If you are a beginner gardener ready to grow tomatoes, these starter tips will set you on the path to success and avoid common problems when growing heirloom and hybrid tomatoes.
For all the basics, also see Tomato Growing Tips for Beginners.
Avoiding Beginner Mistakes
If you’re a beginner gardener ready to grow your first tomato plants, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve made all the mistakes so you don’t have to.
There’s a few basics to know to ensure you will have a delicious harvest of fresh tomatoes and avoid some common problems that can happen along the way.
I’ve kept it simple, so you can check the list, know what to expect, and start growing.
1. Start with Healthy Plants
You can buy starter plants or start your tomatoes from seed.
If you are a new gardener, it’s not always easy to assess the health of a plant at a garden nursery. You may want to ask for help from a friend or staff at a garden nursery. But choose your advisors carefully. I’ve shopped at nurseries where the staff and knowledgeable about plants are honest about plant health. I’ve also been to nurseries filled with plant diseases where everyone was acting like nothing was amiss. Twilight Zone!
Sometimes it is obvious that a plant is in distress: the leaves will be yellowing—not just one, but several— or the plant appears wilted and sickly. Other times the plant looks okay but there are actually insects under the leaves or in the soil.
Have a good look at the plant before you purchase it, and, if you have any doubts, don’t buy it.
Another common problem is when plants have been suped up in perfect greenhouse conditions that we can’t replicate at home. The change in conditions can cause plants to struggle or die, but, if your tomato starter plants are healthy, they should rebound with the right care.
If you want to start your tomatoes from seed, this should begin a couple of months before your last frost to allow time for seed shopping and preparations. Starting your own seeds allows way more options than garden nurseries can provide. I have an indoor seed sowing plan here and complete instructions starting plants from seed indoors here.
Order seed catalogues or browse online:
2. Know What You’re Buying
There are many varieties of tomatoes to choose from.
Should I get heirloom or hybrid tomatoes?
There’s benefits to both:
- Some of your favorites may be heirlooms with the added benefit that you can save the seeds for planting next year.
- Hybrids tend to be very reliable growers and disease-resistant, but you do need to buy new seeds each year (or buy starter plants).
Try some of both! I like to grow a few old favorites plus some new varieties each year.
The type of seed is not often mentioned on the plant tag and you may need to ask the vendor. Bigger nurseries and chain stores usually carry hybrids. Smaller and independent growers may sell heirlooms (and let you know because they like them).
How big will the tomato plants grow?
- Bush tomatoes (also known as determinates) max out at about 3 feet tall and wide. These tomatoes ripen all at once at the end of the growing season.
- Semi-determinates are bush tomatoes that provide a second harvest.
- Vine tomatoes (also known as indeterminates) continue growing until the cold weather sets in. They can last for years in greenhouses. These tomato plants can grow 6 feet and more, and they provide a continuous harvest once the first fruits ripen.
Is there enough time in your growing season?
- Check the plant tags for the ‘number of days to maturity’.
- Calculate how many days until you can expect your first fall frost.
Are there enough days for the tomatoes to grow and ripen before then?
Keep in mind that growth and ripening slows as the days shorten and grow cooler.
How to Find Your Frost Dates and Hardiness Zone
3. Wait for Warmth
Tomatoes are warmth-loving plants.
- If you have purchased tomato plants before the last frost of the season (in your area), hold off planting and keep them watered in a sunny, warm location.
- The soil is generally warm enough for planting outdoors about two weeks after last frost.
If you’ve been coddling your tomato plants or seedlings indoors, be sure to transition them gradually to life outdoors using this method.
4. Provide a Good Foundation
You can plant tomatoes in containers or in the ground.
- If planting in containers, use organic container mix suitable for vegetables. Containers offer the advantage of being able to move the plants around as needed.
- If planting in the ground, make sure your soil is rich in organic matter and allow room for growth, keeping in mind that many tomato plants end up 2-3 feet wide.
5. Choose a Sunny Location
Ideally, tomatoes should get full sun for 8 hours per day.
They will still grow with less sun, but the shadier the conditions, the longer it takes for the fruit to ripen.
Too much heat can cause the flowers to drop off, which means no fruit.
6. Set Up Supports Before You Plant
If you’ve ever tried to train a mature tomato plant, you know how hard it is. Once they have branches and leaves, it’s nearly impossible to get them into support cages or trellises without damaging the plant.
It’s much better to set up the supports at planting time and continue to tie them as they grow. Otherwise, any strong winds, rain, or handling can break off the fruiting branches.
The more heavy-duty your supports, the better. I have a tutorial here for making tomato cages from wood. You can also use cattle or hog panels (welded grid metal sheets, often sold in 16-foot lengths) or other rolls of welded metal.
7. Learn About Suckers and Pruning
Tomato plants have 3 basic parts: the main stem, stems with leaves, and suckers. All of these are natural and normal. The stems and suckers grow little yellow flowers that gradually morph into fruit (tomatoes).
In general, bush-type tomato plants (determinates) do not require pruning. They form their fruit at the end of their branches, and you do not want to decrease fruit production by removing stems with flowers.
Vine tomatoes (indeterminates) can become unwieldy and prone to breakage. To prevent problems, it’s advised to have 4-5 fruiting stems and prune away the rest.
8. Be Prepared to Water Daily
Tomatoes require consistent moisture levels and are not good vacation plants.
If you’re going to grow tomatoes, plan to check them at least once a day, and more often during heat waves, or set up a drip irrigation system.
A layer of straw mulch can also help keep moisture in (and some pests out).
Warm water is best. If you fill your watering can after each use, the water will be warm and free of chlorine by the next day.
What happens if watering is uneven?
- Uneven watering can cause the flowers to drop off, or conditions like blossom end-rot.
- Sometimes excessive rain will actually cause the fruit to crack open.
Organic Slow-Release Tomato Fertilizer
9. Know What Blight Is
Yes, blight and other diseases happens. Blight (early or late) is caused by a fungus that causes the tomato plants to wither and die.
There are also various types of tomato wilt. The fun never stops.
It’s good to be aware of these things so you can catch them early. If you suddenly notice your plants don’t quite look right, do some Googling and see what it might be.
Sometimes, if you act early, you can prevent the spread, and, in some cases like blight, even if the plants look terrible, the fruit may be unaffected and still edible, though you still have to properly dispose of the affected foliage.
There are also intriguing beasts like the tomato hornworm to keep things interesting.
10. Tag Your Plants
Be sure to tag your plants so you know what’s what and can track each variety by name. This way you’ll learn which varieties grow nicely in your garden and taste delicious. This is the tagging method I use for tags that never fade, rust, and last for years.
If you just want to write plant tags with a long-lasting marker, this shows which type of marker paint pen to buy.
If you grow some heirloom varieties, plan to set aside some of the ripe fruit for seed saving. This tells you how to save heirloom tomato seeds. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve accidentally eaten everything and then remembered this too late!
Hybrid seeds provide excellent plants as well, but the seeds are not reliable for saving.
Mark your calendar for next year—seed starting should begin indoors a few months before last frost.
This is a good reference if you want all your tomato growing info in one place:
Savor your best tomato harvest ever! Craig LeHoullier provides everything a tomato enthusiast needs to know about growing more than 200 varieties of tomatoes, from planting to cultivating and collecting seeds at the end of the season. He also offers a comprehensive guide to various pests and tomato diseases, explaining how best to avoid them. With beautiful photographs and intriguing tomato profiles throughout, Epic Tomatoes celebrates one of the most versatile and delicious crops in your garden.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛