The Beginners Guide To Growing Tasty Tomatoes

What follows is a mini-course on growing tomatoes; follow these directions for reducing the problems in your garden.

And yes, the tomato is a member of the solanacea family - the nightshade family and yes; it was grown as an ornamental for many years before some brave - and unknown - soul ate it for the first time.

You might also be interested in knowing that when Europeans first started eating them, the tomato was considered an aphrodisiac and not a fruit to be eaten by proper ladies.

This ornamental status was a real shame in an era noted for its vitamin deficiencies because the tomato is loaded with all sorts of good things - including the prized vitamin C.

Got Tomato Gardening Questions? Here's Where Doug Answers Them

Doug's First Rules of Gardening

This is a good place to remind you that Doug's first rule of gardening operates in a big way with tomato gardening.

In the case of tomato gardening, we want all three so you had better make sure you feed the plants

dougs first rule of gardening

Doug's First Rules of Gardening

Planting Tomatoes

Several points. The "accepted" rule of thumb is that you remove the leaves below ground when you plant. Most of the time I do this but in this video I didn't. And I've taken grief for it but my honest research is that it really doesn't matter much.

If the growing conditions are right, the tomato never hesitates. So remove the bottom leaves if it makes you feel better - I usually do but sometimes I don't.

Compost and Fish Emulsion as Food

Work several shovels of compost around the soil before planting and then liquid feed every week or two all through the summer with compost tea or an organic liquid plant food.

I like fish emulsion for my liquid feeding but you can take your choice at your garden center shelves.

Click Here For Tomato Growing Secrets Ebook

Book cover Gardening Tomatoes


When growing tomatoes, it's critical to get the spacing correct. This plant likes its own space. If you crowd this crop, you will get reduced yields.

Each large indeterminate (produces fruit continually) plant will require at least a 3 foot spacing between plants in the row with the rows at least 2 feet apart.

The smaller determinate (produces most of fruit all at once) plants can stand a 2 foot spacing in the row with the rows held at 2 feet apart.

This above is commercial tomato gardening spacing and this means you will get the most number of plants in your garden if you plant on a 2x2 grid.

However, commercial spacing also means good feeding and watering so that there is no stress on the plant.

If you tend to ignore your tomato gardening later in the summer because you are at the cottage then plant further apart to lessen the competition. Add an extra foot to all dimensions above

tomato siberian yellow

Tomato 'King of Siberia' an open pollinated heirloom that does really well in our garden with mid-season, large fruit

Staking Distances

The only way you can decrease the spacing is if you stake the plants - grow them up a stake instead of on the ground. Then you can bring them to 12-18 inches apart on 2-3 foot wide rows.

This is important because many tomato blight diseases get established first on crowded plants.

Staking also drastically reduces slug and snail damage; with the fruits hanging several feet off the ground, the slugs are less likely to get their share of those luscious, ripe globes.

Important To Understand About Staking Tomatoes vs Ground Growing

If you have a small garden, then stake your tomatoes. You get more fruit per square foot of garden by staking.

If you have a large garden and grow quite a few plants, grow them on the ground. You get more fruit per plant this way (but less per square foot)

If You Stake, You Remove Suckers

tomato sucker

The small leaf/shoot coming out of the leaf axil (where the leaf stem and main plant stem meet) is a tomato sucker and should be removed if you're staking your plants

Staking, Pruning and Removing Suckers

My Tomato Leaves Are Disappearing - Only The Stems Are Left

You have tomato hornworm. This large caterpillar can eat a great many leaves in a single day and is a major pest. Having said that - you don't spray for this one. You patiently look the plant over - starting with the branches with the least amount of damage (they're usually the most recent although not always). And you look under the stems.

tomato hornworm damage

Tomato hornworm damage - leaves disappear very quickly unless the hornworm is controlled

How do you find them? You're going to have to take your time with this one. Start at a damaged area and track the leaf stem back to the main stem. Watch the undersides of the stems/leaves as that's where they normally are. They eat from the bottom.

I often kneel down beside the plant and look slightly upwards as I track back from the end of each damaged stem to pick them out. They're not easy to see unless you take your time. And it's a question of practice. The first few times you try to find them, they'll be harder to pick out but once you learn to look for that distinctive "bump" on the underside of a leaf/stem that shouldn't be there, it will become easier.

When you see one, you kill it unless you want to lose the entire plant. You can do it in any way you like - from stomping to dropping in a pail of soapy water. I pull them off the stem but they grab on hard (wouldn't you if you were about to be dropped into a bowl of soapy water?) :-) and it's often easier and "less gross" to snip off the branch they're on and drop the entire branch into the pail.

I sometimes get asked, "Why don't you just spray?". Bt will work on hornworms but it's not available on the home scale in Canada. You have to hit them with soap to "kill them" and there are two problems with this. The first is that it's tough to hit them on the underside of the leaf and the second is that it doesn't kill them - it just makes them cleaner. Diatomaceous earth works nicely if you coat the entire plant with it.

tomato hornworm

Tomato hornworm - it only takes one or two to strip a plant almost overnight

Some gardeners recommend carrying a pail of soapy water. I don't carry a pail with me but drag my heel to make a furrow in the garden, drop the caterpillar into the trench, cover it back over and step on it. The soil microorganisms will thank you for dinner and recycling is a good thing.

Adult Form of the Tomato Hornworm

The adult form of this insect is a grey brown Hawk Moth and those with wildlife gardens can plant a tomato in the back in order to support this amazing creature. You won't get many tomatoes from it but you may see a hovering hawk moth instead.

Tomatoes Love Mulch

Tomatoes like mulch. They like the cool season mulch of black plastic, a green garbage bag works quite well to hold heat in the soil during these early months.

Clear plastic works very well to heat the soil up in the spring (better than black) but it *must* be removed when you plant or you'll wind up roasting the tomato roots.

My tomatoes however, get an organic mulch of straw for the entire season. I tend to pull the mulch back on the tomato planting area to allow the sun to heat the soil up. After planting, the mulch is pushed back around the plants.

Organic mulches do not warm up the soil like plastic; instead they keep a steady soil temperature and moisture level.

In a perfect world, the tomatoes would be started with plastic and then, in the heat of July and August the plastic would be removed to prevent excessive heat buildup and an organic mulch laid down.

Not being perfect gardeners, we start with what we will finish with; and if our fruit set is not as early as the neighbours, why then we do less work.

tomato mayo's delight

Tomato 'Mayo's Delight' named after my better half Mayo Underwood. A solid performer in our garden

Doug Laughs At Internet Advice

There is more bad advice going around on the net about growing tomatoes than just about any other plant. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Put a penny into the planting hole so the copper will help the tomato. Well, given that copper takes many years to degrade and that they stoped making pennies out of copper sometime in the early 1980's, (it's now a zinc alloy) I suspect this one is not true. ;-)

  • Add epsom salts to the planting hole for great tomatoes. Well, epsom salts are magnesium, a fairly common element. And yes, tomatoes do like magnesium but the only way this will help is if your soil is deficient in this element (most soils aren't). The only way you'll know is if you do a soil test. But this won't stop some folks from doing it anyway. The question I have is how much magnesium is too much? :-)

  • Add lime or calcium to the planting hole to stop blossom end rot. Well, given the causes have little to do with a lack of calcium but more to do with environment and gardening skills, this too is just another bit of "interesting" advice. Note most soils are not deficient in calcium.

  • But like a lot of things internet-advice-based, some folks will believe and try darn near anything. As Abraham Lincoln said, "If you read it on the Internet, it must be true." :-)

    But I did XX and my crop was great

    I get this a lot as well. Given the variability in the weather every year. Given the variability in garden practices from year to year (we don't water the same from week to week in any single year never mind year to year.

    There are just too many differences to give credence to a few plants in one garden (with no research trials or control plants) from year to year with advice that goes against the science of growing vegetables.

    Click Here For Tomato Growing Secrets Ebook

    Book cover Gardening Tomatoes

    Doug's Summmary Notes

  • Feed them, water them,
  • Keep them warm when young,
  • Encourage their upright growth - sounds like I am talking about my kids rather than about tomato gardening.
  • Probably much the same mindset when you get right down to it.
  • Raise your tomatoes like you raise your kids. Just add enough love to the mix and both will turn out fine.

  • Got Tomato Gardening Questions? Here's Where Doug Answers Them