound bag of organic manure to range from $6-$19 (local vs online).
Add Soil Microbes
You can also add “effective microorganisms“, which is a fermented microbial product for soil conditioning, or you can make your own with compost tea.
If you haven’t yet looked into compost tea, you’ll want to! Making your own Compost tea is a very simple overnight process that’s like compost on steroids, no worms required!
Compost tea is like compost on steroids.
Mix manure and extra nutrients into the soil and let it sit and rest for 7-10 days. This gives the soil a chance to absorb the oxygen.
The gardener prepares the garden soil in spring with as much care and anticipation as the soon-to-be parent, readying the nursery for the newborn.
Soak Your Soil with Epsom
Once the soil has rested, give it a soak with Epsom salt water for the magnesium before setting your seedlings. Use 2 tablespoons Epsom salt per gallon of water. For more on the benefits and background of Epsom salt, you may enjoy this article.
Tomatoes love phosphorous, magnesium and iron.
Tomatoes are thirsty plants, but while they like to drink, they don’t like to get wet in the sun. When rain soaks plants, the sun is rarely out, so to water the leaves when the sun is out can cause leaf burn.
Instead, water the soil around the plant regularly to keep the soil moist by day, but don’t water the leaves. For this reason, drip irrigation works better for tomatoes than sprinklers.
Oxygen is added to the soil when you water your garden.
Best Drip Irrigation Systems
These systems all have their pros and cons. Any plant watering system is going to take some time and patience to install, but of course they save time in the long run.
Tomatoes love water.
Drip irrigation works best.
At about 4 weeks there will be so much growth on your tomatoes you may have to water 2x per day on hot days. Now it’s time to start giving your tomato plants some more food. Feed them 2-3 times per week. Look for a good tomato fertilizer with phosphorus, magnesium, iron, molybdenum and nitrogen.
Snip Those Suckers!
Wow! You really have some lush, healthy plants growing now, right? Yeeessss…. BUT… not great tomato plants… yet! Right now you’re growing leaves not tomatoes! All the food, water and energy is being sucked away from the tomatoes.
So if it’s tomatoes you want, time to get out your clippers and start snipping off all those extra leaves and branches. Not just those bottom ones that are dragging in the dirt. Be ruthless, take more, then more again.
Be ruthless. Snip, then snip again.
That’s what it takes to end up with lots of beautiful tomatoes. You only need 3 or 4 leaves at the top and when new branches or leaves try to grow back snip them off again right to the stem. Do this as soon as you see the flower buds start to show. You’ll thank me later when you have a bounty of those mouth-watering delicious tomatoes.
Now if you want to have the maximum amount of tomatoes in the least amount of time with the healthiest, tastiest tomatoes there are a couple more things you must do.
A Tomato Greenhouse Would be Awesome!
#Wishlist! We don’t have the space where we are now, but it’s definitely in our future. If you have one now, that’s fantastic.
Tomatoes like greenhouses. Typically, you can better regulate the temperature. The best temperature for tomatoes is between 64-82 degrees Fahrenheit (18-28 degrees Celsius).
Greenhouses can also help with tomato plant fungus. Remember how tomatoes don’t like having water on the visible part of the plant? In a greenhouse you can control the watering with drip irrigation around the soil which keeps the leaves and fruits dry and less prone to fungus.
The greenhouse will allow them to withstand a bit of frost but it can also over heat them, which stops their production. So just make sure your greenhouse is well ventilated and shades out the sun when it gets too hot.
The best greenhouse for tomatoes are those with translucent white coverings that diffuse the light.
Diffused light reflects more fully throughout the entire greenhouse and eliminates over exposure from direct sunlight, which is why row covers and high tunnels also use the translucent white coverings.
There are a number of options in DIY materials as well as greenhouse kits in different sizes and styles that you can put together. So far, of the many people we hear from who have greenhouses, we’ve yet to hear someone say they wish they didn’t have one!!!
This isn’t just helpful for greenhouse pollination. If you assist your tomato flower pollination process, you’ll have more tomatoes, whether growing indoors or out.
In a greenhouse you’ll have to handle the pollination since you won’t be able to depend on wind, bees or birds. If you have a large greenhouse, this system of tying vertical tomato supports to a horizontal wire running above the plants works well.
If you’re having a hard time visualizing that, this video shows this process well.
To pollinate, get a stick of the proper length to reach comfortably to that top wire. If you’re on foot, you could use a broomstick or walking stick size pole. Next, where each rope is fastened begin to beat the bar causing a vibration to go throughout the entire plant.
Voila! Your pollinating is done! Do this 2-3 times a week as long as your plants are flowering and just about every flower your plant produces will turn into a juicy, scrumptious tomato!
Small Garden Outdoor Pollination
For a helpful video on tomato pollination for the smaller garden, Michigan Gardener (MIgardener) shows us how to self pollinate the tomatoes. While tomatoes plants are asexual, having both male and female parts in each flower, they don’t all get pollinated by insects.
MIgardener says that almost 100% of his tomato flowers give way to fruits using this super simple assisted pollination method.
Now you’ve got it all. The lowdown on growing deliciously mouth-watering tomatoes.
Growing Tomatoes in Containers
We also have tried growing tomatoes in pots and containers with mixed success. We used half barrels (whiskey or wine barrels), or you can get faux barrels for less. The tomato plants that did not fruit so well simply didn’t have enough sun.
If you have a sunny patio or deck area, container tomatoes can work very well. You’ll need a large garden planter and good soil. You might get something on a dolly or casters.
Special Tomatoes that Weren’t so Special
What about the amazingly colorful Brad’s Atomic Grape tommies from Baker’s Creek? They get a mixed review.
Many plants suffered the onset and rapid spread of blight that ruined the clusters of unripe Atomics. Those that have matured have mostly split (typical of many cherry tomatoes). Once split, the local inhabitants come to feast.
Taking Care of the Basics
Growing good tomatoes is all in the soil, sun and steady watering. Take care of these basics and add a little assisted pollination and you should have beautiful tomatoes. If you still have challenges, you can find more answers here.
Let us know your best tomato growing tips and photos and we’ll share them here.
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