By Kathy Widenhouse, award-winning writer and owner of Tomato Dirt, a leading online source of for growing tomatoes in the home garden.
Raised bed tomatoes are great option if you have only a small space or if you don’t have lots of free time but want to have fresh tomatoes to pluck off the vine. Managing a raised garden bed is easier and takes less time than maintaining an entire garden plot. Plus, raised beds can be more productive than a regular garden. You can get many more tomatoes from your plants because they grow in amended soil and they’re exposed to fewer diseases and pests.
Even more than that, one of the main reasons that raised garden beds are good for tomatoes is heat. Tomatoes love heat. The soil in raised beds warms more quickly in the spring, so your raised bed tomato plants will get a head start. If you live in a zone that has high temperatures in midseason, your tomato plants can flourish in a raised bed. And if you live in a cool climate – or have cool nights in the spring and fall – a raised garden bed’s extra heat is a welcome advantage.
While growing raised bed tomatoes is similar to growing tomatoes in your garden plot, you want to be prepared for a few subtle differences. Use these guidelines to maximize your raised bed tomato crop.
Ideally, your raised bed should be no wider than 4 feet. This allows you to reach in from both sides to weed, cultivate, and harvest plants. The ideal height is up to you. Some gardeners, particularly the elderly or disabled, prefer raised beds that are waist high so they don’t need to lean down or get on their knees to work their crops.
One beauty of raised beds is that you do the hard work of tilling deeply just once – when you build the bed. Cultivate the soil where you will build your raised garden bed at least one foot below the surface – preferably 18-24 inches. Remove the sod, turn the soil, break up clods, and add plenty of organic matter, topsoil, or humus.
Reason? A typical raised garden bed is about a foot high. Yet tomato plants grow best when their roots can sink 24-36 inches into the ground. Give them the opportunity to be strong and yield a healthy crop by preparing your soil before setting up your raised bed. They will reward you with luscious tomatoes for many seasons to come.
Raised bed gardening gives you a unique opportunity: you have the chance to create the perfect soil environment for your tomato plants.
Once you’ve cultivated the underlying plot and built your raised bed, fill it with screened topsoil. Then work in a two- or three-inch layer of compost or composted manure to the top half of the bed. The extra organic matter is crucial for healthy tomato plants, because tomatoes are heavy feeders.
You’ll add that extra layer of compost each year, too, to replenish the bed.
You can grow any type of tomato in raised beds. However, if you’d like to grow other crops along with tomatoes, you may have greater success if you choose bush tomato varieties (like Bush Goliath, Patio F, or Big Boy Bush) or determinate tomatoes (like Celebrity Tomato or Husky Cherry Red Tomato).l Bush tomatoes are bred to be more compact than vining tomatoes. Determinate tomatoes produce their fruit in a short time window and then stop growing.
However, you could choose to grow indeterminate or vining tomatoes and give them proper support in the center or back of your raised bed. With a trellis or other support system, you can periodically tie new tomato branches so the plant grows vertically, rather than sprawling across your raised bed. This will allow you to plant low-growing crops beneath tomato plants and maximize your space (see Tip 8).
And you can use the front of your raised garden bed by planting tumbling tomato varieties like Tumbling Tom Tomato and Red Robin Tomato. Allow branches to cascade down the sides of the bed. You’ll get more fruit … and your raised bed will be beautiful from top to bottom.
Set up your raised bed so that you can reach the center of the plot from either side. Ideally, that’s about four feet wide, allowing you to reach two feet into the center of the bed. Do that and you can plant one tomato for each square foot of garden space. That means if your raised bed is four feet by four feet, you can plant 16 tomato plants. In the garden, you’ll allow more space in between plants.
Plant raised bed tomatoes in the same way as you’d plant tomatoes in the garden. Dig a hole twice as big as the plant's root ball. Use one hole for every tomato plant. Add 1-2 scoops compost and a handful of bone meal or fertilizer to each hole. Fill the hole with water. Set the tomato plant in the hole so that the bottom set of leaves rests just about the soil surface.
Water new plants daily for a week to 10 days to get them established. After that, tomato plants need 1-2 inches of water a week – more when temperatures are hot. When you situate your raised garden beds in a well-drained area, you can ensure that they do not get waterlogged. Yet by its very nature, a raised bed is a type of container. Container tomatoes need to be watered daily – sometimes twice a day – because they dry out quickly.
Those two variables mean you need to gauge your tomato plants and their water retention. Typically, raised bed tomatoes grow best when watered daily. Soil should feel damp up to six inches below the surface. Water slowly, deeply, and at the soil level. As water sinks down lower into the soil, the tomato’s roots must follow suit and reach down further to absorb it. Deep watering helps tomato plants build strong root systems.
Drip hoses are a good watering option for raised bed tomatoes. Raised beds tend to be smaller than larger garden plots, which means you’ll need fewer drip hoses to cover the raised bed territory. Fewer hoses save money.
Further, drip irrigation places water directly on the soil. This means the water will evaporate less during the heat of the summer. Drip watering also prevents spray onto the plant stems, leaves, and fruit, thereby reducing the spread of tomato diseases. You can set your soaker hose system on a timer to water plants if you’re busy. Or you can turn on the drip hoses while you’re working in the garden and save time that you’d otherwise use holding the hose and nozzle.
Your raised garden bed can be dedicated exclusively to tomatoes. But you can also use the bed for other crops, too – and not sacrifice your tomato production. In fact, companion plants can often enhance tomato health. Marigolds, mint, basil, and nasturtium are a few examples of plants that deter tomatoes pests and diseases and improve tomato flavor.
Plus, if you build a trellis for your raised bed tomatoes, then you can grow low-lying vegetables at their base, such as cucumbers, zucchini, and squash. Or you can stake tomato plants. Doing so will create space beneath the plants’ lower branches where you can plant low-growing herbs, like thyme and oregano.
More on Raised Beds for Tomatoes
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