Garden-fresh tomatoes taste best. Here's how to grow them.
Whether in a simple salad with basil and olive oil or straight from the plant and warmed by the sun, a quality tomato is sweet, tangy, and delicious enough to need little adornment. Store-bought tomatoes, however, are bland and watery more often than not, which is why growing your own is so appealing.
If you're stuck on where to begin, this guide covers all the basics for getting started on growing tomatoes.
Decide whether you want to grow from seed or buy young plants
The first thing you need to decide is whether you'll grow your tomatoes from seed or purchase young plants ready to plant in the garden. The benefit of growing from seed is that it's cheaper, you have more choice of tomato varieties, and you know exactly how your tomatoes have been grown right from the start (particularly important if you want to grow organic). It's also arguably more rewarding having raised each tomato plant from a single seed. On the other hand, buying plants is easier and less labor intensive, doesn't require a setup for propagating seeds, and has less chance for failure, especially for first time veg growers.
Timing is everything
To successfully grow tomatoes, you need to time it right. Tomatoes should be planted outside after the chance of frost has passed, but this varies depending where you live. In the United States, this can be anywhere from mid-January in parts of Southern California to mid-June in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. In areas where the last frost is late, the growing window is much shorter, so you need to plant as soon as the chance of frost is over in order for your tomatoes to ripen before fall frosts begin. In areas where you can grow tomatoes almost year-round, you can wait a bit longer after the chance of frost has passed. If you're growing your tomatoes from seed, you should start them indoors roughly six to eight weeks before you want to plant them outside.
Some gardeners are happy to grow seedlings on a sunny windowsill, whereas others swear by an LED lighting setup. If you have a spot in your home that receives a full eight hours of sunlight, it's possible to grow hardy tomato seedlings without any special equipment, but otherwise LED grow lights are beneficial.
Hardening off and planting outdoors
When your young tomato plants are large enough to survive outside and the chance of frost has passed, it's time to plant them outside. You can choose to plant your tomatoes in large containers or straight in the ground, but first they need to be "hardened off." Your plants are pampered and used to the warm, consistent temperatures in your home, but they need to become strong enough to survive lower temperatures outside with drops overnight. The process of hardening off your tomatoes involves putting them in a sheltered spot outside for a couple of hours and gradually increasing the time they spend outside for a week to 10 days until they're outside all day, only coming in overnight. At this point, you can plant your young tomatoes in an appropriate spot (one that receives at least eight hours of direct sun a day, but preferably more).
Watering and waiting
All you need to do now is water your tomatoes daily (or even twice daily in a dry spell, especially for container-grown tomatoes) and wait for them to grow and produce fruit. You'll also need to provide support (such as stakes or tomato cages) as your plants become larger.
The tomato grower's shopping list
Seeds or plants: A vital part of growing tomatoes is the plants. You can buy seeds and plants online or from a plant nursery. The number of varieties available can be overwhelming, so narrow it down by deciding whether you want to grow small tomatoes (such as cherry or baby plum varieties), sauce tomatoes, huge beefsteak tomatoes, or mid-sized salad tomatoes.
Seed propagator: If you're growing from seed, a propagator will help you germinate your seeds successfully.
LED grow lights: Grow strong, healthy seedlings with LED grow lights. You don't need a hugely powerful setup for growing young tomato plants, so we'd recommend the HIGROW 600W Double Chips LED Grow Light as an affordable option.
Containers: While you can plant your tomatoes straight in the ground, some people prefer to grow in containers or even raised beds. If opting for a raised bed, the Greenes Cedar Raised Garden Bed is a spacious choice for tomatoes.
Compost: Nutrient-rich compost will provide your tomatoes almost everything they need to grow, though you may need to top them up with fertilizer once fruits begin to form. Unless you make your own with a garden composter, you'll need to buy a quality all-purpose compost.
Tomato stakes or cages: These are important for cordon or vine tomatoes, otherwise they trail along the ground as they grow.
Watering can: Unless you have a garden hose, you'll need a large watering can to keep your tomato plants hydrated. With a two-and-a-half gallon capacity, the Behrens Steel Watering Can is an excellent option.
Lauren Corona is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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