How To Grow Tomatoes

Published on April 10th 2020
tomatoes growing at home on a deck
There is nothing more satisfying than picking a sun-ripened tomato and eating it right there and then. Luckily for us, they're straightforward to grow.
Here's my guide on how to get growing these juicy treats.

Which variety

There so many kinds of tomato to chose from, so I thought I should take a minute to explain the differences to help you pick the perfect one.
  • Cherry
Cherry varieties are the smallest and often sweetest tomatoes. They're fantastic for salads - if they make it to the kitchen before being eaten. They can also be roasted whole or added to pasta dishes.
  • Medium
These are also called 'salad' tomatoes and can be used for pretty much any tomato-based activity, including the La Tomatina
  • Beefsteak
Beefsteak tomatoes are the biggest tomatoes, which makes them easier to slice for sandwiches or stuffed for roasting and grilling.
  • Plum
Plum tomatoes are oval-shaped and can be 'cherry' size or larger. They are frequently used for sauces and soups as they have fewer seeds. They are also the types used to produce sundried tomatoes.
A bunch of ripening tomatoes on a branch that is tied to a support.

Growing habits

After deciding on the type of fruit you want, you need to consider the space you have available. Tomatoes have three distinct growing habits:
  • Cordon or vine (indeterminate)
Tomatoes that grow as cordons are the most common. Cordons are single-stemmed plants, which need their side shoots removed. They can grow very tall and will require support. If they are being grown inside a greenhouse, they will need to be placed on the floor.
  • Bush (determinate)
Bush varieties have a dwarf habit, so they will stop growing earlier than cordons.
The lead stem will produce a fruit truss (a cluster of stems that the flowers and fruit grow from). Bush tomatoes don't require any pinching out of side shoots and can be grown in hanging baskets.
  • Semi-determinate
These are similar to cordon varieties and are grown in the same way, but they don't get as tall. Beefsteak types also behave this way with lots of vigorous side growth.
A close up of tomato seedlings appearing in a multi-celled tray

Growing from seed

Once you have decided on a variety, it's time to get planting! Tomatoes are one of the easiest plants to grow from seed, and we can start sowing them from late February on sunny windowsills or in greenhouses.
However, I tend to wait until middle to late March when natural light levels will prevent seedlings from getting too leggy.
Sarah at The Newt has given some excellent advice on how to best sow this tasty fruit (considered a culinary vegetable).
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Pricking out

I usually prick out my seedlings when they have developed four leaves. This means giving them more room in a larger space!
The first two leaves to appear are called the seed leaves (cotyledons), and the appearance of the next set (the true leaves) indicates that the roots are beginning to develop and it's time to give them more room.
  • Mix a slow-release fertiliser into a multipurpose compost before filling the pots or containers you intend to use.
  • Water and allow to drain.
  • Make a hole in the compost large enough to slide the roots and the stem down to just underneath the seed leaves (the point where the stem colour changes from red to green).
Planting the seedlings this deep will help the plant develop more roots, enabling them to take up more nutrients, water and anchor into the soil.
  • If you're growing your seedlings in a seed tray, try using a pencil to lift the seedlings out carefully.
TIP Making sure you only hold the seed leaves during the process. It's very easy to squeeze and break the stem, which cannot re-grow.
  • Lightly firm the soil and water with room temperature water to reduce transplant shock.

Growing on

Your seedlings will need some heat and space to grow on, ideally in a heated greenhouse or a sunny windowsill.
Tomatoes are heavy feeders, and although fresh compost will contain enough nutrients for the first 4 to 6 weeks, it will be worth adding a diluted tomato feed at every watering. Make this a third of the recommended dose and ensure that any excess water can drain away.
Once they have reached 15cm (6 inches) tall, it's time to harden them off (acclimatise to cooler conditions) ready to be planted out.

Planting up

  • Hanging baskets: Planting up will depend on the type of tomato you've grown. For those who are growing tumbling varieties, Jamie and Sarah from the Newt have recorded a couple of videos on how to get the best results.
  • Outdoors: Incorporate lots of nutrient-rich and moisture-retentive soil improver into the site before planting out.
Plant out about 40cm (16 inches) apart and deep enough that the stem is buried up to the point it changes colour (from red to green). It is also worth creating a shallow circular trench around the planting area to prevent water runoff.
  • Growbags: Follow the planting recommendations given by each manufacturer. However, to help with watering, many people use the collars to act as water reserves. You can also turn the bag onto its narrow side to provide a deeper planting depth.
  • Greenhouses: My grandmother preferred large pots along the floor, while others plant directly into the soil. There are also lots of different products on the market to help with reducing watering.
A bunch of green tomatoes on a plant.
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If you are growing cordon (vine) varieties, you will need to provide some support for the tall stems.
This could be in the form of string hanging from a greenhouse strut, or a cane placed alongside the stem. Tie the stem to the support with string or rubber ties. Check regularly and loosen if the plant is starting to rub, as wounds will be access points for airborne diseases.
Bush varieties don't generally need supporting, but you may want to add a 1m cane to keep them from flopping over each other.
Tomato plants being grown outside.

Pinching out

Cordon varieties left untrained will produce a lot of side shoots. These shoots tend to be less productive, use up nutrients, and the additional weight can break stems later on.
A finger and thumb pinching out a side shoot growing from a leaf joint on a tomato plant.
Removing side shoots
You can pinch off side shoots that appear between the stem and leaf joints. If done quickly, the small shoots should break away cleanly. However, if you've missed a few (as we all do), any that are over pencil thickness will need to be cut away.
We also need to remove any stems that are competing with the leader. You will need to cut away these 'Bull' shoots away to leave one clear stem.
A flower truss developing from the main stem of a tomato plant. Photo by Jo Baker.
Flower trusses grow from the main stem
Once your outdoor plant has four trusses (clusters of flowers), it is worth pinching out the lead stem, as any further trusses usually do not have time to ripen. For plants being grown in greenhouses, this is normally done after the 6th truss has appeared, as they have a longer growing season.
A truss of red ripe tomatoes on a plant.

Feeding and watering

Tomatoes are hungry plants and require a regular amount of food and water. The general rule of thumb is to use a general liquid feed until after the first flowers have appeared. At this point, switch to a high potash feed such as Chempak 4 or Tomorite, which will help the plant to produce fruit. Apply by following the manufacturer's advice.
Watering needs to be consistent, ensuring that the roots never dry out or become waterlogged. Unfortunately, irregular watering is the biggest cause of blossom-end rot. It can also cause the fruit to develop a tough un-tasty skin which can also split. Plants grown in containers or grow bags are particularly susceptible to this.

Pest, diseases and disorders

Unfortunately, tomatoes are very susceptible to a large number of pests and diseases. I've listed the main suspects:
Tomato plants can also suffer from other disorders, either caused by our actions or growing conditions.
Candide's botanist Dr Waheed Arshad recently wrote an article to help explain what disorders these might be.
I hope this has given you all the advice you need to grow your own delicious and tasty tomatoes! If you have any questions, please leave a comment!

We would love to see how your plants get on, so please share your images with the hashtag #tomato or #growyourown.

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