Homegrown tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants provide the true taste of summer. These three plants, which are closely related, thrive in warm summer weather and are simple to grow in most home gardens. Whether you have acres of land, just enough space for a few plants in the yard, or simply a container or two on your patio, balcony, deck, rooftop, or doorstep, then you can grow tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants.
This article will show you how to grow organic tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. We will cover all the important things you need to know: how to prepare your garden space, plant your vegetables from seed or seedling, take good care of the plants (including proper feeding and watering), and harvest them for fresh use or storage. If you consider yourself a lazy gardener, then this is the perfect article for you, because I like to keep it simple. You will learn some simple techniques to cut down on your watering and weeding.
Tomatoes are the most popular homegrown food crop in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia, four countries which keep statistics on their hobby gardeners. In the U.S. and Canada, peppers are the second most popular homegrown vegetable, and they even make the Top 10 list in the cool climate of Britain. In China, eggplants and chili peppers are among the most popular foods to plant at home. From Hungary to Pakistan, Argentina to Italy, and Kenya to Vietnam, the tomato family vegetables are planted and enjoyed by billions of people.
Starting with Seeds or Seedlings: how to plant tomatoes from seeds
Tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers (TEPs) are subtropical plants in the Solanaceae family. As their family name suggests, they love plenty of sunshine. Tomatoes and peppers originated in Central and South America, while eggplants were domesticated for the first time in India.
While all three plants can be grown in temperate climates (such as those in most of North America, Europe, Japan, Southern Australia and New Zealand), these cannot handle the frosty weather of early spring. In their native environments, TEP plants are perennials, meaning that each plant can live for many years. But most of us can grow them only as annuals in the warmer months of our calendar, because it’s just too cold for them during the other months.
When grown as perennials in frost-free climates, some plants in this family can get truly huge. The Sungold tomato, a candy-sweet variety of orange cherry tomato, holds the record for the tallest tomato plant. Grown in a greenhouse in the United Kingdom, the record-setter reached 65 feet in length. The tree tomato at EPCOT in Florida, as shown in the picture below, produced 32,000 tomatoes from a single plant.
When to Plant
Since TEPs are sensitive to the cold, this means you cannot grow them outside in temperate locations until all danger of spring frost has passed. And you are better off waiting until the air and soil warm up a bit. TEP plants grow best when daytime temperatures reach 65 F degrees and nighttime temperatures stay above 50 F degrees (preferably above 55 F). For most gardeners in temperate climates, this will be mid-Spring or so.
When springtime comes, most of us gardeners cannot wait to get our summer vegetables in the ground. But often, it is better to wait until you are sure the weather has warmed sufficiently. I usually keep an eye on the weather forecasts around planting time and make sure to choose a week that is trending warmer. If a cold snap is on the way, wait another week.
There is no hurry. If you try the classic experiment with two tomato plants, planting one as soon as the weather is warm enough and planting the next one a month later, you might be surprised at the results. I know gardeners who have tried many variations on this, and unless the weather warms up very quickly, the results are pretty consistent. Plant #1 produces the first fruit, but only a few, and Plant #2 begins producing just a week or two later. Both plants bear most of their fruit around the same time, even though one plant had a month-long head start.
The moral of this story is: there’s no rush. Let your neighbors start their gardens in borderline weather. You can wait an extra week or two, and perhaps even an extra month. Warmer weather means happier plants, less risk of leaf diseases, and faster growth.
A few gardeners put out their plants early and provide some means of protection from the elements. A small plant can be covered with a plastic dome, such as a converted plastic milk jug (with the bottom cut off) or a garden cloche. Since water is a good temperature moderator, surrounding your plant with water may prevent it from experiencing the coldest temperatures. This is the theory behind Wall O Water and Kozy Kote, two products which are available online and in many nurseries. Cold frames and miniature greenhouses provide similar
protection on a larger scale.
related article: how to grow tomatoes in pots
Starting Seeds or Buying Seedlings
You can get a jump on your TEP plants by starting seeds indoors. The temperature indoors is usually closer to what these plants expect. Starting your seeds indoors will allow you to begin growing TEP plants 4-8 weeks before they need to be planted outdoors. By the time all danger of frost has passed, you will have healthy, robust seedlings ready to be planted in your garden. Of course, another option is to wait until the outdoor temperatures warm sufficiently to plant the seeds outdoors, letting the plants come up themselves. There is nothing wrong with this natural approach, though in some locations the plants will come up too late to ripen a crop by fall.
Starting your own seeds requires you to buy some tomato, pepper, and/or eggplant seeds and use small nursery seedling cell trays filled with soil (or planting medium). Alternatively, you can use a tray filled with soil blocks or small growing disks that are made from peat or coconut coir fiber. Smaller cells, blocks, or disks warm up more quickly, so they are preferable for the first few days.
Plant TEP seeds about 1⁄4 inch deep in the soil or planting medium. They will take 5-14 days to germinate. At that, point you will see the sprouts begin to emerge. In a week or two, before the plant outgrows this area, it can be “potted up” (planted into a larger pot). You can pot up each seedling either once or twice while it is indoors. A four-inch pot is a good final size of container for the seedling before it is planted in the garden. The main advantage of starting with a smaller pot/cell/disk is that it stays warmer and the plant grows more quickly. However, some gardeners just start the seeds in four inch pots and skip the
“potting up” step.
Here is a picture of a seed starting kit, which is available here. Seed companies and nurseries sell different versions, all of which work pretty well. This particular setup has a small plastic dome to increase humidity and encourage germination. It also has a lower tray, which can be filled with water.
Some people also use an electric heat mat under the seedling pots or tray. If your home is cool, then a heat mat can provide a nice, consistent temperature. Either the light or the heat mat or both can be plugged into a timer, if you choose. All of these supplies are available at nurseries or online. While you are there, grab a small spray bottle also; these make it easy to keep the little plants moist without flooding them.
Also, you will need a light source, which can be a sunny window or a grow light (fluorescent lights are cheapest and their light spectrum is pretty close to what young plants need, but the prices on LED grow lights are coming down also). A sunny window will need at least 6-8 hours of full sunlight each day, and you will need to turn the seedlings in the trays on a regular basis to prevent them from growing sideways towards the light. In the picture below, notice the angle of the seedlings in the plastic party cups on the left side.
Before moving your seedlings into the garden, there is one final step you must take. They have been pampered indoors and are not yet ready to face the elements. Hot sun or a strong breeze can kill them before they are properly “hardened off”, which is the process of getting them ready for the outdoors. Nursery-bought seedlings already are hardened off, but you will need to do this for any plants you start.
First, whenever you pass by your seedlings, blow on them. Do this only lightly at first, and then start blowing a little harder as they grow bigger to simulate an actual wind. Try to blow from different directions. It sounds silly, but this will make your plants grow much stronger than they would otherwise.
Second, in the last two weeks of the plants’ indoor life, start giving them a little outdoor time. Find a protected location that has some shade. Begin on a day that is not too hot, cold or windy, placing seedlings outdoors in the shade for 30 minutes. The next day, do this again and increase outdoor time to one hour. Then move them into half sun, a little more wind if there is any, and gradually increase their exposure to a few hours at a time. Finally, leave them outside overnight. After 1-2 weeks of this, your babies will be ready to leave the nest and be planted in the garden.
Starting your own seeds has two big benefits. First, you save a bit of money, assuming that you use your seed starting materials regularly so as to make those costs worthwhile. Second, planting from seed gives you get a much wider.
Planting and Growing Specifications for Tomatoes, Peppers, and Eggplants
- Planting: Plant seeds 1⁄4 inch deep in loose, well-drained soil
- Spacing between plants: Space plants 2-3 feet apart (peppers, eggplants, and determinate tomatoes) and 3-4 feet apart (indeterminate tomatoes)
- Spacing between rows: Space rows 4-5 feet apart
- Temperature for Seed Germination: 70-90 F degrees
- Germination Time: 5-14 days
- Transplant Seedlings at: 4-8 weeks
- Watering: Full-sized plants need 1-2 inches of water each week (somewhere around a five-gallon bucketful of water, weekly, per plant). Size of plant, climate, soil type, and presence of mulch will affect actual amount.
Fertilizing: Use balanced organic fertilizer (such as 5-5-5). Lower nitrogen fertilizers (where first number is lower) can also be used. Follow recommendations on fertilizer package at the time of planting, scratching the fertilizer into the top few inches of soil near base of plant. Water it in well.
Watering Your Tomatoes, Peppers, and Eggplants
People often ask me if it is best to water plants early or late in the day. The best answer is: water early. Unless you are in the middle of a summer heat wave in an extremely hot climate, then watering in the late afternoon or evening is one of the worst things you can do. The best time to water subtropical plants is in the morning (and more specifically, late morning).
There are two big reasons to water in the morning. First, plants grow faster in warm temperatures. Water cools them down and slows their growth, but plants watered in the morning have time to warm up again in the sun. Second, wet leaves are a recipe for plant diseases. Leaving them wet in the evening means they will be wet all night, whereas the sun can dry out leaves that were splashed in the morning.
Once TEP plants are transplanted into the garden (or into a large growing container), their watering needs will increase along with their growth. Every two weeks, your plants will be almost doubling their water needs. When fruit begins to set on the tomato, eggplant, and pepper plants, you need to water them even more. Measured by weight, the average tomato is about 94% water!
related article: How to Grow Beans and Peas
Your plants’ watering needs will vary depending on your heat, humidity, soil drainage, whether you mulch your plants, and what type of watering system you employ. Below is one estimate of the watering requirements for tomato plants from seedling to harvest stage.
This seems pretty accurate from my experience, though I only water once or twice a week instead of daily. Small peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes can get by with less than this. One estimate for watering needs The Secret Life of Plants TEP plants grow best when soil and air temperatures are warm. They use enzymes to grow and these perform best between 68-77 degrees (F). Unfortunately, tap water tends to be much colder than this, usually in the 40-60 degree range. Water also has a cooling effect on the surrounding air as it evaporates.
Therefore, watering plants in the morning gives them time to warm up with the heat of the day, whereas a late afternoon bath will cause them to stay at cooler temperatures for a much longer period. But this isn’t the full story. To understand the whole picture, you need to know two key facts about the secret life of plants:
- Key Fact #1: For every temperature increase of 10 degrees (F), plant growth roughly doubles. This is true for tomatoes up to 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius), which is the highest optimum temperature for plant growth. Below 77 degrees, growth rates are slower (they would be half as fast at 67 degrees, and half that fast at 57 degrees, etc.).
- Key Fact #2: Plants do most of their growing at night. They are much more efficient at building their tissue when the sun is down and lights are off. Scientists do not fully understand why this is true, but most plant growth occurs after dark. Therefore, you want the plants to be warm at that point, so that they’ll grow a lot.
Put together the #1 and #2 facts. They should help you reach one simple conclusion: watering late in the day is a dumb idea. Even in the Southern United States in the heat of summer, the average low temperatures in most areas stay below 77 degrees. I reviewed the historical average temperatures for 16 American cities (New York, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Denver, Phoenix, Omaha, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Orlando, Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, Washington, and St. Louis). Of those, only Dallas had historical average low temperatures of 77 degrees or higher for more than a few days in July and August.
TEP plants are subtropical. Unless you are trying to cool them off in a heat wave, then watering late in the day will hurt their growth. Just when a plant is storing up the day’s warmth and getting ready for its nighttime growth spurt, you rain on its parade with a cold water bath. What you are really doing is ensuring it will take longer to harvest your ripe tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants!
However, if you water plants in the morning, you will leave plenty of time for the sun to warm the air and soil around the plant. Specifically, the best time of the day to water your plants is late morning, because this will ensure that they spend the least amount of time in the cooler temperatures induced by watering. The soil will warm up most quickly from a late morning watering. And then you will not have to wait as long to get beautiful heirloom tomatoes like these.
One trick is to warm the water first. Some gardeners do this before watering their beloved tomato plants. But heat requires extra energy (which doesn’t come cheap these days), so warming the water only pays off if are using passive solar water heating. Here are three examples of passive solar water heating which can work well:
Example #1: Black Barrel. Store some water in a black tank or rain barrel, which can be warmed by the sun. Use this water to irrigate your garden. If you are growing on a smaller scale, with perhaps one or two plants in containers, a dark-colored bucket or watering can might warm up if left in the hot sun.
Example #2: Soaker Hose. Soaker hoses are made from black rubber and they have small holes on the sides so they can water evenly throughout a garden bed. Unlike drip irrigation lines and their frustrating emitters, soaker hoses do not get clogged with dirt and soil particles. This allows you to bury them in the ground under an inch or two of soil or mulch. Water delivered underground will warm up more quickly. Very little water will evaporate to cool the surrounding air.
Example #3: Build a Passive Solar H2O Heater. Black PVC pipes are cheap and they absorb plenty of heat from the sun. So do metal pipes (preferably painted black) if you can get some cheaply. Use them to build a little network of pipes that your water supply must run through before reaching the garden. For example, with a few short lengths of pipe, elbow connectors, and T-connectors, you can create a square or rectangle with some crossbars in one direction (sort of like a window frame with jail bars in one direction). This has a lot of surface area to pick up solar heat and transfer it to the water inside.
Another alternative is to “dry farm” your tomatoes by watering them very little or not at all. Dry farmed tomatoes are extremely sweet and tasty, but you will not get as many of them and they may not grow as large. You can try this if you are growing tomatoes directly in a ground based row or raised bed, and if you have a fair amount of underground water (such as a high water table or regular rain throughout the growing season). Plants will grow deeper roots to get to the water and though they will not produce as much fruit, it will be very flavorful due to the higher ratio of nutrients.
Dry farming, of course, will not work for container grown plants or those grown in a raised bed with a barrier (like plastic sheeting or gravel) below. Also, in arid areas that do not receive summer rain, like most of the Western United States, dry farming may be pretty difficult. Soil in these climates gets parched without irrigation. A variation, which I practice, is to stop watering near the end of the season. You certainly do not need your plants to grow more vegetation at that point. As the water is reduced at that time of year, their natural clock will be telling them to ripen as many fruits as possible. Cutting the watering before the end of the harvest helps ensure that the last tomatoes you pick will be the sweetest and most fully flavored of all.
Go Easy On Yourself and Automate the Watering
Some gardeners love to water every day. The simple task of watering plants provides an important daily connection to the garden and gives us the opportunity to check how everything is growing. For other gardeners, especially those of us with day jobs and families, regular watering can be a real pain in the rear end. Why not install some automatic watering? This can be as difficult as digging up the yard and installing a whole network of sprinkler like pipes. Or it can be as simple as buying a sprinkler or soaker hose for each of your garden rows, raised beds, or groups of containers.
Drip irrigation systems are a source of endless frustration. If you have a very small garden, such as a few containers, then you can buy one of the readymade drip system kits that should be large enough to tend a few plants. If you have a huge yard, then drip irrigation may make the best sense also, but I do not envy you for the time and trouble it will take to install and monitor all those hoses and emitters.For most lazy (or busy) gardeners, I suggest going with either a sprinkler or a soaker hose. Sprinklers get the job done, but they are not very precise. If you have any wind at all, you will waste more water. And sprinkler get the plant foliage all wet, which is better to avoid.
Nevertheless, sprinklers are easy and they are familiar to many backyard gardeners. If you do not mind wasting some water, then sprinklers provide a reliable way to water your plants. Also, don’t forget to water in the late morning so that wet leaves will dry off in the sun.
Soaker hoses have lots of good points and fewer problems, though they are not perfect either. These hoses are made from rubber with many small holes on the sides, so that the water is released in fairly uniform amounts all the way down the line. Also, soakers come in the same width as standard garden hoses, so they can be screwed right onto a faucet or hose fitting, whereas drip lines are smaller and need to be fitted.
There are three more positive attributes worth mentioning. First, soakers are very easy to install: just drape them where you want them, screw them in, and turn on the water. Second, soakers put the water where plants need it: into the ground. You can even bury them under the first inch or two of soil, delivering the water right to your plants’ roots. Soakers do not get clogged like drip emitters do. Third, soaker hoses (like drip systems) do not get plant leaves wet (especially if they are buried in the soil or mulch), which is a major downside with sprinklers and even with manual watering.
But soaker hoses have one big drawback. Uniform watering throughout the row is great for closely spaced crops like lettuce or peas. But for TEP plants, which should be spaced at least a couple of feet apart, it would be better to have more water delivered right near the plants and less in between them. Nevertheless, this is a small tradeoff, since the plants’ roots will find the water as they grow.
If you are raising TEPs in containers on a patio, balcony, rooftop, or deck, then soaker hoses make no sense at all. Most of the water will fall outside the containers and you will waste a lot. For container-grown plants, you’ll have more luck with small drip kits, sprinklers set for a low water pressure (with a limited coverage area), or plain old manual watering with a hose or watering can.
Sprinklers, soaker hoses, and drip irrigation systems can be attached to an automatic timer. The electronic timers operate on batteries, turning on the water to your plants for a certain period of time with a set interval (for example, every morning for 30 minutes or twice per week, etc.). These timers cost around $25- $30 in nurseries and hardware stores. Alternatively, you can get one of the cheaper manual “egg” timers, which you activate by cranking the dial. They will turn themselves off after whatever time you set. You need to be there to turn them on, but not to turn them off.
One of these options may save you time, while allowing you to provide regular watering to your plants. We are all human and we have busy schedules, but forgetting to water can cause a lot of stress for plants. Automating the watering helps them to stay watered, keep growing, and remain on track to produce you a great harvest.
Feeding Your Plants
When you plant your TEPs, or within their first couple of weeks, you need to add some plant food to the soil. If you have prepared the soil by digging in good compost or manure, then it already contains low levels of the nutrients needed to sustain plants. Most plants will need a little more fertilizer than this, but it will not need as much if your soil has been amended. Like other plants, TEPs require plenty of Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus or Phosphate (P), and Potassium or Potash (K). Plant fertilizers list these three numbers on their labels. Fertilizers come in a bag or box and look something like this one:
Organic tomato fertilizer showing N-P-K Proper Fertilizer At the time of planting or soon after, you can add some organic fertilizer to the soil near the plants, scratching and watering it in to the top few inches. To find some good fertilizer, go to your local nursery and find their organic fertilizer product line (most stores seem to sell at least one organic brand these days). Either the “tomato”, “vegetable”, or “all purpose garden” fertilizer should do just fine. A 3-5 pound box or bag will last a long time.
Before you buy fertilizer, check the “N-P-K” ratio listed on the box or bag (in the previous picture, you can see the “4-6-6” numbers on the bag). An ideal N-P-K ratio for tomatoes is around 5-5-5, give or take. Make sure there is some phosphorus (P, second number) and potassium (K, third number), because if those numbers are as low as “0” or “1”, then your plant will not have the nutritional support to produce very many vegetables.
Also, make sure the nitrogen (N, first number) is not much higher than “5”. If the nitrogen ratio is something like “8” or “12”, then your TEP plants will grow some incredible green foliage, but they will not produce many tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers.
Follow the application instructions on the back label of the bag or box. Add a scoop or two of the fertilizer to the soil near your TEP plants (but a few inches from the stem) and scratch it in to the first few inches of soil. Cover it with a little soil or mulch. And then water the soil well, so that the fertilizer starts to dissolve and flow down towards the plant roots.
One soil amendment that many gardeners frequently use with TEP plants is bone meal or fish bone meal. This has a small amount of nitrogen, plus lots of phosphorus and calcium. Fish bone meal includes trace minerals also. If you mix a spoonful or two of bone meal (or fish bone meal) into the soil before planting your TEPs, it should improve their root growth. And this will put enough phosphorus in the soil that you won’t need as much regular fertilizer. You can add a small amount of potash from a small quantity of fireplace ashes, greensand, or kelp meal. And then you can try cutting down on the organic fertilizer by half, since TEP plants do not need as much nitrogen as most fertilizers supply.