Over the years I have learned my lesson spacing tomatoes. When I first started on my tomato gardening journey, I made a big mistake and planted my garden EXTREMELY densely. Think: no space between the plants. The roots were literally tangling. That was before the internet though, so I learned the hard way. I talked to people at farmer’s markets and learned on the fly. Hopefully my insights today help you learn easier and faster than I did.
After 20 years of growing tomatoes, I have learned that the optimal spacing between tomato plants for my garden is about a foot circumference around the plant. Often times you will see pictures of tomatoes grown in rows stacked up very closely. This is typically something commercial growers do to maximize space. Ideally, you don’t need to feed a million people and you can afford to “make your garden grow” as Robert “Plant” said on “Houses of the Holy.
The space you need between plants depends on how strong your roots are going to go. I am not starting with seeds, and I generally have a shorter season because I am in Chicago. That means shorter roots so the 12 inches works for me. Here is a picture of one of my plants. You’ll see there isn’t much around it.
If you are able to grow all year and you have seeds planted, your roots are going to be larger. You will want to give up to 24 inches between plants.
So why is the space between your tomato plants important? There are a couple of answers. One reason is that having plants stacked on top of the other can just flat out block the sun. When you look at rows of tomatoes planted together, it is almost always on a large farm in a hot climate where sunlight is plentiful year round. If you aren’t expecting a ton of sun all the time, you’ll want to optimize the amount your plants get by giving them room to bask in the glow. Don’t let one plant drown out the other’s light. You will also see a lot of tomato plant stacking in hydroponic gardens where nutrients are coming in through less natural methods, or at least less “old school” methods.
The other reason for spacing your tomato plants out is similar to the first, and it has to do with nutrition. The soil can only sustain so many roots. When tomatoes are grown commercially, they are augmented with tons of nutrients from unnatural resources. All you are going to have in your garden, unless you’ve got the big bucks, is a bag of fertilizer, rainwater, and the sun. In the case of your home garden, if you had plants stacked up, you would have to saturate it with fertilizer. The soil wouldn’t even be able to absorb that much and you would see very limited growth.
Creating rows of tomatoes are possible if you are doing heavy gardening with major sunlight and water, but for the average home gardener, it just isn’t plausible. It’s a rookie mistake to see tomatoes grown in packed rows and copy that method. I learned my lesson in tomato spacing over time, and now I know the optimal range for my garden. You are never going to know what is perfect until you try it. One good tip I will give you is to ask others in your area. I got help through the years from people at the farmer’s market. I met people from other places in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana who were growing in similar conditions to what I was. Granted, they were growing tomatoes in much greater numbers than I was, but they started out in a similar matter as me. They just had a passion for gardening.
People in the same region that you live in will have like-minded soil, equal sunlight and relatively equal rainfall. You’ll do your own watering, but there is nothing like rainwater for a tomato garden. Get to know people around you and see how they spaced their plants. Work it out through the seasons and you will eventually be at the optimal radius.