Tomatoes are America’s favorite garden vegetable. (Technically, we eat the fruit of the tomato plant, but it’s used as a vegetable in eating and cooking and, thus, usually categorized in vegetables.)
- If you’re planting seeds (versus purchasing transplants), you’ll want to start your seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the average last spring frost date. See our post on “Tomatoes From Seed the Easy Way.”
- Select a site with full sun and well-drained soil. For northern regions, is is very important that your site receives at least 6 hours of sun. For southern regions, light afternoon shade will help tomatoes survive and thrive.
- Two weeks before transplanting seedlings outdoors, till soil to about a foot and mix in aged manure, compost, or fertilizer.
- Harden off transplants for a week before moving outdoors.
- Transplant after last spring frost when the soil is warm. See our Best Planting Dates for Transplants for your region.
- Plant seedlings two feet apart, pinching off a few of the lower leaves and planting the root ball deep enough so that the remaining lowest leaves are just above the surface of the soil. • Water well to reduce shock to the roots.
Tip: Establish tomato stakes or cages in the soil at the time of planting. Staking keeps fruit off the ground, while caging keeps the plant growing upright. Some sort of support system is recommended.
- Water generously for the first few days.
- Water well throughout the growing season, about 2 inches per week during the hottest part of the summer.
- Mulch 5 weeks after transplanting to retain moisture.
- To help tomatoes through periods of drought, place a few flat rocks next to each plant; the rocks will pull water up from under the ground and keep it from evaporating.
- Fertilize 2 weeks prior to the first harvest and again 2 weeks after the first harvest.
- If using stakes, prune plants by pinching off suckers so that only a couple stems are growing per stake.
Harvesting and Storing
- Leave your tomatoes on the vine as long as possible. If any fall off before they are ripe, place them in a paper bag with the stem up and store them in a cool, dark place.
- Mature, ready-to-harvest tomatoes are firm and very red, regardless of size, with perhaps some yellow remaining around the stem. A ripe tomato will be only slightly soft. Pick tomatoes continuously as they redden.
- If your tomato plant still has fruit when the first hard frost threatens, pull up the entire plant and hang it upside down in the basement or garage.
- To freeze, core fresh, unblemished tomatoes and place them whole in freezer bags or containers. Seal, label, and freeze. The skins will slip off when they defrost.
Tip: Never place tomatoes on a sunny windowsill to ripen; they may rot before they are ripe. Also, never refrigerate fresh tomatoes. Doing so spoils the flavor and texture