Tomato Plant Spacing: How to Space Tomatoes

Tomato Plant Spacing: How to Space Tomatoes
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Tomato Plant Spacing: How to Space Tomatoes

How to Properly Space Tomato Plants in the Garden

You pored over seed catalogs and compared varieties and you’ve imagined what you will do with your tomatoes. BLTs all summer long and canning up some sauce to savor in the dark of winter. You’ve carefully cultivated your baby tomatoes from the time they were just tiny sprouts. Now it’s time for them to head out into their carefully prepared bed that’s been turned and fed with compost until it is perfect.

With all the varieties of tomato plants available, it’s tempting to end up with a lot of different starts and a tiny army of tomato seedlings to try and fit into the garden. When they are so tiny, it seems very reasonable to plant them closer together than the directions on the seed packets say. I mean really — two to three feet apart?! It seems ridiculous. But it’s not.

Heirloom varieties in purple, pinks, yellows and reds! Cherry tomatoes! Sauce tomatoes! Whopper tomatoes! Determinate, semi-determinate, indeterminate. Levels of sun and the region where you live. All these things make a difference. There are a lot of variables to be considered when setting out your tomato seedlings into the garden.

You love your tomatoes and want the best for them because you know happy, healthy tomato plants make lots and lots of tomatoes. In this article, we will touch on the important aspects of tomato plant spacing so that your harvest can be successful and you will have tomatoes to share with friends and neighbors as well.

ripe red tomatoesripe red tomatoes

How Spacing Helps You and Your Tomatoes

Researchers continue to study the spacing of tomato plants and its effect on the yield of fruit from each plant. No one is able to come up with a “one-size-fits-all” solution to the question of how to space tomatoes, but the basic idea is that plants should be placed two to three feet apart and rows should be spaced apart even farther, coming in around four feet.

First, let’s look at some of the reasons that proper tomato plant spacing is important.

why plant spacing is important graphicwhy plant spacing is important graphic

Air Flow for Tomato Plants

Air circulation is one of the most important factors in the spacing of tomato plants. Too much humidity sitting in among the plants creates a breeding ground for bacteria and fungi that are all too happy to munch on your tomato plants before they even start to set fruit. Humidity is not just a product of the weather or of watering — it also comes from the plants themselves.

If you’ve ever moved among your tomato plants in the evening, you may have felt the cool, damp air that seemed to envelop them. This is the product of the tomato plant’s process of transpiration. Tomato plants need to emit water from their leaves so that the roots are able to pull fresh water and nutrients up from the soil.

Without proper spacing and air flow, this water emitted through transpiration can lead to illness and disease like blossom end rot for the tomato plants. Tomato plants which are too close together can inhibit the process of transpiration, thereby causing the plants to be unable to grow properly and gain enough nutrients from the soil.

Letting the Sun Shine in

Tomatoes planted too close together not only shade their neighbors, they shade themselves. Tomatoes are especially sun-loving plants so making sure they have as much access to light as possible will help increase yields and keep plants healthy and strong.

Spacing plants appropriately allows sun to reach even the lowest of leaves, allowing for maximum photosynthesis in the plants. Researchers have found that while photosynthesis is very important for plant growth, it is not a vital aspect for the fruit to ripen. Researchers did find that tomato fruits exposed to the sun did have better seed setting and maturation, so only worry about the fruits getting sun if you plan to harvest them for next year’s seed.

Access to Your Tomato Plants

Proper tomato plant spacing also allows for ease of movement around the plants. You need to be able to access the plants for training them on their stakes or cages, pruning off suckers and removing diseased stems, mulching, monitoring progress and, of course, harvesting.

A garden with well spaced tomatoes allows for ease of access without getting too close to the plants and compacting the soil, which then makes it difficult for the roots to grow and reach the nutrients they need.

Considerations for How to Space Tomato Plants

There are a few things to consider when deciding how far apart to space your tomato plants for optimal growth. No one wants to waste space in a garden — and there are always more things to grow than we have room for — but proper spacing will ultimately help increase the yield of tomatoes so it’s better to err on the side of too much room rather than not enough.

 

difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes graphicdifference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes graphic

Determinate or Indeterminate

There’s a lot of information on the back of a packet of tomato seeds, and it can be easy to overlook some bits of information. Read your packets closely and look up any terms you don’t understand. The term determinate or indeterminate refers to the growth habit of a particular variety of tomato plant. 

Determinate varieties of tomatoes are sometimes referred to as “bush tomatoes” and tend to grow in a more compact form and generally stop vining when they set fruit. The fruits of determinate varieties tend to come ripe in about a 2-week period, making them perfect for canning or making juice and sauce. Determinate tomatoes typically need less space so plants and rows can be as close as two feet apart and some varieties can even be grown in containers. 

Indeterminate varieties tend to grow in a much more sprawling style, which is why they are also called “vining tomatoes.” These varieties will need more space to grow as well as more support from stakes, cages or other support systems such as “stake and weave.” Indeterminate varieties will need more space, with plants being as much as three feet apart and rows as much as four feet apart. This benefits not just their growth habits, but so that you can access them for training and maintaining their support structures.  

Type of Support System

Many gardeners have already decided on their favorite support system, while many others continue to experiment to learn what works best. Support systems come in a few basic styles and some creative tomato gardeners even combine aspects of support systems to fit their needs and available garden space.

Tomato Cages: Typically made of metal, tomato cages are readily available for the home tomato grower. There is nothing so frustrating though as when your plants outgrow their cages early in the season, or the weight of the plants and growing fruits causes your tomato cage to collapse. Tomato cages need to be securely anchored and allow for good access to the plants for pruning, training and everyone’s favorite activity, harvesting. 

Trellises and Fences: These systems both rely on getting more height for your tomato plants and allowing them to get lots of sun and air. Trellis and fence support systems are typically only for indeterminate varieties due to their trailing habits. Trellis and fence style systems will need more space both for the structure itself and also for good access. When using these systems, you will want to keep three to four feet between rows. 

Stakes and More: Many, many home tomato growers will simply stake the plants and use twine or other soft materials to tie the plants up as they grow. The benefit of stakes is that more can be added as the plant vines, but it can get messy very easily. 

The stake and weave system is a hybrid of staking and fencing and allows for more controlled growth while maintaining opportunities for increasing space. Make sure to allow for maximum room between plants and rows when staking tomatoes so that you can maintain your plants without harming them.  

Other Considerations for Spacing Tomato Plants

Raised beds offer deeper soil, and if they are built narrow enough, the soil will never be compacted due to needing to walk in the garden. In a raised bed situation like this, you would usually plant only two rows of tomatoes so that they could be accessed from either side of the raised bed. A series of raised beds with pathways in between is some home gardeners' idea of paradise. 

In raised beds like these, you want to stick with the plant spacing you will find on the seed packet but may not need to go the maximum on the rows spacing since you will have easy access from both sides of the bed. Raised beds like these may do very well with a trellis system that can be built above each bed and anchored on the walls of the raised bed. 

tomato spacing tip graphictomato spacing tip graphic

For individual plant spacing, you also want to take in consideration how you plant your seedlings. If you strip off some of the lower leaves and plant the tomato seedling deep (this encourages more root growth from the lower stem), you would measure your spacing from stem to stem. If you plant your seedlings on their sides to allow for greater rooting, you need to allow for more space as they will have a wider root base. 

Some tomato growers prune their indeterminate plants aggressively, and some will prune right down to one growing vine and then train and nurture that one vine to get the maximum yield. If you are that sort of brave grower, or want to experiment and prune some while letting others go wild, you will need to take that into account when planning spacing. A plant that is destined to become one well-tended vine will not need as much space for itself, but will need space for you to have regular access. 

Happy, Healthy Tomatoes

Tomatoes are quite possibly the favorite crop of the American home gardener and, as such, they can also create the most heartbreak when a season goes poorly. Setting your plants out at the appropriate spacing is one of the easiest ways to help make sure that you have a successful crop of healthy tomato plants. 

Proper spacing allows tomato plants access to nutrients in the soil, maximum sunlight and greatly reduces the chances of disease, fungus and mold all while allowing you to lovingly tend to your plants all season long. Appropriate spacing along with good planting technique, the use of mulch and watering at the base and not from above will all help you have a satisfying and tasty crop of tomatoes for you and your family and friends. 

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