Tomato Growing Tips

— Written By Bryan Hartman
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As we start approaching springtime and start to think about what to grow in the garden, one plant is a staple in about every garden. Tomatoes are one of the most popular garden crops; however, tomatoes can be the most problem-prone. Do not worry! Cultivating a healthy tomato crop begins with following best planting practices. Keep the following tips in mind as you plant this spring will get you on your way to growing a bumper crop of delicious, home-grown tomatoes.

Plant in The Right Place
Like most vegetables, tomatoes grow best when they receive eight hours or more of direct sunlight each day. Additionally, tomatoes should be planted in soils with good drainage or in raised beds. It is best to prepare your soil before planting by spreading two to four inches of compost, aged manure, ground pine bark, or leaf mold over the surface and tilling it into the top six to eight inches of soil.

Plant Early
Tomatoes grow and produce best when daytime temperatures range from 70 to 80 degrees, and night temperatures are between 60 to 70 degrees. In our regions, most of our summer days exceed these spring-like temperatures, which can cause tomato plants to shed their blossoms without setting fruit. Fruits that do ripen when daytime temperatures reach the mid 90s have less flavor, ripen unevenly, and may develop hard, white areas inside the flesh. Planting tomatoes as early as possible will allow the plants more time to grow and produce fruit under more ideal temperatures; therefore, avoiding the hottest part of summer.

Plant Deep
Tomatoes are one of the few vegetables that have the ability to produce roots along their stem. Setting the root ball two to three inches below the top of the soil level at planting time will result in plants with larger, more extensive root systems. If your plant has long, leggy stems dig a shallow trench, planting the roots sideways with the leggy part of the stem planted horizontally (2-3 inches deep) instead of planting the root ball several inches deep.

Space tomato plants at least three feet apart and place a cage around plants to support them as they grow. Mulching the soil underneath and around tomatoes will help maintain soil moisture and soil temperatures cooler during summer.

Plant Several Varieties
There are hundreds of tomato varieties available, with dozens of new varieties introduced each year. Give yourself the best chances of success by planting several different tomato varieties. Cherry tomato varieties are the easiest to grow and including a few of these highly productive plants will yield dozens of small fruits on long trusses. A few favorite varieties liked by many gardeners include Sweet Million, Super Sweet 100, and Juliet.

Heirloom varieties have been selected and cultivated for flavor above all else. Many heirlooms are regionally adapted and not all varieties produce well in the south, so be selective when choosing an heirloom variety. Some heirlooms adapted to southern heat and humidity include German Johnson, Cherokee Purple, and Homestead.

Hybrid tomato varieties offer the benefit of increased disease resistance. Planting disease-resistant hybrid varieties will increase your chance of a successful crop; however, be mindful that no one tomato variety is resistant to all diseases. Celebrity, Early Girl, and Better Boy are reliable hybrid tomatoes for the south. All three produce medium to large size fruits and are resistant to fusarium, one of the common soil-dwelling diseases that cause tomato plants to wilt. Celebrity and Better Boy are also resistant to root-knot nematodes.

When purchasing tomato plants, look for the word determinate or indeterminate on the label. Determinate varieties stop growing once they reach full size, which is usually three to four feet tall. These plants set all their fruit at once and stop producing once they bear tomatoes after a four to five-week period. The small size of determinate varieties makes them well suited for planting in containers. Additionally, they are also favored for canning since they bear a heavy crop that ripens in a short period. Most modern hybrids and bush varieties are determinate.

Indeterminate varieties continue to grow all season, setting successive crops of fruit all summer and into fall if you can keep pests away. As a result of their long growing season, indeterminate varieties get large, often six feet or more, and need sturdy cages for support. Indeterminate varieties are popular among home gardeners because they bear tomatoes over a long season. Most cherry tomatoes are indeterminate, as are most heirlooms.

Learn more from these Extension fact sheets: “Growing Home Garden Tomatoes” from NC State Extension.

For more information, contact Bryan Hartman, Agriculture and Natural Resources agent at