The Best Way to Grow Tomatoes

Tomatoes can be found in most American vegetable gardens. For many gardeners, growing tomatoes consists of little more than buying a plant from a big box garden center and placing it in a hole in the ground. There are many other options and for you there may be a better way — actually, six different ways to plant tomatoes.

Let’s begin with a bale of straw as the planting spot. That’s right… straw. I had good success by placing a tomato plant in a hole bored into the middle of a straw bale. Begin by soaking the straw a few days before you plan to plant. This softens the straw making it easier to dig a hole; it also begins decomposition within the bale. Use a trowel to scoop out a hole 12 to 18 inches deep (30-45 cm) and fill it with compost. A standard straw bale can easily hold two or three tomato plants.

Plant in straw

Any time you plant tomatoes you should bury as much of the plant as you can to help encourage a vigorous root system (see my May 24, 2011, article “How to Plant Tomatoes“). By placing your plants deep into the holes in the moist straw bale you give the tomato roots plenty of space to expand. The straw retains moisture well and requires watering less often than other garden beds. The compost and decomposing straw provide some nutrients but you should plan to fertilize regularly.

The easiest and simplest way to plant tomatoes is in a bag of potting soil. The bag is the garden bed. Make slits in the top of the plastic potting soil bag and insert the end of your hose. Soak the potting soil well; you want it thoroughly moist. I recommend punching holes or making small slits in the bottom of the bag for drainage. Place the bag flat on the ground and wait a few days for excess water to drain, then plant your tomato horizontally through the top slit.

Tomato in a bag

You can use this method in any spot that’s just a few feet square, in between raised beds, at the end of paths, or in garden corners. The bag is very effective at retaining moisture so this method also requires less watering. However, it is a little more difficult because you have to apply water and fertilizer through the slit; it won’t catch any rain or sprinkler water.

Another flexible variation is to grow tomatoes in pots. This is a great option for gardeners without a garden spot that gets full sun or who have limited space. Big root systems make big tomatoes so use at least a 14-inch pot filled with potting soil; bigger is better. Pots tend to dry out faster than normal garden beds so these tomatoes will probably need watering every day. As the plants grow a small trellis or support will help keep the vines from sprawling everywhere.

Plant in a pot

Tomatoes in pots work well for apartment dwellers. My daughter had good results with a single pot on her balcony. Pots can be moved to take advantage of sunny spots and can be brought indoors if cold weather threatens, extending the growing season. They can also be grown just outside the kitchen door making harvesting fast and easy.

Growing tomatoes upside down is another option that has found a following in recent years. Shiny advertisements and catchy names for upside down containers make the concept appealing. Anywhere you can hang a bag becomes a potential tomato garden. Growing tomatoes this way gives you the opportunity to fill the growing bag with good potting soil and deliver water and fertilizers straight to the roots.

Upside down tomatoes

You don’t need to water as often with this method, but the structure supporting the hanging bag needs to be sturdy enough to handle the weight of soil, a big plant, and ripe tomatoes. Some manufacturers offer movable supports that can be used on a deck or patio.

A raised bed is an ideal way to grow tomatoes. Raised beds heat up sooner than open ground so tomatoes can be planted earlier than standard rows. The soil is often better and has fewer compaction issues. When mulched, watering requirements drop. Weeding and harvesting is easy because of easy access. More plants can often be grown in a smaller space.

I find that trellises work well in a raised bed because the bed structure helps support them; last year I used welded metal panels bent into an arch. It supported plastic sheets to warm the plants early on and supported the plants as they grew large.

Plants under the trellis

The most common way gardeners grow tomatoes is in rows in open beds. This method has worked well for many gardeners for a very long time and is a good way to grow if you have the space. To be most effective the entire bed should have amended soil and have a good irrigation method. Tomato plants can grow large and a trellis system is almost always needed; open bed growing limits the trellis options.

I’ve used all six methods with varied results.

Last year big tomatoes came from the straw bale. The plants did very well but as they grew large I was concerned that their weight would topple the bale or that they would sprawl too much; a trellis system was difficult to set up. Regretfully deer damaged the plants before they caused a problem.

The first tomato of the season came from the potting soil bag. That plant also had the biggest root ball. The plant did well but the specialized watering requirements added time to the process. I also found that my feet and garden hose had a tendency of snagging on the bag because it was too close to my garden path.

Claims for bumper crops abound, but I’ve grown upside down tomatoes with mostly negative results (see my May 6, 2011, article “Upside Down Tomatoes“). The plants were stunted and not nearly as large as with the other methods.

Tomatoes in pots do well with extra attention. It’s nice being able to bring the pots inside when a frost threatens and the other plants are injured; however, bigger pots are harder to move. As long as the soil doesn’t dry out this method works very well.

My favorite way to grow tomatoes is in a raised bed. I can keep my plants contained in a designated area, mulch and water as needed, and keep basic chores like weeding to a minimum. The biggest tomato plants in my garden, by a large margin, were in raised beds.

Best success in raised beds

Open row plantings work well but the space is often better used by other sprawling plants like melons or squash. For harvest, you need paths between plants and this takes up more space. Any one of the other methods of growing tomatoes is more efficient for limited garden plots.

Another option for some gardeners is hydroponic gardening. Tomatoes can be grown in water only, but this method requires specialized equipment and procedures and isn’t suitable for most home gardeners.

Experimenting with new options is fun and informational. I plan to repeat the straw bale and pot plantings, but will probably bypass the potting soil bag. Upside down tomatoes are probably gone from my garden for good. My focus will be on growing tomatoes in raised beds. I wouldn’t know about how all of these methods worked for me if I hadn’t tried them.

Regardless of which method you use, tomatoes should probably find a place in your garden. If you have a successful method continue it, but think about trying something new. Have fun.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. This is awesome. I have never heard of the straw trick.

    Reply

  2. I loved this post! It even provided conversation fodder to and from church yesterday. “You think it would really work to grow in straw? Well, I saw it on a blog. Well, then, it must be true if you saw it on the internet. Oh, hush.” Thanks for the great post.

    Reply

  3. […] The Best Way to Grow Tomatoes « GardenerScott […]

    Reply

  4. I think your blog is fantastic. I posted some of your posts on http://myrecipepost.com/ under Grow Your Own.

    Reply

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