How to Plant Tomatoes

Discussing how to plant tomatoes with fellow gardeners always sparks a lot of interest. Everyone, it seems has a secret trick for getting the best tomatoes. Today, I’m sharing the Stewart traditions for how to plant tomatoes.garden tomato - watermarked

Also Read: When to Plant What, Herb Growing Chart, How to Can Tomatoes Safely

Choosing Tomato Plants

Since I have limited space to start seeds, I often buy my tomato plants from a local greenhouse. It gives me an opportunity to try some new varieties and talk to greenhouse staff about what’s new and any tips they have for planting tomatoes. You can never get too much information!

I choose an assortment of tomato plants including slicing tomatoes, paste or roma tomatoes for salsa and canning, cherry tomatoes for snacking and unique varieties (Stripey German) just for fun.  I also select tomatoes based on days to maturity so I can have some super early tomatoes (Early Girl) and a large batch that ripens at the same time so I can preserve them all at once (Amish, San Marzano).

You may also hear about Determinate and Indeterminate tomatoes. It’s another way to help you select tomato plants according to growing pattern and how long a particular type of tomato will produce. It’s like the difference between a bush bean (determinate) and a pole bean (indeterminate).

Determinate tomatoes have a pre-determined growth pattern. They are bushier and shorter than indeterminate tomatoes, usually around 3-4 feet tall. Tomatoes ripen over about a two week period and then the plant slows down and grows very little new fruit. It’s job is done.

I like growing determinate tomatoes because they require less pruning and staking due the smaller plant size. This also makes them great for growing in containers. Determinate tomatoes usually produce the earliest tomatoes of the season and you get a bunch of tomatoes to ripen at once, which is beneficial if you like to can, freeze or dehydrate tomatoes.

Indeterminate tomatoes are wild and crazy! These tomatoes just keep growing and producing tomatoes until cold weather stops them. They grow long vines that can get 6-12 feet long. These are the tomatoes that need to be pruned and staked carefully to avoid an overgrown jungle. An overgrown jungle prevents good air circulation which can lead to mildew, fungus, disease and potentially even cover for rodents and other pests. To get the most of these long vines, stake them vertically so they grown up and get maximum sun exposure.

I like growing indeterminate tomatoes so I can have tomatoes for as long as possible. They do require more space and staking, so I like growing these in the big garden plot.

With so many tomato varieties and hybrids available, it’s not always easy to identify if a particular tomato seedling or seed pack is determinate or indeterminate. Read the label carefully. All type of tomatoes – slicing, paste, cherry, grape, yellow, black, etc. can be either determinate or indeterminate. Here’s a summary.

chart of type of tomatoes
What type of tomatoes suit your needs best?

Hardening off Tomatoes

Tomato plants from a store or greenhouse have likely been indoors all their life.  To give these plants and the ones you started from seed the best chance of making it in the garden, it’s good to “harden off” your plants by gradually introducing them to more and more sunlight and wind each day.

hardening tomatoes - watermarked

Our “hardening off” involves putting the plants  in the wagon in the backyard for a couple of days before planting.  If there’s a chance of frost, we take them into the garage at night, otherwise they stay outside.

When to Plant Tomatoes in Zone 2b/3

Tomatoes are warm weather plants. Even more important than warm air temperature, they like warm soil temperature. They don’t like having cold roots. Cold soil could slow and stunt the growth of your tomatoes and negatively impact your tomato crop all summer.

Tomatoes do not tolerate any frost. If you see a frost warning after you planted your tomatoes – cover them with old sheets to protect them from frost damage.

In our Zone 3, for Winnipeg and southern Manitoba, it’s best to wait planting until sometime between May 24 and early June. Last year, I covered my tomato plants on June 5 due to frost warnings. I always keep an eye out on the weather forecast and try to plant tomatoes when the soil has warmed up, the forecast is for 10°C or higher day and night. If possible, I like to plant just before rain, so I don’t have to water right away.

Tips for How to Plant Tomatoes

Plant Deep

Tomatoes need a strong root network that will support their weight and gather moisture and nutrients.  The roots grow down from the rootball and off the sides of the stem. For all those reasons, tomatoes should be planted deep.

I buried this San Marzano tomato well past the bottom two sets of leaves to ensure it forms a strong root system. But that’s nothing, some gardeners and gardening books say to put half to three quarters of the plant in the ground. I gently remove the bottom leaves before planting.

pointing to how deep tomatoes - watermarked

Another tip for getting maximum root growth is to lay the tomato stem on its side and gently bending the top part up. Tomatoes will send roots down from the entire length of the stem thereby securing it well and sending down more roots to absorb water from the ground. If you have long stems on your tomatoes, this is definitely a great idea.

Protect Against Blossom End Rot & Provide Nutrients

Have you ever had this happen to your tomatoes?Leanne blossom end rot - watermarked

It’s blossom end rot (BER) and it’s not pretty! BER is not a fungus, disease or pest, it’s a physiological condition caused by lack of calcium absorption due to soil conditions, uneven water conditions and stress (weather, disturbing roots, pests, etc.). Luckily, it does not spread from one tomato to the other, but spoiled fruit may attract other pests from moving in.

Preparing your soil, adding the right nutrients and planning a water strategy are the best way to prevent BER. While some of my fellow gardeners recommend adding coffee grounds, tea, egg shells or bananas to the bottom of the tomato planting hole, I chose to use The Talk of Tomato powder designed specifically for tomatoes.  Giving my tomatoes the right mix of nutrients and prevent BER, is worth the $10!

talk of tomato pwdr - watermarked

You’ll also notice in my pictures, that I add some four-way soil mix to each hole to help break up our clay soil.

Protect Against Cutworms

A look at my gardening neighbors tomatoes was all the reminder I needed to ensure I planted my tomatoes with proper cutworm protection. Can you spot the four tomato plants that have been cut down. Only a couple, including the one with the collar are still standing. How sad, luckily there’s still time to replant!cutworms got tomatoes - watermarked

As I started digging, I found quite a few of these curly short worms with diamond like patterns on their back. They’re just under the surface of the soil and are most active late in the day or early evening. Have a scratch around any green plant and you might find one.

cutworm curled - watermarked

I use two methods of cutworm protection.  One is placing a nail right next to the stem of the tomato plant and the other is a protective collar.

Here’s an Ultra Sweet tomato plant with a nail tucked right next to it. Since cutworms curl around a stalk to eat/cut it, the nail should foil their evil plans – not even cutworms can cut through nails!nail Ultra Sweet Tomato - watermarked

Here’s a Bush Early Girl with a protective collar. I cut a 3-4 inch wide band from any old plastic or metal containers (yogurt, margarine, coffee, plant containers, etc).  The collar lets the roots grow down into the soil while putting up a barrier that the cutworms can’t climb. The container should go 1-2 inches below the ground and about 1 inch above. Make sure there is no soil or foliage providing a bridge for cutworms to get into the collar! By the way, do you see the critter on the right side of the photo? That’s a cutworm trying to get at my tomato!

cutworm going to attack - watermarked

Build a Staking/Caging/Trellis System

Keeping tomatoes off the ground is a good way to prevent damage from slugs and/or mice. Tomato plants also get very heavy and dense. Indeterminate tomatoes can also grow very tall. Giving them a strong support system in the form of stakes, cages or trellises helps out those luscious tomato plants you’re going to grow. We use those round cages that you can get just about anywhere, but they’re pretty flimsy. To provide added support, I think I’ll adopt another fellow gardener’s practice of staking and caging.

expert tomato staking - watermarked

Over the years, I’ve learned the best time to put the cage on the tomato plants is the day you plant them! Threading large plants through a cage is frustrating and may damage the leaves and root system of your tomatoes.

Water Consistently

Consistent, even watering is important for strong, healthy tomatoes.  It’s another way you can help prevent blossom end rot.

Here’s me watering the banana peel at the bottom of the tomato hole. My gardening friend Ed, swore by this technique. I figured it was worth a try since I had a banana for snack! Banana or not, I like to drench the planting hole before I add the tomato plant so the roots get immediate access to moisture.

watering the banana - watermarked

During the summer, our watering is very sporadic at the garden plot – that’s why mulching is really important at the plot. In the yard, we water much more consistently – it’s handy to have that rain barrel close at hand!

Add Mulch

Since our watering is limited, especially during the summer, we rely on a good layer of mulch to help conserve water. This year I used a layer of leaves, I’ve also used straw and newspaper as mulch.  They’ve all been effective at keeping moisture in and at controlling the weeds. Although, I think the straw provided some excellent cover for mice – not good. Oh and remember, keep the mulch away from the collars so it doesn’t provide a ramp for those pesky cutworms!

mulched and caged - watermarked

And that’s how to plant tomatoes, Stewart family style.  While we’ve had a few issues here and there over the last 8 years or so, we’ve been very happy with our tomato harvests.

garden tomatoes

A reader sent in her tips for how to plant tomatoes. Judie puts in 40 to 60 plants every year and has been doing so for many years. Yeah, that’s a lot of tomatoes and a lot of experience. Here’s Judie’s suggestions for cutworm protection and blossom end rot protection:

For cut worm protection cut strips of wax paper [about 3 inches x 3 inches] and wrap it around the stem of the tomatoes with one inch below ground and one inch above ground. The cutworms won’t chew through it and the paper disintegrates, so there’s no clean up.

To help prevent blossom end rot and give tomatoes the calcium they need, add a tablespoon of powdered milk in each hole. Oh and she agrees watering the hole before adding the tomatoes is a good technique.

Fantastic tips for how to plant tomatoes from an experienced, successful gardener here in Manitoba.

tomatoes on vine
Beautiful homegrown tomatoes.

Fresh salsa, tomato sandwiches, tomatoes with pasta, tomato soup, bruschetta, tomato sauce , canned tomatoes, freezer salsa, canned salsa are all the delicious creations we get to enjoy from our tomatoes.

Do you have favorite tips on how to plant tomatoes? Do you have a favorite variety? Share them in the comments below or tag me on Instagram @getgettys or Facebook @GettyStewart.HomeEconomist.

Getty Stewart is a Professional Home Economist, speaker, frequent media guest and writer dedicated to putting good food on tables and agendas. She is the author of several recipe books on enjoying and preserving fruit, Founder of Fruit Share, a mom and veggie gardener.

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2 Comments

  1. Hi! A tip you are welcome to experiment with and expand upon as you wish. I’m not quite sure how you will work this out in — zone 2B, is that what I read? — but that’s your challenge. Did you know that tomato cuttings will root? Quite readily, too. I’ve experimented with the inevitable cuttings I get by accident when I try to move a tomato branch out of the way (back into its cage, most often). My best results have been from making a clean cut if the end is ragged, then plopping the cutting into soil in a pot if that’s available, and into water if it’s not. The advantage of water is, of course, that you can see when the roots develop and pot up at that time. Those put directly in a pot will show new growth almost immediately, indicating (of course!) that the rooting has been successful. Plant out early enough in the season and they’ll be fruit bearers. I grow almost only so-called heirlooms, and almost are are supposedly indeterminate, both of which factors may make a difference. // I’ve been enjoying a browse on your site, and must come back later to check out more. Right at the moment I’m on a hunt for recipes for putting by celery — of all the things to have a bumper crop of!!!! — which search is what got me to your site. Saw your articles on lettuce and celery and I was off and running — had to tell you about tomatoes. With many thanks for the work you’ve put into this site and, I suppose, your career. Rede Batcheller, Alexandria, VA USA

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