Which vegetable patch doesn’t have tomato plants? Despite its rather short history in Europe, Solanum lycopersicum is one of the most popular vegetables in household vegetable patches. Originating from Central and South America, the tomato arrived on this continent in the first half of the 16th century and was used mainly as an ornamental plant. It was not widely accepted as a food crop until the 19th century, when Italians adopted it as a staple ingredient that now forms part of many dishes, whether raw, cooked, dried or in the form of a sauce, concentrate and more.
Strange but true: given its use in cooking, the tomato is considered a vegetable, but botanically speaking it is a fruit (it grows from the flowers of the plant and contains seeds). Today let’s find out how to grow tomatoes for a bumper harvest of high-quality fruit.
How to plant tomatoes
Tomato plants love warm climates and can suffer in cold weather: to mature they require a daytime temperature of 22–26°C, so unsurprisingly they grow best in the summer season. They should be planted in full sun, so avoid even partially shaded places. They need water, but are not suitable for humid environments, which promote disease. With the exception of compact (clayey) soils and the presence of stagnant surface water, they adapt to various types of terrain. The ideal ground for tomato plants is a well-draining, loose/medium-textured soil with a pH of 7–7.5 and lots of organic matter. It should also be well tilled before planting.
How should you plant tomatoes in your vegetable patch and when? There are multiple approaches to choose from:
Plant nursery-bought tomato seedlings in April/May (or as early as March, if your vegetable patch is protected by a polytunnel, which you can build yourself).
Grow your own seedlings for planting by sowing tomato seeds in a seedbed in February/March: here are our tips for obtaining vegetable seedlings in your seedbed.
Sow tomato seeds directly on the vegetable patch: this should be done in April/May, when the climate is stable and the risk of late frosts has passed (minimum temperature required for germination is 12–13°C).
To grow tomatoes you should start with soil that is well-tilled, i.e. soft and rich in nutrients. Soil preparation for tomatoes should be carried out from late autumn to early winter: dig deeply and turn over the soil using a spade or rotary tiller before carrying out basal dressing using manure, compost (read our guide to DIY compost) or pelleted manure. Before transplanting or sowing, agitate the surface of the soil with a hoe, then refine and level it with a rake. If your soil is on the clayey side, to prevent standing water and facilitate drainage you should organise your vegetable patch by mounding the soil into parallel ridges 20-25 cm high.
You can learn more about the tilling process in our vegetable patch preparation guide.
After preparing the soil to eliminate weeds you can then use the false sowing technique.
Before planting tomatoes you can also mulch the vegetable patch with plastic sheeting or natural material (such as dry grass): although not essential, it helps to keep moisture in the soil and saves water for irrigation, keeps weeds under control and results in cleaner and healthier tomatoes.
Different in shape, size, colour, taste and distribution, tomatoes come in numerous varieties and subvarieties but can be divided into two main categories: determinate and indeterminate. Determinate plants stop growing at a certain height and generally have a bushy appearance, whereas indeterminate varieties keeping growing throughout the vegetative cycle.
Take this into account both when choosing varieties to cultivate (especially if you have a small vegetable patch) and when planting or sowing tomatoes. In particular, pay attention to planting distances: 40–70 cm between plants and 70–120 cm between rows, depending on the type of plant and whether the rows are single or double rows.
As soon as the tomato seedlings are planted, fix stakes into the ground, being careful not to damage the roots (keep 5–10 cm away). A simple bamboo cane or a support made of wood, plastic or metal is essential for indeterminate tomato plants, but can also be used for determinate varieties. The stake prevents the stem from bending (or even breaking) under the weight of the tomatoes, and also ensures that the plant receives more sunlight and doesn’t droop towards the ground.
How to grow tomatoes
From transplanting (or sowing) to ripening, tomatoes need water, but not too much: watering should be moderated based both on the type of soil and as temperatures increase. The plants should be wetted at the base with a watering can, hosepipe or driplines (don’t wet the foliage or fruits, which should remain dry). Water is invaluable: here's how to save it for your vegetable patch during the hottest months.
After planting or once the stems reach a height of 20–25 cm, remember to loosely tie the tomato plants to the stakes, without letting them become choked as they grow. To tie them, use twine, raffia, stake clips, soft plastic tubing etc.
Monitor the health of the tomatoes, which can be affected by various parasites (aphids, Colorado beetles, shield bugs, snails etc.), diseases caused by fungi and bacteria, and physiological plant disorders (such as rot and sunscald).
Using pruning shears, prune the tomato plants by cutting or pinching off side shoots (suckers), which grow at the junction between the stem and a leaf: this is also called desuckering. You can use the larger shoots as scions for obtaining new (late) tomato seedlings. You can also use pruning shears for topping indeterminate tomatoes, as cutting the top of the plant stops it from rising too high and triggers the end of the vegetative cycle. In September, you can use this trick to ripen the last tomatoes of the season before the cold weather arrives.
If you haven’t mulched your tomato rows, while the seedlings are small you can protect them by weeding, either lightly hoeing the soil or pulling up weeds by hand.
Tomato plants can quickly deplete garden soil of its nutrient reserves. So if you want to grow healthy tomatoes and have a good harvest, fertilise periodically after basal dressing. In addition, to prevent low yields, poor quality and disease, don’t grow them in the same spot for more than two consecutive years; wait 3–5 years before replanting or resowing them in the same part of the vegetable patch. After tomatoes, rotate your crops by planting alliums (garlic and onion) or legumes (such as beans). Avoid planting other crops in the nightshade family (aubergines, peppers and potatoes), as they are also heavy feeders that need rich soil. Besides crop rotation, there are other ways to avoid depleting your vegetable patch: find out how to keep soil fertile.
Are you organising your crops? Here you will find an overview of how to get the most out of your vegetable patch, tips for protecting and cultivating the vegetable patch in winter and our guide to creating your own aromatic herb corner.