red tomatoes on a vine

Beginners Guide To Growing Tomatoes

Tomatoes that are grown at home are so much better than store-bought tomatoes. The flavor far surpasses any commercially grown tomatoes, and it’s well worth the effort to learn how to grow tomatoes. 

This beginner’s guide to growing tomatoes is perfect for those who want to learn how to grow tomatoes. Home gardeners will find tips on how to start tomatoes from seeds, as well as how to transplant them.

Tomatoes are the first choice for many beginner gardeners because they are easy to grow.

They are a must in my garden every year. We like to eat them fresh, but the majority of our tomatoes go towards homemade tomato soup, pasta sauce, pizza sauce, and salsa.

I usually toss a bunch in the freezers, as freezing tomatoes produces a thicker sauce.

A successful tomato growing year means we have to buy zero tomato products from the store. This helps our grocery budget, and it’s also a lot healthier for us. 

When deciding to grow tomatoes, you can either start tomatoes from seeds or buy seedlings from your local nursery. I’ve done both, and your tomato harvest can be very successful either way.

If you do not have a proper setup to start seedlings, buying transplants is often the way to go. 

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    Growing Tomatoes From Transplants

    There are many different types of tomato plants to grow, and deciding which type to buy can seem overwhelming at first. When buying tomato transplants, take into consideration the type of plant, the health of the plant, and the tomato variety.

    There are two main types of tomatoes to consider; determinate and indeterminate tomatoes.

    Determinate varieties will only grow to a certain size and put in their best effort into one big harvest. These varieties usually grow to a maximum of four feet tall.

    These are usually bush plants.  

    Indeterminate tomato varieties will continue growing fruit throughout the year, and grow much larger.

    They can grow anywhere from 6-10 feet tall and are usually vine tomatoes.

    Our short growing season lends itself well to bush types, but there are several indeterminate types that do well here too. 

    Another thing to consider when buying seeds or transplants is whether you want to save seeds or not.

    Tomato plants can be hybrid or open-pollinated (also called Heirloom tomatoes).

    Hybrid means that if you would save seeds, the plant would not be true to seed. Open-pollinated tomato plants produce seeds that are true to type.

    When choosing tomato plants at your local garden center, choose the healthiest young plants. Start with the healthiest tomato seedling you can find. 

    A healthy tomato plant will have a nice, medium shade of green, not too dark, but also not too light. A medium shade means the plant has a nice balance of nutrients.

    Also check for purple hues, especially the underside of the plant. I find some varieties are naturally more purple-tinged than others, but purple hues indicate a phosphorus deficiency.

    Leave behind plants that are small and lack vigor, if possible. If that’s all the garden center has leftover, I would still get them if they are just slightly sad-looking.

    They might still do great when planted into your garden, so don’t write them off completely.

    Scroll down to see how to transplant tomatoes into your garden. 

    Growing Tomatoes From Seeds

    Tomatoes are one of the easiest things to grow from seeds. You need to plant them about 6-8 weeks before your last frost date.

    By this time they will probably be more than a foot tall (especially if you have a good grow light system).

    Tomato seeds are readily available through seed catalogs as well as local garden centers. There are many different varieties of seeds, and you will want to determine which one is the best for your growing season.

    It is best to buy your tomato seeds several months ahead of time because stores usually are well-stocked at that time. Order your seeds when you are planning your garden, to ensure a good selection.

    Fill your seed trays with seed starting or multi-purpose potting soil. Poke holes about half-inch deep in each about two inches apart, put in one or two seeds in each hole. 

    Once you’ve placed your seeds in the holes, push the soil over it, and pat the soil gently. Push out any air pockets to help roots grow stronger. Then water them in.

    Don’t forget to label your plants, then place the lid back on. Tomato plants usually germinate quickly, and within five days you should be able to see the seedlings pocking their heads out from the soil. 

    When to Transplant Tomato Seedlings from Seed Tray

    Knowing when to repot tomato seedlings is as simple as counting the leaves. The first two leaves that tomato plants get are called seed leaves.

    These do not pattern themselves after the leaves of a mature plant and are called Cotyledons. They are a bit like energy bars for the infant plant. They are actually part of the seed or embryo of the plant.

    Once your tomato seedling has four leaves, 2 cotyledons, and two true leaves, then you are ready to repot your tomato seedlings.

    Transplanting them into bigger containers will encourage a stronger root system and bigger growth. Tomatoes need the nutrients of the soil, and this will ensure their healthy growth continues. 

    Transplant your starter plants into a container that has holes at the bottom for proper drainage. This helps to prevent root rot. 

    Using multi-purpose potting soil, fill your containers. Add spent coffee grounds to your potting soil if you want. Carefully dig a hole into the middle of each one.

    Pick up the plant without squeezing the stem and place it into the hole. Carefully push the soil around it. Tomatoes have small hairs around the stem which allows you to plant them as deep as you want.

    These hairs will turn into roots. If you have really leggy seedlings, this will allow you to plant them extra deep, and promote a better root system.

    Pack it down until it feels firm. Water it well, and let it grow. 

    Leave it somewhere sunny and warm until you are ready to transplant it into your garden. 

    How to Separate Tomato Seedlings

    Use a teaspoon to help pop the seedling out of the tray.

    Give the plant a little squeeze at the bottom to help it pop out of the tray. Try not to touch or squeeze the stem too much.

    Gently massage the root system to loosen the soil, and separate the roots. Another way is to take a sharp knife and cut through the roots.

    Tomato plants that are hardy don’t mind some interference, as long as they get put back into the soil quickly. 

    How To Prevent Leggy Tomato Seedlings

    Leggy tomatoes come from one main reason and several small ones. This usually happen to seedlings that are started indoors.

    If the problem is caught early on, it can usually be solved. If uncorrected, leggy seedlings can weaken their stems, making them more prone to pests and diseases.

    Using a growing light is a great way to prevent leggy seedlings. I have no south-facing windows in our home that I can use to start seedlings.

    My seed starting journey took an upturn once I received grow lights. They completely transformed my tomato growing experience.

    Extreme heat can also cause leggy seedlings as well. After your seeds have germinated, don’t continue to leave them on the heating mat.

    As soon as seeds germinate, they respond to heat by putting up tall, skinny stems before leaf production can catch up. 

    Inconsistent moisture and not enough space can also contribute to leggy seedlings, but I don’t find this to be as big of a problem as a lack of light.

    Providing more light is the number 1 solution to preventing leggy tomato seedlings. Most vegetable seedlings need about 16 hours of light and 8 hours of dark to thrive. 

    When To Transplant Tomatoes Outdoors

    Transplant tomatoes outside when the soil is warm and the danger of frost has passed. Tomato plants do not handle any frost, so it’s best not to challenge them.

    If you bought tomato seedlings from the store, they should not need to be hardened off, although it would still be wise to take precautions and harden them off anyway.

    Transplant shock is one of my greatest battles in growing tomatoes. I tend to be impatient and plant them too quickly, without proper hardening off. Then my plants really struggle to gain ground and grow. 

    How To Prevent Tomato transplant shock

    Before planting your tomatoes outside, you have to harden them off. This essentially means getting them used to the weather outside slowly.

    Too much wind and heat can cause transplant shock very quickly. Start by putting your tomato plants outside for an hour the first day, and adding an hour every day. Do this for at least a week before you want to place them in your garden. 

    Another tip on how to prevent tomato transplant shock is by planting them into the garden on an overcast day, or in the evening when the sun is not as strong.

    This gives them a night to acclimate to the weather before being bombarded by the sun’s hot rays.

    However, this tip doesn’t replace hardening them off. Tomato plants that are not hardened off are more susceptible to stem breakage and yellowing of leaves. 

    How to plant tomatoes in the ground

    Make holes that are about 4-6 inches deep. 

    Turn your pot upside down, and gently squeeze the bottom of the pot. The plant should come out easily.

    Take two eggshells, crush them finely, and place them into the hole. This will provide some much-needed calcium for the plants later on when they need it.

    Add some granulated banana peel fertilizer to the hole as well, for an added dose of potassium.

    Place your tomato plant into the hole, and push back the soil around it.

    When planting, bury a couple of inches of the stem. Tomatoes have small hairs around the stem which allows you to plant them as deep as you want.

    These hairs will turn into roots. If you have really leggy seedlings, this will allow you to plant them extra deep, and promote a better root system.

    Place a bamboo stick, or other tomato staking device into the ground beside the plant immediately after planting. If you wait until they are established, you will be disturbing the root system by sticking the stick or cage into the ground.

    As the plant grows, tie it to the stick with twine, or wrap the vine around so that it naturally clings to the stake. 

    How far apart to plant tomatoes? 

    Plant your tomato plants approximately two feet apart. If you have a small garden, it is perfectly acceptable o plant them a foot apart.

    Square foot gardening is great for small spaces, and your plants will still thrive even if they are a bit more crowded.

    Caring for Your Tomato Plants While they are Growing

    Tomato plants are heavy feeders, so they need some additional fertilizer as they are growing. Worm tea or compost tea is a great fertilizer that is all-natural and has no chemicals added. 

    Pruning them regularly is also helpful to prevent fungal diseases such as blossom end rot. Staking them helps for this, and so does regular pruning. 

    Tomatoes usually need about 1-2 inches of water a week. Too much and the plants will drown. Too little, as well as inconsistent watering can cause blossom end rot, split tomatoes, and stressed plants. 

    The soil moisture level should stay consistent throughout the growing season. Water well, but less often to produce a strong root system.

    Tomatoes are heat-loving plants. They need at least 6 hours every day but do better with full sun. Keep them free from too much weed competition, and prepare to enjoy some large juicy tomatoes. 

    The size and flavor of your tomatoes have a lot to do with the health of your soil. Growing healthy, fertile soil will help your garden plants to flourish.

    Adding in organic matter will help grow a healthy plant and delicious tomatoes.

    There are two ways to harvest your tomatoes. The most desired way is to pick them when they are fully ripe, on the vine, at the end of the growing season. However, in our zone that is not possible.

    We always need to harvest our tomatoes green and allow them to ripen in cardboard boxes. Because of early frost, harvesting green tomatoes is a great way to be able to enjoy tomatoes into the late fall.

    green tomatoes in a bowl

    Growing tomatoes can be a fun and rewarding experience for beginner gardeners. This beginner’s guide to growing tomatoes will help ensure your success.

    Simple and fun, these tips will help you grow beautiful, homegrown tomatoes.

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