The Best Fertilizer for Tomatoes at Different Stages of Growth

Updated on August 23, 2019
lobobrandon profile image

From his early days, Brandon helped his grandmother in her garden. He has always been passionate about tomatoes.

The Best Way to Fertilize Tomatoes

The best fertilizer for tomato plants has macronutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, as well as essential micronutrients such as magnesium, calcium, boron, and zinc: However, tomatoes need different ratios of these nutrients during each growth cycle. If you're new to gardening, fertilizing tomatoes properly may seem like a daunting task. Whether you're growing from seeds or from seedlings, soil nourishment is a topic you don't want to be ignorant about.

With guidance, you're going to have an amazing crop, year after year. But before we proceed, let me get one thing clear: There is no single fertilizer that works best for all gardens at all times of year. If there were, gardening would be a breeze (and arguably also boring). Let's take a look at some facts and fertilizer options to help you pick the right one, based on the plant's stage of growth.

The best fertilizer for tomatoes for higher fruit yield and not just a lot of foliage.
The best fertilizer for tomatoes for higher fruit yield and not just a lot of foliage.

Tomato Fertilizing Basics

  • The fertilizer requirement of tomato plants depends on their stage of growth. It is important that every nutrient be present at all times; however, the suggested ratio of nutrients changes with each stage of growth.
  • In general, a tomato plant's roots aren't deeper than 6-7". Keep this in mind when mixing fertilizer into the soil.
  • Commercial fertilizers have a number series, such as 10-8-10, which basically stands for nitrogen-phosphorous-potassium (or elements N-P-K). This means the fertilizer contains 10% nitrogen, 8% phosphorous, 10% potassium, with the rest being filler material.

Which fertilizer nutrients does a tomato plant need?

Phosphorous is vital for the growth of roots, potassium helps with flowering and general growth, and nitrogen helps with foliage.

  • Phosphorous is crucial for the growth and development of roots as well as fruit. It is therefore an important nutrient in the initial stage and then again in the final stage.
  • Nitrogen takes care of the foliage, but too much nitrogen leads to bushy plants with little or no fruit.
  • Potassium helps the plant grow rapidly and produce flowers and fruit. But it's very important when it comes to photosynthesis and tolerance to some diseases.

Do I need fertilizer to start my tomato seeds?

Tomato seeds do not need any added nutrients to germinate, as the seed contains sufficient amounts to put up the first true leaves. If you're planning on planting from seed, you may be interested in my guide on planting tomato seeds to help you get the first stage right. If you are at the stage where your seedlings are ready to be transplanted or if you've got some store-bought plants, you should check out my guide on transplanting tomatoes.

Do my tomato seedlings need fertilizer?

Yes, they do. Once the tomato seedlings have germinated, they are going to grow very quickly, with an initial burst in growth just prior to their flowering. As a rule of thumb, they usually bear fruit within four months of being planted.

Full-grown plants will need fertilizer, too.

For this period, you will be watching the plant carefully for cues about what fertilizer it needs (we'll discuss this later). Of course, requirements depend on many factors such as the type of tomato, the soil, and the environmental conditions.

If these steps are not done right, no amount of fertilizer will help. Keep in mind that plants are very resilient. You don't need to be a pro to get through this stage. But knowing exactly what needs to be done sure does help.

Required Micro and Macro Nutrients for Tomatoes

 
 
Nitrogen
For continuous growth of foliage.
Phosphorous
For root and fruit development, and it also helps fight stress.
Potassium
For continuous growth; aids in photosynthesis and makes the plant less susceptible to some diseases.
Calcium
For root and leaf growth and to help produce firm tomatoes.
Magnesium
Helps keep the plant green; improves flowering and fruit quality.
Boron and Zinc
Flowering and even ripening of the fruit.
A list of the most essential macro and micro-nutrients for growing tomatoes. Please note that the list is not exhaustive in any sense.

Phosphorous is vital for the growth of roots, potassium helps with flowering and general growth, and nitrogen helps with foliage.

Tomato Fertilizing Timetable

 
When the plant is growing roots
Starting Seeds
Seedlings
Plants
Type of nutrition needed
phosphorus
the seed itself should provide all needed nutrients
nitrogen helps foliage; potassium helps plant growth, and flower and fruit production
watch the plant carefully for cues about what fertilizer it needs: phosphorous needed for fruit; nitrogen helps foliage (but too much lessens fruit production)
As a rule of thumb, tomatoes usually bear fruit within four months of being planted.

Why Your Tomato Plant's Roots Matter

Fertilizer won't matter unless your tomato plant is be able to absorb the nutrients you've incorporated into the soil. To ensure root health, you're going to need to make sure that your watering techniques encourage deep rooting. The plants aren't just going to be growing in height and girth, but they are also going to branch out, causing them to be top-heavy. You may want to provide external support to prevent the plants from drooping and falling over. Deep roots also help in this regard.

Secondly, it is best to place your tomato plant in the ground or in a big container, since small containers lead to the clumping of roots, and if a plant's roots are too crowded, it struggles to take up the nutrients it needs.

How to Fertilize While Transplanting Tomato Seedlings

All plants need nitrogen to grow. Most naturally occurring soil contains sufficient nitrogen for plant growth, but if you're using a large proportion of coconut husk or some other kind of filler material, you're not going to have enough nitrogen in there.

How do I know if I need to add nitrogen to my soil?

You can only know for sure if you've tested your soil. However, as a general rule of thumb, if you are using fresh compost, you do not need to add any nitrogen, just phosphorous at the initial stage of growth (that is, soon after transplanting the seedlings). You may not even have to add phosphorous if your compost contains a lot of banana peels and bones.

Two Ways to Add Phosphorous While Transplanting Tomato Seedlings

For phosphorous, it's best to use a combination of bone meal and organic fertilizer spikes, but it's totally understandable if you don't want to use bone meal because it's an animal product (in which case, measure your soil and add a bit of traditional phosphorous fertilizer).

1. Bone Meal

Bone meal is a great way to use organic fertilizers while at the same time ensure that your tomato plants have sufficient phosphorous to grow strong roots (which aid the production of fruit).

Bone meal, as the name suggests, is a fertilizer made up of ground animal bones: usually beef, but other animal bones (like fish bones) may be used. Today, most commercial bone meal products are in the ratio of 3-15-0. One of my favorites is the Jobe's Organic bone meal fertilizer with a 2-14-0 ratio. The essential micronutrient calcium in this mix also prevents blossom end rot, a common tomato plant disease.

How do I use bone meal?

Before adding bone meal, it is advisable that you check the pH level of the soil. If it is above 7, you should work on reducing this number before adding the fertilizer.

Bone meal is a slow-release fertilizer, and it takes up to 4 months to completely break down in the soil. This is why one application of 1 pound bone meal to 10 square feet (1 kg to 2 square meters) of soil is all you may need. Notice that I have used the word "may."

2. Fertilizer Spikes

I definitely recommend you place Jobe's 6-18-6 organic fertilizer spikes 3 to 6 inches away from the stem of each plant just after transplanting. This is even more important if you're growing in a container, as potted plants use up the soil's nutrients quickly.

You don't have to get Jobe's fertilizers—all you need is a spike that contains a higher percentage of phosphorous and a decent amount of nitrogen and potassium. Fertilizer spikes just need to be pushed into the soil. In general, they last around 2 months before being used up.

For phosphorous, it's best to use a combination of bone meal and organic fertilizer spikes.

How to Use Fertilizer Spikes

Tomato Fertilizer Needs During the Growth Phase (Pre - Flowering)

Indeterminate vs. Determinate Plants

For determinate tomato plants, there is a clear distinction between the growth phase and the fruiting phase, so you can cater to those specific nutrition needs. This is not the case with indeterminate kinds. For indeterminate plants, you're going to need constant fertilization with fertilizers of 8-32-16 or 6-24-24. Basically, the nitrogen content is 1/4 of phosphorous and at least 1/2 that of potassium. This guide deals with determinate varieties.

Nitrogen needed for pre-flowering plants:

Nitrogen is an essential component during the growth phase of your determinate varieties because it helps form many structures—like chlorophyll, which is essentially the green part of the plant that aids photosynthesis—and aid the formation of genetic material.

If you have good soil and use a lot of compost, you will not have to bother adding any nitrogen. But if you notice the bottom leaves of your tomato plants turning yellow, this is a sign that the plant needs more nitrogen. (However, there are also other causes of yellow leaves aside from nitrogen deficiencies. Not to scare you, but yellow leaves are also an indication of excess nitrogen, but more often than not it's due to a lack of it. To learn more, read The Causes & Cures of Yellow Leaves on Tomato Plants.)

I personally choose to use compost at the start, and then 2 weeks after the first month, I add in some compost tea. This provides sufficient nitrogen and also replenishes some of the other macro and micronutrients.

When to Add Potassium: Just Before Flowering Until the End of the Season

If you want your plant to produce a lot of flowers, it's going to need that constant source of nitrogen—not too much, though, because overfeeding promotes the growth of leaves and not flowers.

But more importantly, this is the time your plant needs some good potassium fertilizer. Potassium is an important nutrient that helps promote strong growth. As stated, your potassium levels should be at least double that of your nitrogen if you add fertilizer to your garden. Go ahead and buy yourself some 8-32-16 or 6-24-24 and add it as per the instructions on the pack—or you could do what I do, make a compost tea, as explained below.

How to Make a Potassium-Rich Compost Fertilizer Tea

Banana peels are a great source of potassium and, when you bury them, they release it slowly, which aids plant growth throughout the stages.

  1. Collect a few banana peels,
  2. chop them into pieces (preferably as seen in the image below)
  3. and bury them in the soil.

While your plant is growing, keep collecting banana peels and preparing the tea in a big container—something that you can cover up so that the smell of rot does not spread or attract creatures. Keep adding to this with new peels as the season progresses.

How deep should I bury the banana?

Some I push it deep near the base of the roots, just an inch below the soil. But that's not deep enough if you want a lot of flowers.

Chopped banana peel ready to be soaked.
Chopped banana peel ready to be soaked.

How to Fertilize a Tomato, From Flower to Ripe Fruit

During this phase, the plant still needs nitrogen, but not in large amounts. If your plant has grown well until now, there's no need to add any nitrogen into the soil.

Phosphorous is one of the most crucial nutrients for good fruit. Potassium is also important, so continue adding some of that potassium tea but maybe once a week, not more. Most garden soil does, in fact, have sufficient phosphorous, and by this stage your plant would, if planted in-ground, have developed symbiotic relations to get phosphorous. You could always add some if you notice that your fruit is not developing well, this is something you only learn through the experience of the first crop or by testing your soil. In the first year, there is no harm if you add in some fertilizer that is high in phosphorous. If you choose a fertilizer, maybe go for something on the lines of 8-32-16 at this stage.

Just before flowering:

Next, find out how many days on average it takes for your specific variety of tomato plant to flower (not fruit). Up to two weeks before this date, start pouring in some of that water you've been collecting. Depending on how much you've got and how concentrated it is, you may have to dilute it or just use a little every other day.

I cannot really give you a deeper explanation on this as this is something you'd figure out from experience. You're going to have to wing it by keeping an eye on your plant. If you notice that growth is slowing down stop adding any more. You can't really go wrong if you keep an eye on the plant.

Use Organic Tomato Fertilizers to Encourage Symbiosis

If you are planting in-ground (as opposed to in-container), you may want to consider Dr. Earths Organic all-purpose fertilizer because it has beneficial soil microbes and fungi that help plants grow through a process of symbiosis.

Why is symbiosis important for in-ground tomatoes?

For example, the fungi Myccorhizal reaches far into the earth and transports phosphorous to the roots of the tomato plants in exchange for sugar and starch. I first learned about this from Grow It Organically and I'd recommend that you read the page to learn more about other phosphorous sources.

If you have a well-performing garden, you may already have a high level of activity and symbiotic systems in place, and you may not need to artificially induce them into the environment. I'd only recommend you do so if you have a garden that does not get green on its own, or if you have added a lot of new, inert topsoil.

Four Reasons to Use Organic Tomato Fertilizers:

  1. They are easier to use.
  2. It's better for the environment and your local water table.
  3. They are less potentially harmful to the environment.
  4. Inexperienced gardeners who use factory-produced, concentrated chemical fertilizers (instead of natural, powdered rock) tend to overuse, which leads to "lockout," a plant's defense mechanism which causes it to completely stop absorbing nutrients.

More flowers almost always means more fruit.
More flowers almost always means more fruit.

One Size Does Not Fit All Tomatoes

These are general fertilizer requirements: What kind of fertilizer mix you need for your garden depends on the nutrients present in the microenvironment of your tomato bed. You can either learn this from experience or by testing your soil.

Other points to keep in mind:

  1. Sandy soil need fertilizers more often than sticky, clay-like soils, as sandy soils do not hold nutrients as well.
  2. Container gardens need more fertilizer since the plant uses up the soil's nutrients more quickly.
  3. Do not get fertilizer onto the leaves of the plant—only the roots. If you dissolve fertilizer in water, make sure that you water the ground and not the leaves, no matter what time of day it is.

Over-Fertilization of Tomato Plants

A lack of nutrients results in stunted growth, increased likelihood of disease, and inhibited fruit. But excess fertilization can be even worse than a lack of nutrients in the soil.

Your tomato plant could struggle and grow and produce some tomatoes if the soil is infertile, but if you give it too much fertilizer, it could die on the spot. Do not let this sentence scare you. It's not easy to over-fertilize, and fixing it is always an option.

Signs of Tomato Over-Fertilization

  • Yellowing leaves. One cause of yellow of your tomato leaves could be an excess of nitrogen in the soil. Under a condition of excess nitrogen, tomato plants do not absorb a sufficient amount of water, which results in some of the older leaves yellowing prematurely.
  • Bushy leaves and delayed flowers. Excess nitrogen would also lead to a lot of leaves and flowering is put off. Only experienced gardeners who know when to expect blossoms would be able to detect this problem.
  • A skin of stuff on the surface: You may see a heavy build-up of sediment and fungi growing on the top surface of the soil.
  • Yellowing and wilting of lower leaves. There are so many issues that lead to yellowing leaves that you need to be an expert to tell the difference.
  • A sudden loss of leaves.

How to Fix Over-Fertilization

  • The decay process uses nitrogen, so one way to treat excess nitrogen in the soil is to spread mulch—or for even quicker results, sawdust—on to the soil. Mixing in some sawdust and not just placing it on the top would be a better way to use it.
  • If you notice fertilizer build-up through white salts on the top of the soil, scrape off this top layer and dispose of it.
  • If it's in a container, soak the soil thoroughly with water and then let it drain out. If planted in-ground, just soak the plants thoroughly. Repeat the soaking a few times,—it's known as "flushing" or "leeching" the soil.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

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    • profile image

      Rick Padgett 

      4 months ago

      Good complete coverage.

    • lobobrandon profile imageAUTHOR

      Brandon Lobo 

      4 months ago

      This was a comment just added by a user about Foliage Feeding. But the name was a copy of the comment and it looks bad, so I have decided to just paste it here:

      Begin Quote:

      Great article. It was well written and informational. One thing that wasn’t mentioned is foliage feeding. At dusk or early in the morning before the sun hits the leaves. This is because the stoma in the leaves are open and can soak in nutrients. Lightly mist the bottoms and tops of leaves. I usually use liquid kelp, fish emulsion, or your favorite compost tea. I try to do it once a week especially after a hot day or plants look a bit stressed. Hope my tip was useful.

      End Quote

      This is pretty interesting and the stomata are open for sure. I'll take a look into this in more detail.

    • profile image

      Ram sharma 

      3 years ago

      Thanks a lot for good information.

    • lobobrandon profile imageAUTHOR

      Brandon Lobo 

      5 years ago

      Thanks a lot for the compliments and shares patsybell

    • Patsybell profile image

      Patsy Bell Hobson 

      5 years ago from zone 6a, SEMO

      Good information. Nicely written. Voted up, I,U, Pin,tweet

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 

      6 years ago from Texas

      Very useful information especially for people who don't have much success at growing anything (me). It is to hot, here and not enough rain and to much sun.

    • sgbrown profile image

      Sheila Brown 

      6 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

      Great information. Consistent watering and fertilization are two of the most important keys to growing tomatoes successfully. Putting about 2 inches of mulch around my tomato plants was one of the best things I ever learned about growing tomatoes. It made such a huge difference in how well they grew. We used mulched leaves from our spring clean-up and then at the end of the year, we turn them into the soil and they create great compost. We also till in the chicken manure and hay from our chicken house before we plant, it seems to really help. I enjoyed your hub, voting up, useful, interesting, sharing and pinning. :)

    • lobobrandon profile imageAUTHOR

      Brandon Lobo 

      6 years ago

      Glad you liked this :) hope it helps you when it comes to fertilizing your tomatoes if at all you do grow them.

    • jackinabox profile image

      jackinabox 

      6 years ago

      Interesting hub. Lots of details that I like. Thank you.

    • lobobrandon profile imageAUTHOR

      Brandon Lobo 

      7 years ago

      Yes, you should have stuck with compost. I guess egg shells take time to break down and what you use this time may be ready by next season. If you used a pot or any sort of container for those plants, I guess you'd have to discard all the soil as well - because, the fertilizer will still be there and could harm future crops.

      If you're going in for fertilizers there are plenty out there, don't blame yourself for trying out something. This will only lead to a better crop the next time around as you'll know what to avoid and what to use. If you don't make mistakes you'll never learn. And if you stick to just a single way of growing them and don't try anything, there's no fun in gardening!

      Hope you do get amazing fruit from the remaining plants, do let me know how it turns out.

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      7 years ago

      I purchased a cheap tomato plant food by pennington expert 9-12-12 and my tomato plants went from standing up to dying within hours! I made pictures and complained with the company, plant food is not supposed to kill your plants! I googled and found another guy went through the same exact ordeal. And these were full-grown plants with flowers almost as tall as me! All the other plants are doing fine, so I know it was the plant food. I wished I listened to my mom who told me to use plain egg shells and compost!

    • lobobrandon profile imageAUTHOR

      Brandon Lobo 

      7 years ago

      Yup, here check out some images on google images - http://goo.gl/p6awJ

    • Insane Mundane profile image

      Insane Mundane 

      7 years ago from Earth

      Oh, I didn't think to mention, but I take the tea leaves out of the used tea bags and half of the tea I brew is green tea. Milk? You use milk with tea? Anyway, good luck with your crop this year; cheers!

    • lobobrandon profile imageAUTHOR

      Brandon Lobo 

      7 years ago

      That's exactly what I do with vegetable waste. However I don't add tea bags and throw them in the garbage instead. Because I noticed, the tea bags have milk too once used if you mix hot water and milk together then use the bag (if it's not black tea) which causes worms :)

      Thanks for the comment and I'm glad you liked it.

    • Insane Mundane profile image

      Insane Mundane 

      7 years ago from Earth

      I usually add vegetable waste along with used tea bags to the soil periodically for a couple months - before planting - then I give 'em a boost with Miracle-Gro a few times during the growing season while the other organic stuff breaks down and decomposes into the soil, and have great success. Well, that is, unless it gets invaded with Tomato Hornworms, then I have to take further action, etc.

      Nice Hub!

    • lobobrandon profile imageAUTHOR

      Brandon Lobo 

      7 years ago

      Thanks dialogue :)

    • dialogue profile image

      dialogue 

      7 years ago

      You write always good hubs, keep it up! I like this hub on Tomato fertilizing.

    • lobobrandon profile imageAUTHOR

      Brandon Lobo 

      7 years ago

      No problem, your welcome :)

    • profile image

      Tony Trenton 

      7 years ago

      Many thank's for the clarification

    • lobobrandon profile imageAUTHOR

      Brandon Lobo 

      7 years ago

      If you're already harvesting the crop, I guess you could stop adding fertilizer. There will be enough nutrients in the soil for the plants to continue growing while the rest of the fruit is ready for picking.

    • profile image

      Tony Trenton 

      7 years ago

      The fertilizer contains 7% Nitrogen, 3% Phosphorus, & 7% Potassium.

      How long should I continue adding the fertilizer to the water ?

      Thank you.

      Tony

    • profile image

      Tony Trenton 

      7 years ago

      Thank you Lobrandon

      I am stating to 'harvest' the crop. So far one plumb type and 3 regular have turned red. A couple more are turning orange.

      Should I continue to add the 5 drops / Ltr. Until the end of the crop ?

      I don't know the PH. of the soil or the composition of the fertilizer, but it seems OK so far.

    • lobobrandon profile imageAUTHOR

      Brandon Lobo 

      7 years ago

      Hi Tony, it's great that the plants are growing well and fruiting too. I don't know what fertilizer your using (I mean the composition). But, since your plants are growing and fruiting well with it continue using it until its time to harvest the crop.

    • profile image

      Tony Trenton 

      7 years ago

      I have a small balcony tray of 15 tomato plants grown from tomatoes I bought from the supermarket. I don't know the varieties , but some are plumb and some regular shaped. I made a drip feed watering system. I bought some liquid fertilizer. I add 5 drops per liter of water every two days. I use 8 liters of water per day. the excess drains away.

      The plants seem OK and are fruiting well.

      Should I continue to add the 5 drops of fertilizer / liter of water or is there a cut off point. ?

    • suzzycue profile image

      Susan Britton 

      7 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thank you lobobrandon.

    • lobobrandon profile imageAUTHOR

      Brandon Lobo 

      7 years ago

      Suzzycue, adding chemical fertilizer often would surely burn the plants up. That's why I mentioned adding compost or vegetable waste directly as it would decay slowly and release nutrients at a controlled pace. If you have any more questions feel free to leave a comment :)

    • suzzycue profile image

      Susan Britton 

      7 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      This is great lobobrandon. Thanks for answering my question with so much great information. My tomato plants grow spindly and very small tomatoes so will feed fertilizer more often. I din't know you could fertilize so often in the summer when you plant in pots. I thought it would burn the plants up.

    • lobobrandon profile imageAUTHOR

      Brandon Lobo 

      7 years ago

      Hi Minicoop, I'm really glad I managed to answer all your tomato questions and thanks for the comments and letting me know :) I do hope your daughters project turns out to be something truly amazing!

    • profile image

      minicoop2199 

      7 years ago

      LOVE THIS WEBSITE!!! This site is so helpful. I found all the answers to my tomato questions on this site.

    • lobobrandon profile imageAUTHOR

      Brandon Lobo 

      7 years ago

      Haha ;) I'm not quite sure about Cow peas but if they're growing well you could do it every year. Plant Cow peas in another spot this time and grow tomatoes there next year once again :)

    • WD Curry 111 profile image

      WD Curry 111 

      7 years ago from Space Coast

      Hey! I did the right thing by accident. I planted my tomatoes where I had cow peas last year. No wonder they are doing well.

      Keep up the good work lobobrandon, your enthusiasm, charisma and work ethic give me hope for the future!

    • lobobrandon profile imageAUTHOR

      Brandon Lobo 

      7 years ago

      Hi Anwar thanks for adding amazing information to this hub. I've never given tomato tone a try

    • profile image

      Anwar Riaz 

      7 years ago

      Compost, composted cow manure, Bone Meal and Tomato Tone is the best combination to grow Tomato Plants

    • lobobrandon profile imageAUTHOR

      Brandon Lobo 

      7 years ago

      Yup that's exactly what I tried to convey. But a bit of chemical fertilizers wouldn't be harmful. Just a tiny bit and not too much.

    • Naima Manal profile image

      Naima Manal 

      7 years ago from NY

      I agree that it is better for the tomato plants, and other fruits and vegetables, to use organic fertilizers. It is better for the environment and for the food that you will consume.

    • lobobrandon profile imageAUTHOR

      Brandon Lobo 

      7 years ago

      It surely is better as it doesn't harm all the flora and fauna vital for the well being of the soil. Take for instance earthworms - they're important for the growth of plants as they provide natural aeration to the soil. Chemicals will kill them or make them move away.

    • cyoung35 profile image

      Chad Young 

      7 years ago from Corona, CA

      I prefer organic fertilizer but I'm not sure it's better for you than inorganic.

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