Growing tomatoes is a wonderful way to dip your toe into the gardening world. Learn how to grow tomatoes from seed all the way to harvest, including how to transplant, water, prune, and more!
Growing Tomatoes From Seed to Harvest
Garden fresh tomatoes have got to be one of my favorite things in the world! The first time I ever gardened, I went full in and started my own tomato seeds. I had never grown anything in my life and guess what..... it actually worked!
I figured if I could do it, then just about anyone one could. Here I am 8 years later and let's just say I may have a slight tomato problem in the best kind of way.
I've just come to terms with the fact that I'm a crazy tomato lady. As in, I started over 300 tomatoes seeds in about 30 varieties this year. Oh, I didn't plant them all.... I sold a few and gave a bunch away but overall, I still put over 100 in my own gardens.
Step One: Get Started
Starting tomatoes from seed really is a simple task, all you need it some high-quality seeds, great starting soil, a planting vessel, warmth, light, and water.
First on the agenda is choosing your seeds. I am an heirloom tomato connoisseur. I love unique, interesting, and beautiful fruits and I also love preserving the history of older varieties. You don't have to use heirloom seeds; you can choose any tomato that tickles your fancy!
What is your goal for your tomatoes? Do you want slicing tomatoes for sandwiches? Do you want cherry and grape tomatoes for snacking on? Do you want pasting tomatoes for making sauce?
You will also want to decide how many tomato plants of each type you need. Our personal goal is plenty of fresh eating as well as canning a years’ worth of sauce for our family.
Once you've chosen your varieties of tomatoes to grow, you're ready to get them started. You'll want to check with your gardening zone and growing times for your area. This varies all over the world based on frost dates and climate.
Now, you will choose the type of container to plant in. When starting tomato seeds, you don't need a lot of space, they can be transplanted once they begin to outgrow their original container.
I've used small cell starting trays, peat cups, plastic pots, and disposable plastic cups with a hole poked in the bottom. There's always the option of making your own starting container. You want the container to hold the soil, hold moisture, and to have good drainage.
Now, you're ready to plant those seeds! This is the easy part. Fill your vessel with soil, place your seed in the center and cover with a thin layer of soil (around 1/8"-1/4"). You can either pre-moisten your soil before planting or go ahead and water it once you've covered your seed.
You'll want to keep your seed setup under lights, in a warm place that consistently stays between 70°F- 80°F. You also want to keep the soil moist but not soaking wet. Tomato seeds generally take 7-10 days to germinate.
Step Two: Transplant
Once your little tomato plants have their first true leaves and the outdoor soil temperatures are warm enough (50° is the very minimum you'll want), you'll be ready to harden off your seedlings and transplant them.
Now, if all of that just doesn't sound like an undertaking you are ready for, you can always buy seedlings from a store or a local farm/nursery. This is a great option as well! You'll treat the seedlings the same way whether you started them or you bought them.
I like for my seedlings to reach 6"-10" tall and be well established when I transplant them. This is one of the most fun parts of growing tomatoes..... who am I kidding? I think all of it is the most fun!
To transplant, you simply dig a hole deep enough for the entire root system to be deeply covered in soil. I actually like to plant my tomatoes extra deep, all the way up to the bottom leafed branches. The stem of the tomato will continue to put out roots so this makes for an extra hardy plant.
Step Three: Support Your Plants
As the tomato plants grow, it will need to be staked, caged, or trellised to keep it growing upward and not sprawling on the ground. A tomato is actually a vining plant so left to do its own thing; it will crawl all over your garden.
You can use tomato cages but I find the tomatoes outgrow these quickly. Staking your tomatoes with tomato stakes, large sticks, or bamboo is another great option to keep those tomatoes tame. My preferred method is a trellis for them to grow up and be tied to. I like cattle panels for this but you can explore other trellis ideas.
Step Four: Prune and Sucker
Pruning your tomatoes is something you'll want to think about. Tomatoes can get to be pretty bush and wild. Some people like to just let them grow but I find that I have healthier plants and better yields by heavily pruning my plants.
I usually remove all of the lower branches on my tomato plants. Anywhere from 12"-20" of the lower stem will be branch free by the time the plant matures. This keeps the foliage from laying on the ground and helps to prevent blights and fungus growth.
I try to keep my tomato plants pruned to one main stem. I often end up with two stems on plants that split off early in the season and I tend to let them go with it. I also remove the "suckers" from the plants to keep the plant focused on growing up and producing more fruits.
The suckers are the new stem growth that pops out between the leafy branches and the main stem. I actually call this the armpits but I'm sure that's not the technical term. I just snip or break them off carefully.
If you let those suckers get to be 4" or so before you remove them, you can stick them in a jar of water and watch them grow their own roots. Once they do.... you have a new plant to stick in the ground. You can't beat that, more plants for free! This is a great way to have a continued harvest throughout the season.
Step Five: Watering Needs
You'll want to be sure your tomatoes are staying hydrated. You can check your soil by placing your finger in it. If it feels nice and moist, you are good to go. If it feels dry, go ahead and give those plants a little drink.
Tomatoes will tell you when they are feeling stressed by curling their leaves. Luckily, this is an early indicator and you can take steps to help them out. It usually means they just need to be watered so it's a simple solution.
Tomato plants are pretty self-sufficient as far as their needs go. They take a bit of training and grooming but as long as they have good soil and consistent watering, they stay pretty happy and produce lots of fruits.
NOTE FROM VICTORIA: We have found that with the Back to Eden gardening method, our tomatoes only needed watering once last year!
Step Six: Pollination
Once your tomatoes begin to mature, you'll begin to see their beautiful, little yellow flowers. This means that they will be setting fruit very soon. You have the potential of one tomato per flower you see.
If your blooms begin to just drop off and no fruit forms, it usually means they didn't pollinate well. Tomatoes are self-pollinating so when the flower just begins to open up you can give them a gentle shaking or tap them vigorously to ensure pollination.
Step Seven: The Harvest
When you see that first little baby tomato, you'll just be beside yourself with excitement. I know that's how it works for me! I find myself out there every day checking on their growth and progress. Once the tomato starts to show color, it gets even more exciting.
It will be very tempting to pick your tomatoes before they are ripe (and if you do, it's ok, they'll ripen even off the vine) but they always taste best when they are sun ripened on the vine. The tomato is ready to harvest when it has turned color, the color is mostly even (unless you are growing a striped variety), and it is slightly soft to touch.
RELATED: How to Ripen Green Tomatoes Indoors
I will say that some tomato varieties are more prone to cracking as the ripen on the vine. If you have a variety like this, you'll want to harvest when the tomato begins to get color and then allow it to ripen inside.
Now that you've grown all of the delicious, juicy, beautiful tomatoes, you can eat them to your hearts content and preserve them to enjoy late in the winter when no fresh fruits are to be found.
NOTE FROM VICTORIA: Here's how we freeze tomatoes to can them later in the year!
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About the Author:
Hey y'all! I’m Jenna, wife to my amazing husband, Derek, mom to 8 beautiful farm kids, homesteader, homemaker, homeschooler, and lover of Jesus. I enjoy all things farmy, family, crafting, old fashioned, and homemade. Visit me at FlipFlopBarnyard.com!