If there is one thing all gardeners have in common, it is the desire for big, bountiful harvests, every year. If only it were as simple as it sounds!
In this article, I will share several tips for increasing tomato plant yields. There are many different things you can do to encourage your tomatoes to be more productive. Whether you are growing in the ground or in containers, there is something here for you.
I have organized these tips to be chronological. In other words, the first tips are for the early season, and the later tips are targeted for more established plants. Let’s get started!
1. Start Tomatoes Indoors
First and foremost, you should always start your tomato seeds early indoors. If you buy started plants from a local nursery, you can disregard this step. However, you may still want to consider the timing of your transplanting.
In many climates, tomato seeds cannot be sown directly outdoors. Since tomato plants are not cold hardy, the risk of a late frost must be avoided. So to be safe and extend the growing season, we start our seeds inside under grow lights several weeks before transplanting outdoors.
The basic rule of thumb is to start tomato seeds indoors about 4-6 weeks prior to the last date of frost. This will give the plants a head start on the growing season, effectively elongating the season for better yields.
Tomatoes tend to grow quickly once sprouted, so the plants need less indoors time than some other plants like peppers. However, to get the plants off the the best possible start, I recommend planting under grow lights while indoors.
2. Use Grow Lights
Many gardeners start their seedling trays indoors nearby a sunny window. This can work for some vegetables, but I always advocate for using at least a small LED light for better early growth.
Using grow lights will get your tomato plants off to a perfect start each season. This will lead to stronger plants in the long run, and ultimately bigger yields!
My recommended grow lights:
Both of these lights are highly efficient LED panels that can easily be hung in a closet or grow tent. They are silent, run cool, and are low cost for the output.
Why not use a sunny window?
In an ideal situation, the window you use will be South-facing (in the Northern hemisphere). This means that, at best, your window will receive around 6 hours of partially direct of sunlight. However, winter sunlight is nothing like summer sunlight.
Here are the basic issues with growing tomato seed using a sunny window:
- Decreased hours of sunlight
- Colder temperatures near windows (drafty)
- Shade-casting objects (trees, etc.)
- Cloudy weather
In the end, tomato seedlings grown in a sunny window often become leggy and tall. They will also usually reach to the side, trying to ‘find’ the sunlight that they require.
In short, the consistency, reliability and affordability of LED lights is well worth the cost for starting tomatoes indoors. You can provide 14-16 hours of consistent, daily light during the late winter/early spring for strong early growth.
3. Use the Right Container Size
If you are a container gardener, you probably know by now how important the size of the pot is. With tomatoes, plants can grow to be huge, often over 8 feet, especially if you are growing indeterminate tomatoes on a trellis.
I recommend to use a minimum container size of 5 gallons for growing tomatoes. This could be as simple as a standard $5 bucket from Home Depot, or a fancy planter pot.
Read more about container size for tomatoes here.
If you are growing a dwarf tomato variety, you may be able to plant in a smaller container without losing any yields. However, for the best results, you should provide ample room for root development and nutrient uptake.
Indeterminate tomato plants can grow to be 8-10′ tall when properly trellised and pruned, but without enough room, growth can be stunted. Overall, the container size will be directly related to the amount of tomatoes that each plant produces.
TL;DR: Bigger pots = bigger yields!
4. Provide Proper Nutrients
Most tomato plants grow vigorously. If they do not have access to the necessary nutrients throughout the season, they may suffer from slow or stunted growth.
There are two major plant stages, vegetative and fruiting. These cycles vary based on the type of tomato you are growing, but in essence, you must provide the same nutrient cycle.
Nitrogen (N) is important during early growth and through to the flowering stage. Without adequate nitrogen, your plants may suffer from yellowing leaves or chlorosis. Organic compost, bat guano, or an all-purpose fertilizer can be used to enrich your soil with nitrogen at the beginning of each season.
Phosphorus (P) and calcium become more important once your tomatoes begin to produce flowers. It is recommended that you amend soil with these nutrients around the mid-way point of the season, or early on before transplanting. I use seabird guano and bone meal to amend my soil. It is also worth noting that nitrogen should not be added at a high level during the blooming stage. Too much nitrogen can cause flower drop, or simply more leafy growth than fruit production.
Potassium (K) is essential for tomato plants to set fruits. Check out this study done to determine the potassium requirements for tomato productivity. Most potting mixes contain plenty of potassium, but you can amend with langbeinite or any all purpose vegetable fertilizer if the soil is lacking.
Learn more about fertilizing tomato plants here.
The best tomato yields will always come from a healthy, living soil. To achieve this, learn more about adding organic matter (compost, manure, etc.) to your garden. This encourages beneficial bacteria and fungi to inhabit your garden soil, benefiting your tomato plants.
5. Prune Your Plants
Whether you grow determinate or indeterminate plants, pruning is always required for optimum growth. There are several benefits to trimming foliage from your tomato plants.
Benefits of pruning:
- Redirect energy to important parts of the plant (fruit production)
- Increase airflow
- Reduce transpiration of water
- More manageable plant size
- Easier harvesting
For climbing tomato varieties, pruning is extremely important for better yields. For bushy tomatoes, pruning has a different purpose, but is still very important for a healthy plant.
Pruning Indeterminate Tomatoes
Indeterminate tomatoes grow continually, producing fruits throughout the season on an ongoing basis. These varieties tend to grow tall, and are commonly called vine tomatoes (though they need support to climb).
They are best grown on a tall trellis, and pruning is essential for the best harvests. Indeterminate plants produce sucker shoots, which must be pruned away on a regular basis.
Sucker shoots are essentially a new stem developing off the main stem. If allowed to produce, these shoots will steal energy from the rest of the plant, hence the name ‘sucker.’
With all of the sucker shoots pruned, all that is left is a central main stem that can be trained up a tall stake or trellis. This stem will be thick and strong, and will shoot off leafy stems and fruiting trusses full of tomatoes. Once the weather becomes too cold, the plants will stop producing and die.
If you want to keep your indeterminates short, you can also choose to prune away the top of the main stem to prevent further growth. However, the most important part is to prune the sucker shoots as soon as you see them!
Pruning Determinate Tomatoes
Determinate tomatoes grow to a certain size, ripen all of the fruits simultaneously, and then die. You may be able to get a second flush from a plant, but usually there is just one big harvest.
For this reason, you should not prune sucker shoots from determinate varieties. This can actually cause yields to decrease.
Instead, I recommend bottom-pruning determinate plants to improve airflow around the bottom of your plants. I try to keep the first set of leaves around one foot (30 cm) off of the ground when plants are established.
You may also prune away some of the leafy stems from established plants to thin out the plant as a whole. This helps improve aeration and also redirect energy towards producing fruits.
Learn more about pruning different tomato varieties here.
6. Improve Airflow
Good airflow is very important for healthy plant growth. Access to plenty of oxygen and CO2 in the air helps keep tomatoes growing strong.
While pruning your tomatoes is the most effective way to improve airflow, there are other techniques you can use, too. Airflow is essential for keeping your plants healthy and free of diseases like early blight.
In addition to pruning, try these tips for better airflow:
- Space plants at 24″ or wider
- Plant tomatoes on a mound
- Use a small fan for indoor grow spaces
- Mulch around the base of plants
All of these can help improve the air quality around your tomato plants. Without proper aeration, the plants are more susceptible to disease and reduced yields.
7. Harvest Ripe Tomatoes Promptly
Another question you may have is when to pick your tomatoes. The short answer is to pick tomatoes as soon as they are ripe. You may even pick some of your tomatoes slightly early to avoid cracking during a heavy rain.
By picking ripe tomatoes promptly, you encourage the plant to redirect energy towards the other, unripe fruits on the plant. Once ripe tomatoes are removed, the plant can then focus on the next batch.
This mostly applies to indeterminate varieties, as they continue to produce new fruits all season long. However, determinate plants may also produce another round of flowers if your grow season is long enough.
8. Protect Plants From Hot Weather
While tomatoes do like warm weather, there is an upper limit for any plant. If you are expecting a major heatwave with temperatures above 90°F (32°C), you can keep your plants happy by providing some temporary shade.
If your plants are in containers, this is simple – just move the plants into a shaded location during the hottest part of the day. This is usually around 3-5PM in the mid-summer months.
For in-ground plants, you may have to get a bit more creative to shade your tomatoes. However, it doesn’t have to be too complicated. You can use umbrellas, other, taller plants, or garden fabric cloth to reduce the temperatures around your tomato plants.
9. Plant Productive Varieties
Perhaps the simplest way to get a bigger yield from your tomato plants is to choose varieties that are highly productive. Usually, seed sellers will denote the productivity of a given variety on the seed packet or product description.
These medium-sized red tomatoes are classic and delicious. Perfectly smooth skin can help avoid splitting, and some gardeners claim to harvest over 50 lbs of tomatoes from each plant!
These cherry tomatoes are said to be highly productive, and look at those gorgeous colors! They are beautiful and tasty with high productivity, what is not to love? It is worth mentioning that most small tomato varieties will produce a larger number of fruits than larger types.
Said to be ‘wildly productive,’ this larger tomato type is juicy and somewhat crunchy. The vibrant orange color makes it no wonder where this variety got its name.
Costoluto tomatoes are always gorgeous. Coming from Italian heritage, these heirlooms are super-productive and beautiful to look at. The rich reds and deep wrinkles are wild looking and tasty.
Typical Tomato Yield Per Plant
So, when all is said and done, how many tomatoes should you expect from each plant?
Depending on the variety and growing conditions, tomato plants may produce anywhere from 10-25 lbs of fresh fruits per plant in a single growing season. Cherry tomatoes tend to produce more individual fruits, but larger tomato types can produce more in terms of weight.
Unless you are growing tomatoes to sell, there is no need to overthink the quantity of tomatoes per plant. Do your best to increase your tomato plant yields with the tips above and you’ll have more fruits than you know what to do with!
I hope this article helped you get better yields from your tomato plants going forward. Feel free to share any suggestions you have below.