Many readers of the Organic Daily Post have requested we write an article on the proper spacing of tomato plants. We hear you. Correct spacing is important to give your tomatoes the proper leg-room they need to reach their full potential.
The following information should get you started on the pathway to a healthy and happy harvest.
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 AD. In the sixteenth 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 1880's when it was proven to society tomatoes were not poisonous but delicious and so culinary friendly, their popularity has exploded. So much so that tomatoes of one type or another now reside in 85% of all home gardens.
According to figures put out by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) there some 25,000 types of tomatoes. Other sources put that number at around 10,000. Either way, give or take 15,000 tomatoes, that still leaves plenty of varieties to be grown in the backyard garden.
While they come in a multitude of shapes, colors and sizes, tomatoes are classified into two groups. Determinate and Indeterminate. With determinates you get the short and bushy types like dwarfs, cherry and grape tomatoes. As such, these types don't usually require staking or caging but some gardeners do stake them. Determinates are popular because they produce all their fruit in one swift blooming period of a few weeks then die out.
Indeterminates continue to grow long and viny throughout the summer and often require staking or caging to control them. Indeterminates 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 six to eight inches tall. Additionally, one of the drawbacks of growing from seed is that seeds first need to germinate which takes longer and they don't always sprout. Then you have be careful with and nurture the little seedlings. By beginning with established plants (by transplanting them) you give your tomatoes a jump-start on the growing season. This can be good for those areas of the country that experience shorter growing seasons.
A couple growing tips on seedlings. Transplant them later in the afternoon to help protect them from drying out under a hot summer sun thereby reducing the stress young transplants may undergo. Also, water them well and place them at least two 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 flourish and produce the maximum amount of fruit during their growing season.
So what is the general rule of thumb for staking determinates and indeterminates? It is pretty much common sense.
Indeterinates like to be staked or grown in a tomato cage. If you place them within a wire cage, you won't have to periodically stake them 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 the fruit. Staking or caging reduces the probability of them being stepped on, eaten by insects and also protects them from ground rot.
If you do cage them, make sure your caging has openings at least six inches wide 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. That 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.
Spacing Staked Indeterminates
If you plan to stake indeterminates the spacing requirements are the same for the plants as caging. Sturdy wooden stakes should be around 6 feet tall and driven into the ground a good foot. The stakes should be 4 to 6 inches away from the tomato plants. As they grow, many gardeners use strips of cloth (you don't want something thin that will cut the plant) to tie to the tomato to the stake. Generally, about every 10 inches or so vertically for 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 spaced approximately 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.