Tomatoes are the quintessential garden crop…but they can also be one of the most confusing! With determinate and indeterminate varieties, there’s no absolute right formula for tomato plant spacing.
Your selection of tomato variety along with your garden soil, light, and growing conditions all give clues to answer the question, “How far apart do you plant tomatoes?”
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Creating Your Tomato Spacing Plan
You should first establish whether the tomato you’ve chosen is a determinate or indeterminate variety. This will help you plan your plant spacing to suite your particular tomato crop.
Determinate tomatoes are generally small, compact, stout-stemmed bushy plants. This type of tomato plant grows to a certain height, flowers, and fruits all within a short period of time.
Indeterminate tomato plants continue to grow, flower, and fruit until the first hard frost. In temperate climate zones, indeterminate tomato varieties will produce fruit over a 2-3-month period.
How do Determinate vs. Indeterminate Tomatoes
Tomatoes are classified determinate if they eventually form a flower cluster at the terminal growing point that causes the plant to stop growing in height.
The first determinate varieties developed had inadequate foliage cover and taste, but they ripened very quickly. (Remember those dense, thick skinned, flavorless early hybrids? Even their color was washed out!)
Newer determinates produce better foliage, may grow taller and ripen fruit of similar quality to modern indeterminate varieties.
Most determinate tomato varieties ripen their fruit over a shorter period of time. Successive plantings may be desirable with determinates to keep the harvest coming through the entire season. Determinate vines are easier to control and support during the growing season. Some of the extreme dwarf varieties are determinate and dwarf, producing some truly tiny mature plants.
Plants that never set terminal flower clusters, but only lateral ones and continue indefinitely to grow taller are indeterminate.
Heirloom tomato varieties are almost all indeterminate. These produce abundant foliage and flavorful fruit, but they typically take longer to mature.
Tomato Spacing Recommendations
Traditionally, tomatoes are grown in rows that are spaced based on the projected growth scale of the plant variety and plant support system used. For all varieties, rows should be spaced about 4 feet apart. Recommendations for plant spacing within rows varies as shown below:
- Indeterminate varieties that are grown using a vertical tomato trellis can be placed 1.5-2′ (0.46-0.61m) apart in a row. This is because you’re taking advantage of vertical space and can squeeze them in tighter.
- Indeterminate plants that are grown in wire cages should be spaced about 2.5-3′ feet (0.91-1.22m) apart to allow for more horizontal spread of the foliage and fruit.
- Indeterminate tomatoes allowed to spread over the ground will need a 3-4′ foot (0.91-1.22m) spacing between plants.
- Determinate tomatoes can be planted 1.5-2′ (0.48 – 0.61m) between tomato plants, and space rows 2-3′ (0.61-0.91m) apart.
- Container tomatoes can be planted in pots that are a minimum of 5 gallons (19l) in volume and 14″ (.36m) in diameter, and placed just about side-by-side if you’re trellising vertically.
An alternative scheme for spacing tomatoes uses an equidistant square grid plan (like Square Foot Gardening) that averages the recommended space between plants and rows.
For example, a recommended plant spacing of 18″ (46cm) apart with row spacing of about 48″ (122cm) apart, can be planted in 56″ (142cm) square grids.
If you have the space, the square grid layout tends to give each plant an equal share of light, air, moisture, and soil nutrients.
Tomato Spacing If Planting Different Varieties
If you’re planting different tomato varieties, you should separate the distinctive varieties of tomato plants by at least 8 feet (2.44 m) to avoid any cross-pollination if you want to let your tomatoes ripen, ferment, and save seeds for next growing season.
What To Do With The Extra Space?
If it physically pains you to leave so much space between your tomato plants, fear not! You can do some creative interplanting to maximize your output from your garden. After your tomato plants are established and start growing upwards, you’ll likely be pruning off some of the lower growth to prevent pests (like the annoying tomato hornworm) and disease access from the soil surface.
Once you do this, the under canopy of your tomatoes will be free to plant with a variety of amazing crops. Try out lettuce, spinach, radishes…anything that doesn’t require a ton of light and grows fast. You need to get these crops in and out before you hit your plants with a high-quality tomato fertilizer and they start to bush up like crazy and block sunlight completely.
This is a fantastic way to squeeze even more harvests out of a small space garden.
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