Many readers of the Organic Daily Post have requested we write an article on how far apart to plant tomatoes and the intricacies of proper tomato plant spacing. We hear you. Correct spacing is important to give your tomato plants the proper legroom they need to reach their full potential within a short period of time.
The following information should get you started on the pathway to a happy and healthy harvest of your plants.
Tomato planting; where being spaced out is a good thing!
The tomato has traveled a long way since it was first cultivated by the Aztecs sometime around 700 A.D. In the 16th-century, European explorers were introduced to the fruit and brought the tomato back to Europe with them upon their return from the Americas.
Beginning in the 1880s, when scientists proved tomatoes were not poisonous, just delicious and culinarily multifaceted, tomato growing exploded. So many people went to grow tomatoes that now one type or another resides in over 85% of all home gardens.
According to figures put out by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are over 25,000 types of tomatoes growing around the world. Other sources put that number at around 10,000. Either way, give or take 15,000 tomatoes, that still leaves plenty of tomato plants for you to grow in your backyard garden.
While they come in a multitude of shapes, colors, and sizes, horticulturalists classify tomatoes into two groups: determinate and indeterminate tomatoes. With determinate plants, you get the short and bushy varieties, such as dwarfs, cherry, and grape tomatoes. These types of tomato plants don’t usually require staking or caging, even though some gardeners still follow this process. Determinates are popular because they produce all their fruit in one swift blooming period of a few weeks then die out. These plants tend to grow to a certain height.
Indeterminate varieties continue to grow long and viny throughout the summer, and they often require staking or caging to control them. Indeterminate varieties produce their fruit continually throughout the growing season up until the first frost hard kills them off. Size and blooming times are the difference between the two.
Starting From Seed or Plant
For planting, you can grow indeterminate tomatoes from seed or transplant young tomatoes that are at least 6 to 8 inches tall. Additionally, one of the drawbacks of growing tomatoes from seed is that seeds first need to germinate, which takes longer and they don’t always sprout. You have to be careful during this process to nurture the little seedlings. By beginning with established plants through transplantation, you give your tomatoes a jumpstart on the growing season. This process can be good for those areas of the country that experience shorter seasons for growing tomatoes.
Here are a couple of tips on how to grow seedlings. Transplant them later in the afternoon to help protect them from drying out under a hot summer sun. Using this method will reduce the stress on your young transplants. Also, water them well and place them at least 2 to 3 inches deeper in the soil than they were in their original pots or containers.
Spacing Your Tomatoes
Naturally, the distance needed between the plants depends on whether you plan to stake them, cage them, or grow them on the garden floor. Proper spacing of your tomatoes in the garden is crucial. Correctly spaced, tomatoes are able to flower and set up to produce the maximum amount of fruit during their growing season. You just need to know how far apart to keep them initially.
So, what is the general rule of thumb for staking determinates and indeterminates? It is pretty much common sense.
Indeterminates like to be staked or grown in a tomato cage. If you place them within a wire cage, you won’t have to stake them periodically as they grow tall and gangly. The wiring affords them support. By staking or caging them within a big planter, you prevent the plant from sprawling all over the garden floor, thus protecting their fruit after they flower and set up for production. Staking or caging reduces the probability of stepping on them, insects eating them, and ground rot getting to them.
If you do cage them, make sure your cage has openings at least 6 inches apart between the wires so you can easily reach in and pick the fruits of your labor.
For indeterminates to grow best, their cage should be between 18 to 36 inches wide and about 6 feet tall. Those measurements may sound huge, but don’t worry, a healthy tomato plant will fill that width up no problem and will also appreciate the extra height that will allow it to grow tall. A big, tall tomato plant, when healthy, will produce an abundance of fruit all season long.
When caged, tomato plants should be spaced 24 to 30 inches apart. The rows themselves should be 30 to 42 inches between rows. Knowing how far apart to put your tomatoes can make a significant difference in their final yields.
Spacing Staked Indeterminates
If you plan to stake indeterminates, the spacing requirements are the same for the plants as caging. Sturdy wood stakes should be around 6 feet tall and driven into the ground at least a foot. The stakes should be 4 to 6 inches away from the tomato plants. As they grow, many gardeners use strips of cloth to tie the tomato to the stake. Avoid thinner wires, ropes, and threads that may cut the plant during the growing process. Tie the plant to the stake every 10 inches or so for vertical support.
Determinate Tomato Spacing
Since determinate tomatoes remain short and bushy, they don’t require as much space between the plants or the rows. Proper spacing for determinates is about 12 inches away from the next plant. Staked plants should be 24 inches apart.
By following these simple guidelines for spacing your tomatoes, you’re giving your tomato plants a good start to realizing a successful and happy harvest.