How to Plant Tomatoes in Your Garden

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Growing tomatoes is a rewarding summer activity, even for beginning gardeners. Give your plants the right start, and you’ll soon be enjoying a bumper crop of fresh produce.

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Tomatoes are a classic garden crop — and for good reason. Not only are they space-efficient and suitable for a range of growing conditions, but they are impressive producers that leave you with an abundance of garden bounty for your efforts. Best of all, tomatoes are relatively easy to grow, even for beginners.

Whether you plan to start your plants from seed or purchase seedlings from a local nursery, this guide will help you get your best crop of tomatoes yet. But be warned — one bite of a homegrown tomato, and you’ll never be satisfied with store-bought again.

How to Plant Tomatoes in Your Garden
What Kind of Tomato?

Your first decision is whether to purchase tomato transplants or start the crop from seed. The biggest advantages of starting seeds are low costs and greater variety. You can buy a packet of 20+ seeds for the price of one seedling and can choose from dozens more varieties than offered at most nurseries.

Either way, it’s essential to know what kind of variety you’re growing. Tomatoes come in three main types:

How to Plant Tomatoes in Your Garden

Tomatoes can also be determinate or indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes will produce one crop of fruit and stop, while indeterminate will produce throughout an entire growing season.

How to Start Tomatoes from Seed

Starting tomatoes from seed is easier than most think and takes minimal space.

1. Plan the Timing

It takes between 6-8 weeks for tomatoes started from seed to be ready to go in the garden. Leave them indoors too long, and they will grow too leggy and become less adaptable to outdoor conditions.

So, count back from the last predicted frost date for your region and start your seeds indoors according to this timeframe. Ideally, you should be getting your plants outside one week after the last frost.

How to Plant Tomatoes in Your Garden
2. Prep Your Containers

There’s no limit to the kinds of containers you can use for starting seeds. Standard plastic 1020 seed trays work well, or you can use biodegradable paper cups. Some people save plastic containers all year for starting seeds. Whatever you use, make sure the containers are thoroughly cleaned before use and have drainage holes along the bottom.

How to Plant Tomatoes in Your Garden
3. Get a Seed Starting Mix

Tomato plants can only grow as healthy as the soil they’re planted in. Give them the best start with a high-quality potting mix that contains plenty of nitrogen. The best mixes tend to include a combination of peat, vermiculite, and perlite. Make sure it isn’t packed too tightly, so the roots have space to expand.

4. Plant Carefully

Once the soil is prepped, you’re ready to plant. Tomato seeds should only go one quarter-inch deep; otherwise, they may struggle to sprout. Ensure the soil is thoroughly moistened, and label each variety to keep things organized. You can speed up germination with a plastic cover placed over the seed trays.

How to Plant Tomatoes in Your Garden
5. Provide Light and Moisture

Keep the planters in a space with plenty of light — south-facing windows or grow lights will work well. Any “leggy” growth is a sign you need to boost the lighting. The soil should stay consistently moist but not oversaturated. Too much water, and you’ll encourage rot.

How to Plant Tomatoes in Your Garden

You should start to see seedlings emerge within two weeks.

How to Harden Tomato Seedlings

After 6-8 weeks of growth, your tomato seedlings will be sturdy plants with true leaves. Now it’s time to start acclimating them to outdoor conditions. This process, called hardening, needs to happen slowly. Move too fast, and you’ll shock the plants beyond recovery.

Start by bringing your seedlings outdoors for a few hours. Extend the time daily, so they are gradually introduced to more sunlight. After two weeks, they should be ready to stay outdoors permanently.

Note: Hardening is also essential for nursery-grown tomatoes.

How to Plant Tomatoes in Your Garden
Prepping Garden Beds for Tomatoes

Tomatoes thrive in nitrogen-rich soil with good drainage. They are excellent candidates for raised beds if your backyard soil isn’t ideal.

Several weeks before planting, check the planting location to ensure it’s workable at least 8-10 inches down. Consider performing a soil test to determine what amendments to add. A healthy dose of aged compost is always a good idea.

How to Plant Tomatoes in Your Garden

Tomatoes need warm soil. Speed up the process in the spring by covering the ground with black plastic to absorb the heat. This will also prevent weed germination before planting.

How to Plant Tomatoes

Wait to plant tomatoes until a cloudy day after the risk of frost has passed. Water the seedlings well beforehand, and dig holes in the soil slightly larger than the pot they are grown in. Take care to disturb the roots as little as possible to reduce planting stress.

How to Plant Tomatoes in Your Garden

Tomatoes thrive when buried deep, as it encourages a strong root system. Space each plant at least 18-inches apart, and add a light layer of mulch around the base of the plants. This will reduce weed competition and help retain soil moisture.

Tomato Plant Maintenance

Keep the plants weed-free and well-watered throughout the summer, staking or trellising the plants as they start to grow tall. Consider feeding them with a tomato-specific fertilizer if you see signs of struggle — especially as the fruit begins to form.

How to Plant Tomatoes in Your Garden

By giving tomatoes the best start at the beginning of the growing season, you’re setting yourself up for relatively easy maintenance for the rest of the summer. Relax now that the hardest work is done, and start planning how you will put your backyard tomato harvest to use.