Proper spacing?

lazybonz(7a)May 12, 2009

Hello to all, I am new here and a novice gardener.

Since my family and I love homegrown tomatoes, I want to plant a tomato-only garden. OK, I'll confess, I'm already obsessed with tomatoes and know that I have too many plants.

I have enough space for a 10' x 25' garden (Hubby says I can't have the entire backyard--but I love him anyway.)

The seedling tags state to allow 3' between plants. I would like to plant as many plants as possible (who doesn't), to make the best use of my garden space.

I see that a number of you grow 2 plants in rubbermaid storage bins. (I'd rather not do any containers, but I might try a couple.)

Is spacing different for garden-grown and container-grown plants?

How much garden space do my plants really need?

I prefer beefsteak types; 2 hybrid, 4 heirloom, plus 1 plum-type and 2 cherry tomato varieties.

Thanks, in advance, for your help.


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Spacing is a somewhat personal opinion and somewhat based on real issues such as soil fertility and moisture levels as well as one plant shading another due to growing into each other and the increased probability for rapid spread of foliage disease, if it occurs.

The closest spacing I have ever seen recommended for indeterminate (vining type) tomatos is 1 per square foot. This method involves a lot of pruning to keep the plant's size limited and results in a decreased yield per plant, but might result in a greater yield per unit of space.

If you don't mind plants growing into each other then 2x2' spacing is fine, but this density will demand more frequent watering and higher soil fertility to get these plants to produce like those with wider spacing.

The 3' spacing you saw recommended is a pretty good guideline unless you are prepared to do a little more work.

You will have no problem getting 9 plants into a 10'x25' garden. At 3' spacing you could do 2 rows of 8 plants each with a nice wide row down the middle.

    Bookmark   May 12, 2009 at 12:22PM
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FWIW; Last year I spaced 28 inches apart, off set the two rows. My notes say that I was too close, so this year I am going to 36 inches. This was with a mixture of det and indet. This was an open garden with drip irrigation and no pruning. Had I pruned a bit, I think they would have been OK. All smaller plants would have probably been OK.

    Bookmark   May 12, 2009 at 1:08PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

I see that a number of you grow 2 plants in rubbermaid storage bins.

Hi Kate - those are extensively modified rubbermaid bins - Earthtainers - not just off the shelf so to speak. ;)

The only thing I can add to all the good points already posted is you have to factor in the support system you plan to use too. Caged plants require 3' spacing usually while staked or Florida weave plants can be closer together although you will have to do some pruning on them.

If you search 'spacing' here you'll find a number of discussions on it with photos of the various types of supports and the spacing used on them.

I use cages and 3 1/2" spacing.

Looks like a lot of wasted space, right? But this is the same plants 60 days later.


    Bookmark   May 12, 2009 at 2:16PM
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3 feet is my MINIMUM! Four feet is ideal. My plants are grown in either Texas or CRW cages. Here's a pic of two Porterhouse tomato plants growing 3.5' apart on center in Texas cages. Since there are no other plants on either side (Long 36' x 3' raised bed) I think this is OK but 4' would be even better, especially if there were more rows.

Dave, how do you pick your tomatoes through those tiny cage openings?

    Bookmark   May 12, 2009 at 4:01PM
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I've got limited space, so my plants are about 20 inches apart in rows that are about 3 feet apart. I will be pruning them frequently to keep them down to anywhere from 2 to 4 stems each.

    Bookmark   May 12, 2009 at 4:25PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

bigdaddy - hard to see in the pics but there is a round-the-cage-spiral from bottom to top of 4 and 5" cut openings.


    Bookmark   May 12, 2009 at 6:13PM
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anney(Georgia 8)


In the past I've spaced my plants at two feet and tied them to a cattle panel as they grew, tomatoes on both sides of the cattle panel. It was really a jungle by the time they reached full maturity, but they grew okay since I kept them fed and watered.

But you know what? When it was time to pick the tomatoes, most of the time I didn't know what variety they were! That's how dense the growth was. And that meant I couldn't save the seeds of those I wanted if I didn't know what tomato I'd picked. Woe is me! Furthermore, since they were spaced so close together, even if I HAD been able to tell which tomato I'd picked, there was a chance they'd cross-pollinated with a near-by tomato and the seeds wouldn't be pure!

So this year I'm spacing them at about 3 1/2 feet. That still may be too close to keep them perfectly separated, but I'm hoping it's better! Maybe we'll even know what tomatoes we're eating!

    Bookmark   May 12, 2009 at 6:26PM
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Many thanks to each one of you who have replied already. It's great that this forum is so active and that so many of you are willing to share your knowledge.
Is the 3' spacing for the benefit of the individual plants (to prevent disease or to yield better) OR is it so that the different varieties don't cross-pollinate, for those who like to save seeds?
Thanks again.


    Bookmark   May 12, 2009 at 7:51PM
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The 3' spacing is so each plant can do it's best with minimal work/pruning and has nothing to do with cross pollination which rarely happens with tomatos (they are self fertile and generally pollinate themselves before flowers even open). Grow a bunch of varieties right on top of one another and expect around a 5% cross pollination rate. That's not 5% of seeds, but 5% of plants experiencing any cross pollination.

    Bookmark   May 12, 2009 at 8:07PM
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You guys have me a bit nervous. My mom planted our tomatoes out when I was sick two weekends ago. She planted them 12 inches apart. I'm afraid we'll just have one tangled mess of tomatoes once they mature. Will have to do some heavy-handed pruning I guess...

    Bookmark   May 12, 2009 at 8:17PM
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I appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions, not just once, but twice in one day!
I doubt that my soil amendments will bring my tomatoes to grow anywhere near as well as bigdaddyj's , but it does seem wiser to live without squeezing a couple of extra plants in.
Thanks, again!


    Bookmark   May 12, 2009 at 11:54PM
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York: if it makes you feel better I am on the opposite end of the spectrum as far as spacing goes, because I stake and prune. This year I have 18 inches between plants and 2 feet in between rows. It is a personal preference and a matter of the logistics of the particular space. The yeild might be a bit smaller, but I find it less cumbersome and easier to harvest.

I know the general consensus here is that caging is the way to go, but with such a close spacing, unless you are going to dig up and move or sacrafice some, staking is probably a better idea.

    Bookmark   May 13, 2009 at 4:49PM
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My spacing is also about 18 inches apart, but they're all in containers, so that can change whenever I want it to. :)

    Bookmark   May 13, 2009 at 5:23PM
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austinnhanasmom(5 CO)

Going on year four that I've put thought and effort into my tomato garden.

For years 1-2, I used the CRW cages with the tiny grid size. Plants were 3' apart. These cages made for fantastic support and the plants grew well. To harvest, I cut wires from the grid to make larger openings, but not quite big enough. Each time I picked tomatoes, my arms would get all cut up.

After year 2, my son was old enough to help pick. NO WAY was I going to let him cut all injured...

Year 3, I pounded metal tree stakes around each plant, creating a triangle with clothesline. Since I didn't want to buy hundreds of tree stakes, my rows were close together, to utilize the stakes on multiple plants. The clothesline was a mess as well - running every which way. Some of the plants grew well, but nothing like when they were more separated.

This year, I have two rows that are separated by 6 or 7'. Within each row, the plants are 3' apart. I know they'll grow into each other again and I want to save seeds, so I'm going to bag the blossoms (make a bag from tulle and then mark the bagged branch).

However, after reading the great posts above, now I'm afraid I won't be able to find the tagged branches!! I should have alternated the fruit coloring at planting, because I now recall that I wasn't sure what I was eating last year either:)) I tried to trace the limb back to the stem, and then the plant tag was unreadable. A great thing about this website, though, is tomato fanatics photograph their fruit. I can just look it up;))

Happy Gardening

    Bookmark   May 14, 2009 at 10:21AM
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I've planted at about 1 ft between plants for the past 2 years due to space limitations.

It can work.

A few suggestions:

- You absolutely have to have the right vertical growing system (cow panes, or in my case nylon netting hung on piping. These guys are going to grow up not out and you have to support this.
- you must prune rigorously to one or maybe two stems. Pinch off all side shoots. It's easy once you get the hang off it.
- The greater density places greater demands on the soil. It also means the plants tend to grow together, reducing air flow. Both of these conditions can make disease more likely and can stress the plants out. If you have any issues with your soil, I'd think twice, or go the container route.

With all the pruning, you will probably see a reduction in production per plant, but the same or greater production per square foot. This method let's you enjoy a much larger variety of tomato types than the cage method if you don't have much space.

That all being said, if I had the space I would go with the home built wired cages spaced 3 feet apart method.

    Bookmark   May 14, 2009 at 12:31PM
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I planted my tomatoes four feet apart in rows 44 inches apart. Already the plants are touching, but I let them sprawl. I can see right now that within a month I probably won't be able to reach the plants in the inner rows. I should have put the rows six or seven feet apart. But one advantage of having this huge mass of continuous foliage is that my sunscald problems should be reduced. I also put a two inch layer of compost around each plant.
My cat disappeared so as an experiment I used the two bags of now un-needed dry cat food I had left as fertilizer in the planting holes. Seems to be working pretty good so far.

    Bookmark   May 14, 2009 at 12:57PM
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austinnhanasmom(5 CO)

californian -

Interesting about the cat food - sorry for the loss of your cat though. You'll have to start a post in the fall with an update on the use of that fertilizer, after a whole season. Maybe no need for future feeding??

    Bookmark   May 14, 2009 at 2:06PM
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tdscpa(z5 NWKS)


Have you looked carefully under your sprawling tomato plants for your cat? Perhaps he is down there searching for the source of that cat-food odor.

Or, perhaps the tomato plants "disappeared" him so they could have his food.

    Bookmark   May 15, 2009 at 4:08AM
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No need to panic about 12".

12" is OK especially for indeterminate vining types but yes, you will need to prune. Only allow 1 or 2 vines(depending on the rows). SFG gardening, a very popular method, does just this.
I was also able to do this with compact determinants like VF Romas.

    Bookmark   May 15, 2009 at 10:52PM
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I use 1 foot spacing - and no pruning. Each row of tomatoes has two CRW panels (one on either side) as trellises and I train the plants to grow amongst the panels as they come up.

I understand that this close spacing is considered blasphemy by some. But, I've been doing this for several years now, and the plants do quite well. I've noticed no problems with production as a result of close spacing.

    Bookmark   May 16, 2009 at 11:37AM
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Many thanks to everyone for taking the time to share information. I appreciate it!


    Bookmark   May 16, 2009 at 11:38AM
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Since tomatoes are grown in almost every climate and there are many different type there is no right way to do it but depending on the context there can be wrong ways.

An older retire has all day to water but is too frail to move a 20 gallon container. I can advise such people 3 gallon is doable. It would be a horrible solution for those that plan on week long summer excursions or want maximum production. If you are one of those people who plant their garden in way back yard and forget to visit it for a week or two then I strongly suggest that you cage every 3 feet.

When disease is a problem it is less feasible to pack them together. On the the hand growing in containers close together makes changing out the soil trivial to rotate away from the disease etc. Some times there is better sun further up the trellis. If one wants larger and earlier fruit then by all means prune(at the cost of total production). This also means those with lots of space may also want to prune to a single vine for the early fruit.

There are just too many urban, forested settings and where caging a plant every 3 feet is not desirable. There is one site I like about a garden that terraces into a mountain. That space is precious. I used to be one of those where I grew up with a sunny large flat back yard. Now I have a 6 foot strip on the south side of the front yard and side of the house because its shaded elsewhere. I go from raised beds to containers once I hit the side of the house. A few big cages and a few hills of squash is just going to eat up my space. I do pole beans rather than bush for this reason.

3 foot cages is simply designed for one cultural practice with specific goals in mind which I would classify as lower maintenance and cost utilizing an available space resource. The default advice seems to be traditional row gardening and it does not always apply. However its also true not to take advice on intensive gardening and then treat it like a row garden. In one case an urban gardener will just not even try. In the other case such a person will be discouraged to try again.

    Bookmark   May 16, 2009 at 1:38PM
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