While there aren’t many ways to make the tomato even better than it already is, there is something special about eating ones you’ve grown yourself. After all, what better way to know that your favorite salad topping is as fresh as can be than by pulling it straight off the vine with your own two hands? Plus, it’s one of the easiest fruits to grow, so you don’t have to be much of a green thumb to keep it alive.
If you’re ready to embark upon the rewarding journey that is growing and caring for a tomato plant, you’ll want a few tips and tricks to get you started. And Kalei Buczek, the general manager at Rewild plant and flower studio in Washington, D.C., has plenty to share. Learn everything there is to know about being a good tomato parent, below.
How to grow tomatoes in 7 steps
1. Pick your seed or start
First things first, when you’re growing a tomato plant, you can either start from seed or from a start (in effect, a baby plant), which is Buczek’s preferred route. “Starting from seed can be really exciting, but be warned, it’s challenging,” she says. “If you’re starting from seed, you’ll want to look up when to plant based on your zone, which you can find on the USDA’s website,” Buczek says. You may need to place your seeds on heating pads and get special lights to ensure that your seeds germinate properly.”
If that sounds like a little too much of a commitment, Buczek recommends opting for a tomato start. In this case, you’ll begin with a small tomato plant that you’ll nurture into a full-blown, fruiting success.
2. Decide on its home
You can either plant your tomatoes in a pot, or directly in the ground (just be sure to pick a patch of soil that sees plenty of sunlight). “If you’re in a city, I recommend getting a pot,” Buczek says. “But contrary to the logic of most houseplants, you’ll want a pot that is much larger than your original tomato plant because tomatoes grow so rapidly during their relatively short growing period; your plants will likely get pretty big.” Regardless of whether you’re growing a beefsteak or cherry tomato plant, Buczek suggests a pot with a diameter of at least 10 inches. In addition, she says, ensure that your pot has a hole for drainage, and is made of a breathable material like terracotta. “Don’t get a fancy glazed pot,” Buczek warns. “Those tend to retain moisture and promote disease.”
Either way, your tomatoes will grow best outside. “You can’t really replicate what a tomato needs inside, especially because you also need healthy air circulation,” Buczek says.
3. Make sure to water early and often
Water is critical to helping your tomato plants establish roots, which Buczek says could take up to two weeks. “Heat and water are the two things that will help your roots grow fastest,” she says. “You have to water your tomatoes a lot—on really hot days, you may find yourself watering up to twice a day. You’ll know your roots are established when the plant stands up straight on its own and isn’t flopping around.” You should aim to douse your tomato plant’s soil with 1–2 inches of water per week.
Keep an eye on the weather to determine the frequency of your watering cycle, though—if, for example, you’re getting a lot of rain in a week, there’s no need to pour on additional water. But on the other hand, during stretches of dry heat, you may find yourself doing some additional sprinkling. “The tomatoes themselves will actually tell you if they need more water,” Buczek says. “Tomatoes with really deep wrinkles indicate that they haven’t been watered enough.” Before your plant bears fruit, you can use the appearance of its leaves as a gauge. If they’re wilting, it needs water. But if they’re turning yellow, you’re likely overwatering your plant.
4. Add a tomato cage
“I would recommend a tomato cage for anybody,” Buczek says. “Garden variety tomatoes are meant to grow really fast, and sometimes, that means that they grow faster than their stems can support.” Having a cage will help to ensure stability and some structural integrity, especially while your plant is still establishing itself.
5. Prune your plant
Keeping your tomato plant trimmed back is crucial, Buczek notes, especially given that they grow “suckers,” or small clones of the original plant. “As the plant grows up, you’ll see that there’s a main stem with leaves on either side, and then every few nodes on the plant, you may see a mini version of the plant coming out of the side,” she says. “When the plant is young, it’s a good idea to take these off so the plant can focus on growing up and getting strong. That will help the fruit of the tomato plant be higher off the ground.”
6. Watch out for pests
You’re not the only one who wants your tomatoes. “If you overwater your plant, you may find red or black aphids on its leaves,” Buczek says. “You can buy and release ladybugs onto the plant to get rid of those.” Other common pests include rodents like squirrels and chipmunks, or in cities, rats. “Wrap netting around your tomato cage to keep away those kinds of pests, and make sure that you dig your cage into the ground so that pests can’t just burrow their way under,” Buczek suggests. You could also plant your tomatoes or place your pots in a raised bed to keep them safer.
7. Harvest your tomatoes
The same USDA map that you use to determine when to plant your tomatoes will also tell you when to expect fruit, Buczek says. “You’ll know your tomatoes are ready when they’re nice and colorful,” she notes. “I like to leave them on a little longer for a sun-ripened taste.”
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