kitchen garden how-to
Published April 7, 2022 by Nicole Burke

The Complete Guide to Growing Organic Tomatoes

Filed Under:
tomatoes
how to harvest
how to prune
warm season vegetables
arch trellis
tomatoes on an arch trellis

Tomatoes — Not for Beginners

I'm sure you know the temptation all too well:

You're walking through Lowe's or Home Depot or another big box store, when all of a sudden their latest garden display catches your eye. Tomato plants in all their green-leafed glory.

Surely you should buy this tomato plant, right? Surely this will be the one that actually grows and gives you orb after orb of juicy delight, right?

If you, like me, have succumbed to this temptation and killed your fair share of tomato plants, know that you're in good company.

Tomatoes are the crown jewel of the kitchen garden, thanks to their beauty, delicious flavor, and ubiquity in so many favorite recipes. They're also not for beginner growers.

tomato clusters

Tomatoes Are Needy and Will Spend a Long Time in Your Garden

Tomatoes need a whole lot of sun and warm (but not too hot) weather, they need a big garden with room for their deep roots, they need support, they need loads of nutrients, they need weekly pruning... and once you plant them, you'll be waiting a long time before you can enjoy the fruits of your labor.

I would say tomatoes are best grown by gardeners who've graduated from the beginner gardener stage, gardeners who have some success under their belts with leaves and root crops. As tempting as it is to fill your garden with tomatoes in your first couple of growing seasons, give yourself some time to grow as a gardener before you tackle homegrown tomatoes.

Tomatoes are what we call a long and lengthy plant, meaning they take up a lot of space in the garden and they grow for a long time (65 to 90 days before your first harvest, compared to the 30 to 40 days for something like kale, spinach, or herbs). When plants take longer to mature, there's a greater chance that things can go wrong. Plus, there’s more work involved. We're talking about running a marathon versus running a mile here, okay?

That being said, once you're ready to grow tomatoes, you'll find that the results are so sweet and worth the space and time commitment. Here's your complete guide to growing your own tomatoes in your kitchen garden.

large green tomatoes

The Two Types of Tomatoes You Can Grow in Your Kitchen Garden

There are two types of tomato plants: determinate and indeterminate.

determinate tomatoes

Determinate, or non-vining, plants fruit and finish all at once. These will grow more like a bush than a vine. The plant will reach a certain height (probably five or six feet tall) and then focus on fruit production. A determinate tomato plant will produce its fruit all at once.

Determinate tomatoes are the type to grow if you want to make tomato paste, tomato sauce, or salsa with your garden-fresh harvests, because you're going to get a lot of fruit in one harvest.

tomatoes on arch trellis

indeterminate tomatoes

This is the vining type. An indeterminate tomato will produce fruit in clusters over and over again until your first frost comes.

I prefer to grow indeterminate tomatoes, and you'll see tomato vines growing up my two arch trellises every warm season. Throughout the three to four months of their growing window in Chicago, my vines will stretch from one side of my garden to the other—we're talking 10 to 15 feet of growth in one season.

I also prefer this type because I can harvest clusters of tomatoes frequently from the vines and enjoy them fresh. I personally don't want to spend a lot of time in my kitchen processing and canning fruits. With a vining type, I can pick a little, let it keep growing, and return to pick some more.

You decide which type works best for you and your garden.

tomatoes

My three favorite tomato varieties to grow in the kitchen garden

All three varieties are indeterminate tomatoes. I love cherry and grape tomatoes because I can harvest a ton of them, I can cut them up and use them just like I would a big tomato, but I don't have to wait around for a big tomato to form.

SUNGOLD TOMATOES

This super popular variety of cherry tomatoes is probably the most prolific that I grow. Sungold are so named because they ripen to a beautiful golden orange. Once they start producing fruit, you can harvest from them twice a week.

JULIET TOMATOES

Incredibly tasty, Juliets produce small red grape tomatoes in abundance.

BLACK CHERRY TOMATOES

This heirloom variety produces gorgeous dark purple cherry tomatoes in clusters.

large tomatoes

My favorite sources for tomato seeds

I love the heirloom varieties available from Baker Creek, Johnny's Selected Seeds, and Botanical Interests. You'll find so many options and flavors to try. I also recommend visiting your local nursery and asking what grows well in your area.

tomatoes in a kitchen garden

Tomato Growing Season

When to Grow Tomatoes in Your Kitchen Garden

Tomatoes, like the other members of Solanaceae family, originated in South America. As you might guess, they love to grow in warmer temperatures and receive a ton of sunshine. The best time, therefore, to grow tomatoes in your garden is during your warm season, when you're expecting several months during which the temperature will range from 65 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

Don't even think about planting a tomato plant outdoors when there's still a chance of frost in the spring, not unless you want to remove smelly, wilted leaves from your garden (trust me on this one). Unless you have a greenhouse or cold frames, be conservative and wait until all chance of frost has passed before you plant your tomatoes in the garden.

tomatoes

How to maximize your tomato growing season

Tomatoes are what I like to call a long-and-lengthy-kind-of-plant, which means they take 65 to 90 days to mature. That’s because we’re growing tomatoes not for the leaves (You definitely don’t want to eat those!), but for the fruit. And fruit is one of the last steps in the plant's life cycle. 

Most of us don't live in a place where the temperature, sunlight, and setup are all just right to give tomato plants the full amount of time they need outdoors under their optimal conditions to grow to maturity and give us plenty of harvests. For that reason, I prioritize starting tomato plants by seed indoors to give them a head start. After four to six weeks growing my tomato seedlings indoors, I can transplant them outside once the climate is right. This increases the production and enjoyment I can get from these plants.

To know when to start your tomato plants indoors, subtract 45 days from your last frost date. Click here to find your last frost date in the US.

Starting plants indoors is an advanced gardener skill, so know that you always have the option of buying a starter plant at your local nursery.

tomatoes on a trellis

Tomato growing season in a colder climate

Tomatoes grow best up north during the warm summer months.

My last frost date in the Chicago area is around May 15. That means I should start my tomato seeds indoors at the end of March. After transplanting them to my garden at the end of May, I can enjoy regular harvests from my tomatoes throughout the summer, before their production begins to slow down at the beginning of September.

Tomato growing season in a warmer climate

If you live somewhere with milder winters and hot summers, you most likely have two warm seasons during which you can grow tomato plants (roughly your spring and fall).

For my Rooted Garden clients in Houston, TX, their last frost date is February 20, so they can start their tomato seeds indoors in early January. They'll enjoy their tomatoes throughout the spring and into the summer, until prolonged temperatures above 90 degrees will become too much for their plants. They can start another round of tomatoes in August for the fall, and if the winter is mild, they might just enjoy tomatoes for months and months to come.

tomatoes

Tomato Planting

Where to Grow Your Tomato Plant

Giving your tomato plant the maximum amount of sunlight possible is a priority when determining where to plant your tomato baby. Tomatoes should be grown in places that receive eight to ten hours of sunlight.

Also, make sure to give each tomato plant plenty of space so that it won't be shaded by another tall plant like kale or swiss chard. You want sunlight on as many tomato leaves as possible, so if something is blocking rays of precious sunlight, prune it or move it. If you're growing tomatoes in the middle or back of a bed, you can always plant low-growing herbs and flowers around it to help shade the soil.

Tomatoes have deep roots and prefer to grow in raised beds filled with good soil to give their roots plenty of room to stretch and dig down. Whichever container or bed you choose needs to be 18 inches deep to accommodate the deep roots.

tomato and pepper starts

Plants that are good tomato companion plants

Thoughtful planting in your kitchen garden can improve the health of your tomato plants. Here's my top recommendations for what to plant around your tomatoes.

flowers to go with tomatoes

Calendula, cosmos, marigolds, and nasturtiums are my favorite flowers to plant near tomatoes.

herbs to go with tomatoes

Basil, chives, garlic, parsley, onion, and sage make excellent companions.

veggies to go with tomatoes

Beans go well in warm season gardens with tomatoes. You can also use your growing tomatoes to give some shade to lettuce as it hangs in there in the warming weather.

tomatoes

How to Plant Tomatoes in Your Kitchen Garden

Instead of sowing seeds directly in your garden, you'll plant a starter plant you grew yourself indoors or bought from a local nursery.

You'll plant your tomatoes a bit differently than you would other plants. Usually, you'd only plant up to the neck of the plant (where the steam breaks from the roots), but tomatoes should actually be buried deeper. Dig a deep enough hole so that you can cover the first set of leaves with dirt. The leaves and stem of the tomato plant will produce new roots when buried in soil, which strengthens the main stem and forms a sturdy foundation for the plant. It might not seem important now, but think of all the weight your little plant will have to carry later when it's bearing all those juicy orbs of fruit.

In addition to encouraging your plant to form a strong base, you'll also need to provide some type of support for your plant as it grows tall. Let's look next at different ways to support your tomato plant.

tomatoes on a Florida weave

Supporting Your Tomato Plants

How to Support Your Tomato Plant

Tomatoes need something strong and tall to support their upright growth. Bush varieties (determinate) will do fine with stakes and twine or a tomato cage, but vining plants require a trellis or Florida weave.

tomato cage

Growing tomatoes in a tomato cage

If you're growing a bush variety, again, you can use a tomato cage, but vining varieties will quickly outgrow a cage.

Even with bush varieties, I find that tomato cages make it hard to reach inside and tend the plant. I'd rather have my plants on the outside of a support structure so that I can get in there and more easily prune, tend, and harvest.

The benefit of a tomato cage is that they tend to be inexpensive. If a cage is your preferred option, buy the biggest one you can possibly find. Remember, even a bush variety can grow five to six feet tall.

tomatoes growing up a Florida weave

Growing tomatoes in a Florida weave

This method allows you to pack several tomato plants into a smaller space. A Florida weave is created between two stakes on either end of a row, with twine or wire running back and forth between the stakes (hold the strings in place by adding screws along the stakes). As the tomatoes grow, you'll tuck them in between the strings like you're weaving.

tomatoes on a trellis

Growing tomatoes on a trellis

Vining tomatoes flourish when given an entire panel trellis or arch to climb. Tending is easier because you're growing the plants on the outside of the support structure and can easily train vines upwards.

To me, one of the most beautiful sights in a kitchen garden is a metal arch trellis covered in tomato vines. Plant your tomatoes alongside each side of the arch trellis in order to maximize the growth you can get from a small space in your raised bed.

Get the step by step to grow your tomatoes up an arch trellis.

tomatoes completing the arch trellis
Shop Gardenary Arch Trellises

Tending Your Tomato Plants

How to Tend Your Growing Tomato Plants

Your tending tasks will include fertilizing, pruning, tying vines to their support structure, fending off pests, and of course, watering.

cluster of cherry tomatoes

Fertilizing your tomato plants

Tomatoes are heavy feeders, which means they take up a lot of nutrients from the soil. That means you need to be adding nutrients to keep all your plants healthy and happy.

I learned from another gardener that every time your plant is doing something new, you should feed it. When I see my plants starting to flower, setting fruit, or growing new vines, I know it's time for me to come in and give it a little bit of extra food.

The food that you'll give your plants depends on the stage of growth. When your plant is just getting started in the garden, you'll want to add nitrogen to strengthen the plant's main stalk and help it form green leaves. If your plant is fruiting or flowering, you'll want to give it a phosphorus-rich fertilizer to help it form fruit. You could also add more compost to the base of the plant. Make sure to water deeply after fertilizing.

Learn more about how to feed your tomato plants.

tomatoes on a trellis

Pruning your tomatoes for best results

Pruning once a week helps you maintain plant health and maximize fruit production. If you let the plant grow on its own without any pruning, the plant might just keep producing more stems and leaves instead of flowering or fruiting until the season has nearly come to an end. 

When you're performing any type of pruning or harvesting in the garden, make sure you're using a clean pair of pruners. I like to rub mine with some rubbing alcohol when I come back inside after tending the garden.

Here are four steps to prune your tomato plants.

step one

Start at the base of the plant and look for leaves that don't look healthy, such as those that are discolored or have visible holes. (These leaves are the most likely suffering from pests or diseases, so you'll want to throw them away.) Use your pruners to remove these leaves at their base, where it meets the stem. Continue working your way up the plant.

Keep in mind that you never want to prune more than a third of the plant at any time (more on that later).

step two

About two to three weeks after you've planted your tomato plant in the garden, pick one main stem to focus on. Prune back any new stems that sprout from the base of the plant.

Most gardeners will tell you to prune the suckers (the leaves sent out by the plant in between the main stem and a side stem that will become a new vine). I leave the suckers because I've found they produce the most fruit. Basically, prune the suckers if you want to grow bigger tomatoes, and leave the suckers if you want to get more tomatoes. I don't care about my fruit winning any size contests, you know?

step three

When the first flower appears, prune any branches and suckers below it. Let the plant branch out above the first set of flowers and become a canopy.

step four

Every two weeks or so, prune some of the older, lower leaves on the vine to help the plant focus its energy on fruit production. We only want to keep the leaves that are necessary for the plant's health. Any leaves beyond that are a drain on the plant's energy and resources. Keep the leaves at the top of the plant, which are younger and helping with photosynthesis.

tying tomato vines to support

Securing your tomato plants to support structures

In addition to pruning every week or so, you'll also want to attach your tomato vines to their support structure. Use twine to gently tie vines to the next rung on your tomato trellis or wire of your Florida weave. A simple bow works great. Jute is a natural fiber that doesn't scar the plant and is very easy to untie when your growing season is over.

tying tomatoes to a trellis
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Protecting your tomato plants from pests

In the garden, the best defense is a really great offense. Our offensive line includes really great soil, consistent watering (especially in warmer weather), and regular fertilizing and pruning—all to keep our plants happy because stressed-out plants are like magnets for pests.

Pruning regularly helps remove any unhealthy leaves from the garden that could otherwise make your tomato plants more susceptible to attack, as does regularly clearing your soil of debris and weeds. Keep your garden clean and you'll have less of a chance of pests coming in and eating your harvests before you can get to them. The act of tending itself also gives you a good chance to notice the actual pests themselves and remove them if possible.

Another line of offense is to attract beneficial insects like bees, ladybugs, and even wasps into your garden by planting flowers throughout your space.

Finally, one of my favorite garden tools is garden mesh or toule. Covering your plants is a simple way to protect them without having to use chemicals. Mesh lets water, air, and sunlight in, without giving pests free access to your tomato plants. You can easily lift the sides of the mesh up during the day once your plant starts flowering to give the pollinators a chance to do their thing.

No matter how much work you've done to grow strong and healthy plants, sometimes pests still sneak their way in there. Don't panic if you see signs of pest pressure.

If you notice aphids on the leaves of your tomato plant, give the plant a thorough rinsing with a soaker hose. I find a strong water stream is often enough to knock aphids off. For most other pests, I start with Dr. Bronner's castile soap. If the pest issue continues, neem oil or garlic barrier can be applied.

Tomato hornworms are another pest to be on the lookout for. I knew a beginner gardener who saw a "cute little green caterpillar" on her leaves and left him to his own devices while she went out of town. She returned only two days later to find that same little bug had multiplied to about four times its original size and had gorged on half her tomato plant.

Tomato hornworms can obviously accomplish a lot of damage in a very short time. If you see one, promptly remove it from your garden. If there's an infestation, Monterey B.t. is a liquid spray that you dilute with water and then apply directly on your tomato leaves.

I usually save Monterey B.t. as a last resort. I try to provide the best offense possible before I ever even think of reaching for an organic pesticide.

dealing with pests on tomato plants

Protecting your tomato fruit from squirrels and other critters

When I was growing tomatoes in Houston, the squirrels often got to my fruit before I could, and there are few things in the garden quite as disappointing as waiting forever for fruit to ripen only to have it become a snack for something else.

To protect your fruit, you can tie simple mesh bags (the kind you might store jewelry in) around each cluster of fruit (see below). This simple barrier is often enough to deter animals.

Another option would be to cut the cluster of fruit as soon as it's starting to blush (turn yellow) and bring it indoors to rest on a windowsill or inside a brown bag.

mesh bags used to protect tomato fruit from squirrels

Watering your tomato plants

Fruiting plants require a lot of water to form flowers and ripen fruit. If you're not getting good rainfall every day, then you'll have to take over watering duty from mother nature.

A consistent watering schedule is always best.

When you first transplant your tomato starts to the garden, you'll need to water them every day. Once they're established (about six to eight weeks in), you can switch to giving them one deep watering per week, though you might need to increase that if you're in a hotter climate and see the leaves of your plant wilting.

Your goal is at least one inch of water per week. Aim your water at the roots, not the leaves.

If you find fruit on your plant that's bursting open, cracking, rotting, or peeling, you'll know that you watered too much, too little, or too inconsistently.

tomatoes on an obelisk trellis

Some Common Issues with Tomato Plants—and Our Solutions

Your tomato plant is already flowering but has a small main stem

You want your plant to have a nice main stalk before it puts a lot of its energy into forming flowers and then fruit. If the stem still looks unsturdy, pinch off any flowers that have formed and give your plant more time to grow a nice and strong center before it tries to do any production.

You're pruning more than a third of the leaves because they look unhealthy

If you notice that you're having to prune a bit too much from one plant, that's a good sign that there's something critical going on, perhaps serious disease or pest pressure. If more than a third of the plant appears damaged/affected, it might be time to say bye and remove it from your garden before the issue can spread to other plants.

heirloom tomatoes

Your tomato leaves are curling

If your tomato leaves are curling upward and turning yellow, this is most likely a sign of a virus transmitted most frequently by whiteflies or through infected transplants. Remove not only the affected plant but all tomato plants from your garden and dispose of them (not in your composter).

If your leaves are wilting and curling, your plant is most likely just thirsty. Wait until evening or early morning to give it a nice drink.

Your fruit is taking forever to ripen on the vine

Got lots of green fruit spending forever on your vines? Here's how long tomatoes take to ripen and tips to speed up the process. If you’re feeling impatient, just remind yourself that vine-ripened tomatoes are one of the best things in the garden—definitely something worth waiting for!

tomato harvest

Harvesting Tomatoes

How to Harvest Tomatoes

From the moment you put your plant in the ground, you have at least two months ahead of you before you'll be harvesting anything.

Even though you can easily pluck tomato fruits right from the vine, it's best to use a clean set of pruners to avoid breaking the branches and harming your plants. Cut the stem above the fruit or the entire cluster.

If you don't have to worry about upcoming frost or ambitious squirrels taking your fruit, you can wait to harvest until the tomatoes begin turning their ripe color from the bottom. Vine-ripened tomatoes are more flavorful and sweeter than those harvested when the tomatoes are still green.

Nicole Burke with bowl of tomatoes

If you're expecting a frost or if the animals are getting to your fruit before you, you can always harvest tomatoes when they're just starting to blush, or turn yellow (their first ripening color). Cut the cluster and bring indoors to rest on a windowsill or inside a brown bag.

If you grow tomatoes the way I do, it's safe to bet on getting at least 100 tomatoes off your plants within four to five weeks during your peak season. And believe me, each one of those 100 tomatoes tastes so good.

Learn more about how many tomatoes you can get from each plant and how to maximize your production.

tomatoes in hand

How to Top Tomato Plants at the End of the Season

When you're nearing the end of your tomato growing season (two to three weeks before the season changes), you'll probably have some green tomatoes lingering on the tree and will need to encourage them to hurry up already. You can do this by cutting the very top of the vine, which tells the plant to stop putting its energy into growing bigger and to instead put its energy into finishing the fruiting process.

When to Remove Tomatoes from the Garden

After tomatoes have enjoyed 90-120 days growing in your garden, they're usually past their optimal time of growth. Leaving tomato vines beyond their optimal growing period often welcomes pests and disease into your kitchen garden. Your garden will do better if you remove the tired vines and begin growing plants that thrive in cooler weather, such as sugar snap peas, fava beans, or runner beans.

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Get Growing

Few things are more rewarding at the end of a gardening season than popping a perfectly ripe, vine-ripened tomato into your mouth.

Follow this guide and you'll get impressive results from your tomato plants. You'll soon be picking tomatoes for weeks on end and enjoying them by the handful right there in the garden.

THANKS FOR BRINGING BACK THE KITCHEN GARDEN WITH ME!

READY TO MASTER GROWING IN THE GARDEN?

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Gardenary 365 gives you on-demand access to our bestselling online gardening courses including Salad Garden School, Herb Garden Guide, Microgreens, and Indoor Seed Starting, as well as monthly coaching, habit tracking, and a private community. There's no other place on the internet where you can grow like this.

The Complete Guide to Growing Organic Tomatoes