While there’s no magic wand that can make tomato plants go from seed to harvest in mere weeks, there are some simple steps you can take to get a head start on the harvest season. It starts with variety selection, followed by proper planting and care. Preventing pests and diseases also goes a long way to speeding up the harvest as does harvesting fruits that are not fully ripe and allowing them to finish coloring up indoors. Read on if you’re wondering how to make tomato plants grow faster.
At one time or another every tomato gardener has asked how to make tomato plants grow faster. Maybe they’re impatient for the harvest or worried whether their fruits have time to ripen before frost. Whatever your reasons for trying to speed up the growth of tomato plants, below you’ll find 14 steps to help you grow a bountiful – and early – harvest.
1) Plant tomato seedlings in the right spot
Quick growing tomato plants start with the right growing conditions. If the plants are struggling to grow, they won’t be able to reach their harvest potential. Here are 3 considerations to keep in mind when selecting a site to grow tomatoes:
- Light – The most important element is sun. A site that receives at least 8 hours of direct sunlight is best. In less light tomato plants typically produce fewer fruits and often later in the season.
- Soil type – Next, consider the soil conditions. In hard, compacted clay soil tomato plants can struggle to thrive. In light, sandy soil, there may not be enough organic matter or water retention to encourage healthy growth. A fertile, loamy soil is ideal. It holds soil moisture, provides nutrients, and is well-draining. If you don’t have decent soil conditions, consider growing tomatoes in pots or in raised beds.
- Soil pH – Soil pH measures the acidity or alkalinity of the soil. The pH scale runs from 0 to 14 and it’s important to gardeners because pH affects the availability of plant nutrients. For tomatoes, the soil’s pH should be between 6.0 and 6.8. You can test your soil using a pH soil test kit or send a soil sample off to your local extension office for testing.
2) Plant early maturing varieties of tomatoes
If you flip through any seed catalog you’ll notice that each tomato variety has a ‘days to maturity’. This is the time it takes to go from seed, or in the case of tomatoes, from transplant to harvest. Early Girl is a fast maturing variety that is ready to pick just 57 days from transplanting. Choosing to plant a portion of early maturing tomatoes helps ensure you get to enjoy a homegrown harvest earlier in the growing season. Other early varieties include Moskvich (60 days), Galahad (69 days), and Glacier (55 days). Cherry tomatoes are often quick to mature with varieties like Sun Gold (57 days), Jasper (60 days) and Tidy Treats (60 days) good choices for a speedy harvest.
3) Start tomato seeds earlier for a quicker harvest
General tomato growing advice is to sow tomato seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the last expected spring frost. The young seedlings are then hardened off and transplanted into garden beds once the risk of frost has passed. However, for those wondering how to make tomato plants grow faster and crop earlier, sowing the seeds indoors even earlier lets you start the season with jumbo-sized transplants. That said, you have to make sure that you provide the seedlings with everything they need to grow well: lots of light (from a grow light or bright window), a 6 to 8 inch diameter container, consistent moisture, and regular applications of a liquid organic vegetable fertilizer. If early sown seedlings are light or water stressed, you may end up delaying the harvest. It’s also possible to overwinter tomato plants using one of these methods which will give you a jump start and an earlier harvest the following season.
4) Space tomato plants at the proper distance
Don’t overcrowd tomato plants by spacing them too close together. Proper spacing permits good air circulation and light exposure, and can reduce the occurrence of tomato diseases. Taking steps like smart spacing also means less competition for water, light, and nutrients which results in healthier tomato plants.
5) Pre-warm garden soil before transplanting tomatoes
As noted above, tomatoes are a warm season crop and don’t grow well in cool temperatures or cool soil. Give tomato plants a boost by transplanting them into a garden bed where the soil has been pre-warmed. It’s easy to raise the soil temperature. Just cover the bed about a week before you intended to transplant (I do this when I start the hardening off process) with a piece of black plastic sheeting. Lay it on top of the soil, securing it with garden pins or rocks. Leave it in place until you’re ready to tuck your tomato seedlings into the garden.
6) Plant tomato seedlings deeply in the soil
It may seem that planting tomato seedlings deeply in the soil would delay plant growth, but the opposite is true! Once they settle in, deep planted tomato seedlings form robust root systems that allow them to put on vigorous growth. When I transplant my seedlings into garden beds or containers, I remove any leaves on the bottom half of the plants. I then bury the seedlings, so that one-half to two-thirds of the plant is beneath the soil.
7) Protect tomato plants with a greenhouse, mini tunnel, or cloche
Tender tomato plants are damaged by cool air, cold soil temperatures, or frost. If transplanted into the garden too early, or if cold weather settles back in after planting, the plants can be prone to cold damage or root rot. Keep newly transplanted seedlings warm using a structure like a greenhouse, mini tunnel, or cloche. I grow about 20 tomato plants inside my polytunnel each summer. It gives me a 3 to 4 week jump start on the planting season, which allows my plants to size up quickly and yield weeks earlier than my garden crops. It also stretches the harvest season by another 3 to 4 weeks in autumn.
Cool temperatures may also reduce the amount of fruits that are set. For example, temperatures below 50 F (10 C) result in poor fruit set. Temperatures lower than 55 F (13 C) can prompt misshaped fruits. The ideal temperature range for tomato fruit set is between 65 to 80 F (18 to 27 C). Mini hoop tunnels are easily and quickly set up overtop tomato beds in spring and covered with lightweight row cover or clear poly. Cloches, which are typically made from glass or plastic, are popped on top of individual plants. Water cloches are cone-shaped covers made up of plastic tubes that you fill with water. They provide excellent insulation for just-planted tomato seedlings, but should be removed once the spring temperatures have settled.
8) Pinch off tomato suckers
I grow indeterminate, or vine, tomatoes vertically on garden structures. To control and manage their growth I pinch out most of the tomato suckers that develop on the plants. Removing these vigorous shoots allows more light to reach the foliage which promotes quick, healthy growth. Pinching out suckers with your fingers or garden snips also helps the plant focus on ripening the fruits forming on the vines, rather than on vegetative growth.
9) Support tomato plants with stakes or trellises
Growing tomatoes plants on sturdy stakes or trellises keeps them off the ground and exposes more of the plant to direct sunlight. Plants grown on the ground are often overcrowded with the bottom and inside of the plant shaded. This slows down ripening. Instead, speed up the ripening process by supporting tomato plants on a wooden stake, trellis, or sturdy tomato cage. Both determinate (bush) and indeterminate (vine) tomato plants grow best when supported.
10) Mulch tomato plants with straw or organic grass clippings
There are many benefits to applying an organic mulch around the base of your tomato plants. Mulch retains soil moisture, reduces weed growth, and can prevent or slow the spread of soil-borne diseases like early blight. However, if you apply mulch too early in the season it can keep the soil cool and slow plant growth. Wait until the plants are growing well and the soil temperature is at least 65 to 70 F (18 to 21 C) before mulching.
11) Fertilize tomato plants regularly
Fertilizing tomatoes is another smart way to encourage healthy growth and lots of fruits. My approach to fertilizing tomatoes is simple: I start with compost, adding a 1 to 2 inch layer to the soil surface when I prep the bed for planting. Next, I apply a slow release organic vegetable fertilizer when I transplant the seedlings. This provides a steady feed of nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. I follow up with an application of a liquid organic vegetable fertilizer once the plants have started to flower. Following the package directions, I fertilize the plants every 2 weeks with the liquid organic vegetable fertilizer. Avoid high nitrogen fertilizers as too much nitrogen promotes vigorous leafy growth but can delay or reduce flower and fruit set.
12) Learn how and when to water tomato plants
Drought stressed tomato plants struggle to grow and produce fruits. They may even be afflicted with blossom end rot which can delay the harvest of healthy fruits. Instead, water tomato plants consistently and deeply throughout the growing season. If you’re not sure if you need to water, stick your finger about 2 inches down into the soil. If it’s dry, grab your hose or turn on a soaker hose. I use a long-handled watering wand to deliver water right to the root zone of my plants. It’s particularly important to water potted tomato plants often as they dry out quickly in the summer heat, stressing the plants. Learn more about how to water tomato plants.
13) Protect tomato plants from pests
Tomatoes are loved by gardeners but also by large pests like deer, rabbits, and squirrels and insect pests like tomato hornworms and other caterpillars. If deer or rabbits nibble the tops of your tomato plants, they’ll be set back. That can delay the harvest for a few weeks! Protecting your plants from these pests is one of the most important steps when learning how to make tomatoes grow faster. Use chicken wire, insect netting, or surround your raised bed or vegetable garden with a fence. A barrier is the best way to prevent large pests like deer and rabbits from damaging tomato plants.
14) Harvest tomatoes often and when not fully mature
Harvesting ripe or almost-ripe tomatoes from your plants can speed up the ripening process for the remaining fruits. I typically harvest my large-fruited tomatoes when they’re about half-ripe. There are several reasons for this, but the biggest one is to maximize production. Picking tomatoes that are past the breaker stage – the point at which the mature color starts to show – can also prevent damage to fully ripe fruits from pests or weather. A fruit at this stage will still fully ripen indoors. Place partially ripe tomatoes out of direct light in a shallow box or on a countertop. It only takes a few days for them to finishing ripening so check the fruits daily and remove any that are ready to eat.
For further reading on growing tomatoes, be sure to check out these detailed articles:
- Ideas for supporting tomato plants
- 9 tomato pruning mistakes to avoid
- When should you harvest tomatoes?
- How to grow plum tomatoes
Do you have any tips to add on how to make tomato plants grow faster?