How to Plant Tomatoes for Best Results

Updated November 13, 2019
Planting tomato plant in garden

It's easy to plant tomatoes so they grow bigger and produce more tomatoes. If you follow a few easy tips, you can minimize the amount of work it takes to plant tomatoes.

How to Start Tomatoes From Seeds Indoors

If you want to grow tomatoes from seeds, you need to start them indoors between 6-8 weeks before the last spring frost. Depending on your hardiness zone, that could mean you start tomatoes seeds as early as mid-January.

Select Seed Variety

Select your seeds.

  • Choose varieties that grow well in your area and will give you the type of tomato you like.
  • Grape and cherry tomatoes produce small tomatoes and can easily be grown in containers.
  • Plum or roma tomatoes are ideal for salsa and sauces since they contain more flesh.
  • Beefsteaks are great for sandwiches all summer long.

Avoid Dampening Off Disease

Tomatoes can fall victim to damping off disease. This soil-borne fungus attacks seedlings started indoors when there is too much moisture. Monitor and control watering and moisture to prevent this fungus from growing.

Indoor Growing Mediums

You have many choices for growing seeds indoors, from mini greenhouse biospheres using organic sponge plugs to peat pots and cowpots. You can also use a seedling tray. The type of seedling container to use is a personal choice.

Peat Pots and Cowpots

Some gardeners prefer to use peat pots (made from peat) or cowpots (made from composted cow manure) since they can plant the pot directly into the ground. Both types of pots are biodegradable and breakdown one planted in the soil.

tomato plant in peat pot
  • Some gardeners like the idea that the tender roots are protected.
  • Other espouse the idea that root exposure to the air can make root susceptible to disease.
  • Some gardeners don't like using peat pots citing they restrict root growth.
  • Use a tray to support the pots and provide a way to water the plants.

Grow Trays

You can purchase all types of grow trays with compartments. Select one that will provide enough spaces for the number of tomato plants you want. Provide 1.5 times more plants than you estimate you need to offset any plant loss.

Tips for Growing Healthy Tomato Seedlings Indoors

You want to provide warmth, light and water on a regular basis. Tomatoes love the sun and require a lot of water once planted in the garden. A few things to keep in mind will improve your success rate in growing strong vibrant tomato seedlings.

tomato seedlings ready for transplanting
  1. Make sure the seed starting soil has good drainage.
  2. Lightly moisten the soil before planting seeds.
  3. Plant tomato seeds about 1/8" deep.
  4. Lightly cover seeds with soil and gently tamp down the soil with your fingertips.
  5. Plant two seeds in each peat pots or each grow tray compartment.
  6. Sprinkle water over soil to moisten.
  7. Water seeds every day, to keep the soil moist.

Seed Germination

Planting two seeds together ensures at least one seed will germinate. If both seeds germinate, wait to see which one is the strongest. You'll want to pull the weaker one and throw it away. This ensures you end up with the strongest and healthiest plants for your garden.

  • A seedling heat mat will help seeds germinate and tomato plants maintain healthy growth.
  • Use grow lights to emulate full sun spectrum.
  • Allow plants to rest eight hours in darkness.
  • Don't over water seedlings but keep soil moist.
  • Check grow pot and tray to make sure water isn't collecting in the bottom.
  • Regular watering ensures healthy tomato plants.
  • Don't allow soil to dry out. This will kill the roots.

Seed Leaves and True Leaves

Seeds contain enough energy to germinate and bring forth the first leaves, known as seed leaves. The first pair of true leaves follow quickly and are joined by the second pair. The seed leaves will die and fall off. The seed leaves don't resemble the true tomato leaves. In fact, different plant seed leaves often look the same.

Fertilizing Tomato Seedlings

Do not fertilize your tomato seedlings until the second set of true leaves emerge and the third set begins. You will dilute the recommended amount of fertilizer by half, so you don't burn and kill the tender seedlings.

Tomato seedlings close up

Choosing Seedling Fertilizer

A fish emulsion is a good choice of fertilizer since it can be mixed and sprayed directly onto the leaves for rapid absorption. Beware that the smell is not pleasant, but there are odor free ones on the market that you can purchase. You may prefer to use a different type of fertilizer marketed specifically for tomato seedlings. You need to fertilize tomato seedlings twice a week.

Fertilizers for Tomatoes

There are several tomato fertilizers on the market. You can buy fertilizers just for tomatoes, such as Tomato-Tone 3-4-6. This type of fertilizer can be used to side dress once your transplanted the tomatoes. You can use a water-soluble balanced NPK fertilizer that has a 1:1:1 ratio. NPK stands for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (K).

Hardening Off Tomato Seedlings for Outdoor Conditions

As soon as the day temperatures are in the 60s and 70s, you can take your seedlings, tray and all outside to begin hardening them off. This is a gradual process that acclimates your tomato plants to natural conditions outside.

  1. Place trays on the ground underneath a tree.
  2. You want to set the trays in an area protected from the wind and sun.
  3. Leave your plant outside for two hours and then return them to their home indoors.
  4. For the next two days, leave the plants underneath the tree for two to three hours.
  5. As long as the temperatures continue to rise, you can increase their stay outside for three to four hours, until you reach morning to night.
  6. After about four days, you can move the plants, so they are in partial shade.
  7. Around day six, you can venture to place your tomato plants in full sunlight for one hour, then move to partial shade.
  8. Keep a close watch and if your plants start to droop, move them out of the sun and water. They should quickly revive.
  9. Take it gradual introducing them to longer stays in the sun.
  10. By the time you can leave them out in the sun all day.
  11. Continue to bring your plants inside until the nights are 50°F or higher.
  12. Around the eighth or ninth day, place your tomato trays in the garden bed you intend to transplant them. Leave them here a couple of days, making sure to water them regularly.
  13. By the ten or eleventh day, your tomato plants are ready to be transplanted.

Best Garden Spot for Tomato Plants

You want to ensure the spot you've designated for growing tomatoes is ideal. Tomatoes love being in full sunlight. You should have this planting area prepared by the time you start to harden off your tomato plants. This includes tilling, adding amendments and compost.

Woman preparing garden for tomatoes

Ideal Soil for Tomatoes

Loam soil and sandy loam soil are great for growing tomatoes. If you have clay soil you can amend it for better draining and nutrients by adding mulch, peat moss and compost. You can purchase organic soils or create your own with compost, sand and topsoil. There are soils marketed specifically for tomato growing but they aren't necessary.

Row Plantings

Many gardeners plant their vegetables in garden fields. This requires creating planting rows. And can be done with a tiller.

  1. Lay out the rows so there is enough space to till between the rows as a great weed prevention technique. This will also give you a walking path and working area between rows.
  2. Keep in mind that some determinant tomatoes can grow as high as 4'-5'. Indeterminate tomatoes will keep growing as long as they have a place to climb.
  3. Be aware of nearby plantings so the tomatoes don't blot out the sun.
  4. Tomatoes love warm temperatures and sunshine.

Transplanting Purchased Tomato Plants

If you didn't grow your tomatoes from seed, but purchased plants from a garden store, harden off the plants for 5-7 days before panting. Check with the center for the types of soil and types of fertilizer they used. This will allow you to recreate the same environment in your home garden, ensuring the plants will thrive and grow.

Time to Plant Your Tomatoes

It's critical to give your tomatoes a good start. This means proper transplanting to ensure the root systems thrive. Try not to disturb the root system since this will minimize the shock plants undergo when transplanted.

Planting tomato transplant in garden
  1. Use a handheld gardening trowel and cultivator to create a hole 3"-4" deep.
  2. Space plants about 18 inches apart to allow ample room to grow and expand.
  3. If using peat pots, place the plant and pot into the hole you dug.

How to Remove Plants From Plastic Pots

You purchased tomato plants or grew them in plastic pots, you need to remove the plant in order to transplant into your garden.

  1. Tilt the plant at a 45° angle and slip your forefinger and middle finger on either side of the stem base.
  2. Slowly turn the pot upside down and allow the plant to slip from the pot and settle in your hand, keeping it secure with your two fingers providing support.
  3. You will simply turn the plant upright into the garden hole allow it to ease from your fingers.

How to Remove Tomato Plants From Grow Trays

Most grow tray compartments are joined together. You can remove the tomato plants easily by using a small screwdriver.

  1. Locate the drain hole underneath the tray for the plant you wish to remove.
  2. Gently insert the screwdriver into the drain hole and slightly push.
  3. The tomato plug will pop out and is ready to be transplanted.

How to Transplant Your Tomato Plants

You will plant one tomato plant in each hole you dug along the row. You can use the hand cultivator or your hands to fill in the holes.

  1. Hold the plant upright as you carefully add the soil back into the hole.
  2. Use the cultivator to rake in the soil evenly around each plant.
  3. Cover the plant with soil until the hole is filled and level with the ground.
  4. Give the tomato plant a "hug" with your hands and press the soil firmly around the plant. Do not push down hard.
  5. Ensure the tomato plant is standing straight up.
  6. Planting tomatoes is only complete once you water them. Use low flow watering and soak your plants for best results.
  7. If using a tomato cage, install these now instead of waiting for the plants to grow taller.

Using Plastic Mulch

Many gardeners prefer to use plastic mulch as a weed barrier. This is a popular practice used with drip irrigation systems. You can purchase red plastic mulch that was developed to increase tomato product around 30% higher yield.

Plastic weed barrier planting tomatoes

How to Properly Stake Tomatoes

Keep tomatoes upright. Use a mesh tomato tower to do this or just use a tomato stake. Tie the plant's center most stem to the post and allow it to grow upright against it. You'll need to continually tie the plants up as they grow.

Plant Stress Due to Transplanting

For the first couple of days, your plants may suffer from transplanting stress and be droopy. Keep your plants watered (don't over water) and they will soon be standing upright again.

  1. Add 1"-2" of compost and/or mulch around the base of the plants.
  2. Once your plants perk back up, you can fertilize them and then hold off further fertilizing until they begin to set fruit.
  3. Follow good tomato growing techniques to ensure your tomatoes produce an abundant crop.

Ongoing Care for Tomato Plants

Keep tomatoes watered. While the top layer of soil can be dry, you want the soil near the roots to stay moist throughout the growing season. Once your plant sets fruit, about 1/2" - 1" in diameter, you can begin fertilizing once a week, either with a fertilizer side dressing or liquid fish emulsion spray. Keep the plants mulched to reduce weeds and pull any weeds when they first emerge from the soil for a healthy tomato crop. Some types of tomato plants also need pruning.

Growing Tomatoes in Containers

There are all types of tomatoes containers on the market and are a great way to create a garden in small spaces. Some containers feature a reservoir underneath the soil are a great way to have low-maintenance patio tomatoes. Depending on the sun and heat, you may only need to refill the reservoir once or twice a week. Most come with a tomato cage making it unnecessary to stake the plant.

planting tomato plant in a pot

Other Types of Containers

You can use other types of containers, such as flowerpots, grow bags or makeshift plastic containers. Be sure to use a food grade plastic to avoid harmful chemicals from leeching into the soil. Chose determinate tomatoes when growing in containers since these plants have a limited height range between 4'-5'.

A Few Helpful Tomato Planting Tips

There are a few tips that can help you grow outstanding tomato plants. Use what tips you feel comfortable implementing.

Sideways Planting

You can encourage greater root growth by planting tomatoes sideways.

  1. You'll need to dig a wider hole.
  2. Lay the tomato plant on its side.
  3. Allow the lower part of the plant, including the roots to remain horizontal on the ground.
  4. Carefully bend the top 5"-6" of the plant upright as you fill in the hole with soil.
  5. The buried part of the stem will develop more roots to support a stronger plant.

Burying Three-Quarters of the Plant

Another technique to encourage deeper root systems is to bury 3/4 of the tomato plant, removing any branches. New roots will emerge along the buried stem to provide an abundance of energy and nutrients to the plant. This planting technique is especially helpful in drought prone regions.

Rewards of Planting and Growing Tomatoes

Planting tomatoes is a great way to have a healthy vegetable on your table all summer long. You should get multiple harvests from your plants throughout the summer months.

How to Plant Tomatoes for Best Results