The Most Comprehensive Tomato Growing Guide There Is

Growing Tomatoes: The Real Questions and Comprehensive Answers

I planted a tomato plant. Now how do I get it to grow? 

Is it true that I can water a tomato plant too much? 

Do I prune my tomato plant? Or not? 

How do I fertilize my tomato plant? Does it need fertilizing since I already fertilized when I planted it? 

How do I keep the bad insects from eating my bush and tomatoes? 


This is the third part of a series about how to grow your own tomatoes. 

To save and plant seeds, please read: 2 Easy Steps and 3 Valuable Tips You Need to Know to Start Tomato Plants From Seeds

To transplant a tomato plant, please read: How to Make Sure Your Tomato Plants Have the Best Start Ever


Kick Bad Advice to the Curb

Don’t believe bad advice about how to grow a tomato plant. There’s so much advice out there. Some of it is pure hogwash. And, some of it works for some, but not for others. How do you sort through it all? 

There’s one theory that is out there that drives me crazy: The term, “weekend gardener”. Sure, you can schedule the bulk of your garden chores for a weekend, but if you wait 5-7 days between visits, you might walk out there one day to find all your hard work destroyed. Gardening is a beautiful, reciprocal thing. You care for the plants, they give you a break from all the other stuff you do. Take the time to visit your garden every day. Please. Your new habit will be rewarding, I promise. 

A Rewarding Tomato Harvest

In this article, I’m going to share the methods I’ve learned that will improve your chances for a successful tomato harvest. With 25 years of experience, I’ve learned a lot by trial and error. I’ve seen years where I had a bumper crop and years when I had no ROI (return on my investment). In a sense, I’ve done most of the experimenting for you!

These methods will work for you no matter what size garden you have. Even if your garden is a pot on a patio! Let’s get started. 


Four Main Subjects

I’ve broken it down into the four most important subjects:

1. When to water and how much

2. Training the plant the best way that works for your situation

3. What and when to fertilize

4. How to keep the bad insects off 


How to Water a Tomato Plant

When to Water: Bad News

The bad news is that too much water can seriously weaken your plants and split the tomatoes. It can also create an environment where disease has a welcome home. Once disease starts, it’s difficult and often impossible to reverse it. Too little water will cause your plant to slowly die and maybe not recover as well. But don’t despair! There’s good news. 

When to Water: Good News

The good news is that it’s easy to figure out whether your plants need water. Just stick your finger into the soil up to one inch deep. If it’s dry, it’s time to water. If it’s damp, check it again the next day. I’ve heard some advice to water only the dirt. It certainly wouldn’t hurt and could be a precaution for your area if there’s not enough airflow for your plants. If you planted your plants at least 12 inches apart, andthen, follow the rest of the advice here, it should be fine to water from overhead. I think the real precaution is to refrain from watering too much, too often. 

I water my plants overhead, about every other day. Your frequency may be different from mine-there are not hard and fast rules because every garden, every climate, and every soil type factors into the variables of gardening. Check the soil. Water if it’s dry, don’t if it’s damp. It’s really that simple. It works for everyone, everywhere! That’s one reason why your plants need you every day! 


The Best Way to Train Tomato Plants

Training Essential Part One: Pruning 

I’ve seen advice that says to drastically prune the plant. I tried that advice and it was not good for me. I live in the deep South. Those poor plants were creating the shade that the tomatoes needed from the blistering sun-and I cut the leaf umbrella off! My tomatoes got scalded. 

There had to be a happy medium. Here is what I have found to be best for hot climates. If you live in a different environment, you may need to make adjustments. Here’s what you need to know and I’ll tell you how to do them. 

Essential Pruning Facts: a list

  1. Choose two branches to keep. 
  2. Cut the others off
  3. Cut the bottom leaves off so none are touching the ground
  4. Remove the first flowers if they are too close to the ground
  5. Let the branches grow and tie them to your pre-planted support
  6. Choose one or two more main branches to grow out. No more than that for 95% of varieties. 
  7. Support/tie the branches as they grow
  8. Continue to pinch off or cut off new branches (don’t cut off leaves) 

How to Trim or Prune Your Tomato Plant

Choosing two branches happens naturally. In the “crook” of some of the leaves, there will be a new branch starting. Wait a few days to let a couple of them grow, then choose one near the bottom of the plant but high enough to not be at the surface of the soil. Those two branches will reward you with plenty of healthy tomatoes. They will also try to continue to make more branches. For extra foliage of protection for the actual fruit, you can allow one or two more branches to grow. But watch your plant carefully! It wants to have LOTS of branches (even growing new ones at the bottom) and it’s good idea to cut or pinch them off soon after they appear. You get to choose which ones to leave. 

cut the new branch
look closely, you can see where I cut the branch off

Essential Part Two: Support the Vines

  1. Tomato Cage
  2. Stake and tie

The easiest by far is the tomato cage. Trouble is, they are not tall enough for tomato plants that are indeterminate. Indeterminate means they like to grow as vines. A tomato cage is best for determinate tomatoes, which simply means it is a bush(ish) type of growth. You get to choose which type is best for you, but honestly, I get both because it’s the tomato qualities that determine which kind of plant I grow, not the plant type. And I like both bush type and vine type. 

How to use a tomato cage

When you plant your seedling, carefully place the prongs around the plant and push them into the ground.That’s all you have to do for now. When the plant begins to grow, gently push or pull the branches into the inside of the cage when they try to escape outward. If you do that while they are young branches, they are pliable, but go slowly to give the branch time to bend. This is another reason why your plant needs you to visit it every day. Those branches can grow fast. 

How to Stake and Tie a Tomato

If you choose to use stakes, be sure it’s 6 feet tall. Use a hammer to pound the stake about a foot deep into the soil, 6 inches away from the young plant. If you waited until the plant needs support, it’s ok to put the stake in at that time. It’s just better to do it when you first plant the tomato plant. 

When to Stake A Tomato Plant

The first time you have to tie a support for your plant is after you have determined which two branches you want to keep. Now both should be long enough that at least one of them needs to be tied to the stake. Eventually, both will need to be tied, but the one farthest away from the stake will naturally take a longer piece of string or elastic. 

Supplies

Buy cotton string (from the kitchen section of a grocery store or from the garden section of the box store. An alternate way is to get ⅛ inch elastic from the fabric section of your store. It’s a little more expensive but is supposed to give the tomato plant room to move a bit. I haven’t noticed that the plant cares which one I use, string or elastic. 

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Cut a piece of string or elastic long enough to go around the stake and the stem and add 3-4 inches to give yourself room to tie it. 
  2. Form a figure 8 by looping the string around the stem, cross them, then tie around the stake. 
  3. Allow the stem to be at least an inch away from the stake. No need to snug it close. This gives it room to move a bit without damaging the stem against the stake. 
  4. Every few days, repeat this process farther up the stem
  5. Eventually you will be at the top of your stake. Time to be firm with your tomato plant!

Here are examples of what 2 strong branches look like after selective pruning  and tying to a stake so you can see what this looks like.  

Wrap string around stem, cross the string, then tie around the stake.
No leaves touching the ground, two stems, both are tied to the stake

How Tall to Let a Tomato Plant Grow

Let’s have a conversation about that vigorous growth. You will have to decide that it’s ok to limit how tall your tomato gets. Think of it this way, it needs to stop making plant and put all it’s energy into growing the tomatoes it now has. If your plant has grown to the top of your stake, It’s ok to carefully trim them 12 inches higher than the stake and keep them at that height. Just don’t destroy the “umbrella” of leaves that shades the tomatoes. Don’t learn the hard way, like I did! And keep cutting and pinching off new growth. 

Why keep it at 6 feet tall?

Besides wanting the plant to concentrate on the tomatoes, there’s three more reasons why you need to keep it trimmed. 

  1. It’s six feet tall by now. It’s really awkward to try to grow tomatoes overhead!
  2. The tomatoes that form at that height are rarely worth the trouble to grow
  3. The tomatoes that have already formed need the nourishment directed to them (not those little juniors at the top) so they can be the best tomatoes that you can be proud of!

What, When, and How to Fertilize a Tomato Plant

To see an article about how to start your tomatoes strong, please refer back to my article: HERE How to make sure your tomato plants have the best start ever. It’s important to start them off well, so take time to give them a boost when you plant them. The same fertilizer will continue to work well for them as they grow. Keep reading, I’ll share the recipe with you in a couple minutes.

There are no hard and fast rules for fertilizing. Your plants are the ones that will let you know if they need a boost. Watch for yellow leaves, spindly growth, too much foliage and not enough fruit, or a lack of flowers. Give them tomato fertilizer at the first sign of this happening. Don’t wait! 

Why is it important to fertilize with elements specifically for tomatoes? 

Tomatoes love nitrogen but too much will encourage a lot of leaves and not enough fruit. Tell your tomato plant that you want tomatoes by giving it food that encourages tomatoes to form and mature. My formula will give tomato plants the calcium and magnesium they need with a balance of nitrogen for healthy growth.  

More advice that turned out to be BAD advice for me

The idea that you can use crushed egg shells for calcium….it didn’t work for me. I even planted raw eggs with my transplants one year. Hogwash! Those stinken eggs (literally) stayed whole in the ground until AFTER the plant had grown and died….a rather unhealthy plant at that too. (Can’t believe I did that!) 

Having said that, I crush eggshells and add to my compost every time we have eggs. It’s good for the soil, but they have not proven to be near enough calcium. 

What is most important is to use a form of calcium that is readily available for your plants. Trust me on this. Bone meal works. 

Tomato Fertilizer Formula

It’s so simple, you can’t believe it!

  1. Bone Meal
  2. Epsom Salt
  3. Worm Castings

Mix equal amounts together. Use only ¼ cup per plant. Spread it evenly around the base but not touching the plant. Gently stir it into the soil with your fingers or a hand rake. Tomato plants have feeder roots that are shallow and very tender, so be gentle and just a mix into the surface will do the trick. 

Where to buy the ingredients

You can get bone meal and worm castings wherever you buy fertilizer. Read the labels carefully to make sure each bag is nothing but bone meal or worm castings. (Some companies don’t mind cheating with a misleading name on the bag.) Go to your local drug store for the Epsom Salt. Be sure to buy the PLAIN kind, not the scented kind. 


A Note about Soil PH Balance

My soil is very alkaline. I add sulfur pellets to this mixture. DON’T do that unless your soil test shows that your soil is alkaline. DON’T add lime either, unless your soil test indicates that your soil is too acid. In other words, don’t automatically try to alter the soil ph without testing first. This is a subject worthy of a separate post but for now, this is just a quick piece of advice. 


How to Protect Tomato Plants from Insects

Once you start this, you’ll never go back to the headache of trying to figure out which insecticide is “safe” or not. Buy netting to drape over the plant. 

Cover Those Vines! Option One

I purchase strong netting that is 60 inches wide from a craft and fabric store. They have a coupon of 50% off one full price item, so I buy a whole bolt. The netting will last several years if you are careful with it. 

Here is a picture of mine, draped and clothespinned together to make a “tent” over the rows of tomato plants. Secure the bottom with anything you have around the house. I happened to have old dishes and cups. You want to use something that can be removed because there may be a couple of really lucky moths or, in my case, stinkbugs that make their way in. You’ll want to squish any intruders, so wear some gloves, ok? (I hate that chore, but it has to be done.) 

These tomato plants are half grown but need protection already. Marigolds inter-planted.

Option Two

Another great alternative is floating row cover that is sold by seed companies. I have had no experience with row covers yet, so I don’t know how many seasons one length will last. Be sure to get the kind that allows the most sunlight and air in. 

Did you enjoy all that information? Be sure to subscribe for FREE Printables and alerts when I write more like this. By the way, the next article about tomatoes will be how to can them. You won’t want to miss out on it! 

If you have any questions, feel free to write me at: [email protected]

May all you weeds be wildflowers! 

Debbie

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.Mat 6:33 CSB

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3 thoughts on “The Most Comprehensive Tomato Growing Guide There Is”

  1. Loved that article Debbie! Really good fundamental advice for growing tomatoes and many questions answered for a novice grower like myself. Thanks!

    1. Great article! But not much mention of diseases…. My main tomatoes plant is dropping the flowers with no fruit setting. Help!

      1. Hi Jo Ellen, Thanks for commenting. You’re right, I don’t cover diseases too much. When they first show signs of disease, I use a light mixture of Neem Oil (find it at Lowe’s) and follow up with a friendly bacteria called Bacillus amyloliquefaciens strain D747….that’s a mouthful but the label is Garden Friendly Fungicide.(find it at Brownlee’s-the local nursery and seed store-or online). The reason your tomatoes are not setting fruit is that it’s too hot. Here in central Florida, the tomato season is over. If there is any tomatoes on the vine now, watch carefully as they can get affected by the rain that typically comes with our summers. I will be pulling my plants up this week and next. The plant may be ok, but there will not be any more fruit from it. If you would like more tomatoes this Fall and possibly through the Winter, plant your seeds in cups now. Spray the soil and the new seedling once a week with the friendly bacteria to keep it healthy. Transport indoors if you need to due to extreme heat and pick off any blossoms that come on before September (or when the temps start cooling off).

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