Can Tomato Plants Survive Winter? How To Overwinter Tomatoes

Can Tomato Plants Survive Winter? How To Overwinter Tomatoes

As the fall weather settles in and the winter season approaches, you may be wondering what you can do with those tomato plants sitting on your deck. Believe it or not, tomatoes can survive the winter! In this article, we’ll review two primary methods for overwintering tomato plants, how to bring them back to life each spring, and tips for success!

(Featured Image: Freshly Pruned Tomatoes Preparing For Overwintering)

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Can Tomatoes Be Grown As Perennials?

Tomatoes are typically grown as annual plants, meaning they complete their life cycle within one year. In most climates, they are not considered perennial plants. Tomato plants are sensitive to cold temperatures, and exposure to frost can damage or kill them.

However, in some tropical and subtropical regions with mild winters, tomato plants can behave like perennials, especially if they are protected from cold temperatures and continue to produce fruit for multiple years. In such areas, tomato plants may survive and continue to grow year-round.

In cold climates, it is common practice to replant tomatoes each year as annuals, starting from seeds or transplants in the spring and harvesting the fruit during the warm growing season. While tomatoes are not true perennials in these regions, they can sometimes self-seed, leading to the growth of new tomato plants in subsequent seasons if conditions are suitable.

Lush, green tomato plants are mature in the spring after being overwintered indoors.

Ripe Tomatoes Hang From Mature Plants Overwintered Indoors

How To Overwinter Tomato Plants

Tomatoes are one of those plants that are fun to grow and hard to let go of once the winter weather hits. If you have a favorite tomato plant, there are a few methods you can use to help it survive the cold weather and come back the following year. There are a handful of different methods you can use to overwinter your tomato plants, here are 3 of the most common for our climate here in the US:

1. Overwintering Tomatoes Indoors

Overwintering indoors in a cool climate is a way to protect your plants from freezing temperatures and extend the growing season. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to overwinter tomatoes indoors:

  1. Choose Suitable Plants:
    • Select tomato plants that are healthy and vigorous. It’s best to choose determinate or dwarf tomato varieties, as they tend to be more manageable for indoor growing.
  2. Prepare the Plants:
    • In late summer or early fall, before the first frost, dig up your tomato plants from the garden. Be careful not to damage the roots during the process.
    • Shake off excess soil, but don’t wash the roots.
  3. Trim and Prune:
    • Trim the plants to remove excess foliage, leaving only the main stems and a few of the healthiest branches.
    • Pruning helps reduce the plant’s size and prevents it from becoming too leggy indoors.
    • Remove any damaged or yellowing leaves.
  4. Repot into Containers:
    • Transplant your trimmed tomato plants into large containers or pots with fresh potting soil.
    • Choose containers that provide ample space for root growth.
    • Water the plants thoroughly after transplanting.
  5. Provide Adequate Light:
    • Tomatoes need a lot of light to grow indoors. Place the potted plants in a bright location where they can receive at least 12-16 hours of bright, indirect sunlight daily.
    • If natural light is insufficient, use grow lights to supplement the lighting. We recommend this LED grow light panel by FEDiCA for a cost-effective option that is ideal for tomato plants!
  6. Maintain Temperature and Humidity:
    • Keep the indoor environment within the temperature range of 60-70°F (15-21°C).
    • Maintain humidity levels by misting the plants occasionally or placing a tray with water and pebbles nearby.
  7. Water and Fertilize:
    • Water your indoor tomato plants consistently, keeping the soil evenly moist but not waterlogged.
    • Use a balanced, water-soluble fertilizer, and feed the plants every 3-4 weeks to provide essential nutrients.
  8. Pruning and Support:
    • Continue to prune the plants regularly to remove any new growth, suckers, or crowded branches.
    • Provide support for the plants to prevent them from becoming top-heavy or falling over.
  9. Pest and Disease Control:
    • Monitor your indoor tomato plants for pests and diseases, and address any issues promptly.
    • Isolate the indoor plants from any outdoor plants to reduce the risk of pests being brought inside.
  10. Pollination:
    • Tomatoes may require hand pollination indoors. Gently shake the flowers or use a small brush to transfer pollen from one flower to another.
  11. Be Patient:
    • Understand that overwintered tomatoes may not produce as heavily as outdoor plants but can provide some harvest during the winter months.
  12. Transitioning Outdoors:
    • When the chance of frost has passed and the weather warms up in the spring, you can gradually acclimate your indoor tomatoes to outdoor conditions before transplanting them back into the garden.

**Tomatoes can also be grown in indoor hydroponic setups. To learn more about hydroponic gardening, check out this article: DIY Bucket Hydroponic System (Great For Tomatoes!)

2. Overwintering Using The Dormancy Method

Overwintering tomatoes in cool climates can be challenging, but it is possible with the right care and protection. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to overwinter tomatoes in cool climates:

  1. Select Cold-Tolerant Varieties:
    • Start with tomato varieties that are better suited for cool climates. Look for determinate varieties that mature more quickly and are more likely to produce fruit in a shorter season.
  2. Prepare in Late Summer or Early Fall:
    • As the weather starts to cool in late summer or early fall, stop fertilizing the tomato plants. This helps them gradually transition into dormancy.
    • Prune the tomato plants, removing any new growth and leaving just the main stems and fruit clusters. This reduces the energy the plant needs to sustain itself during the winter.
  3. Potting and Transplanting (Optional):
    • If you have planted your tomatoes in the ground, you can carefully dig up the plants and transplant them into large pots or containers.
    • Trim the roots back when transplanting, as this can help the plant adjust to the confines of a pot.
  4. Move Indoors:
    • Ideally, move the potted tomato plants indoors to a cool but frost-free location, such as a garage, basement, or a heated greenhouse. It is important they are protected from a sudden cold snap at this point in the process.
    • Place the pots in a spot that receives some indirect sunlight, or use artificial lighting to provide sufficient light.
    • Alternatively you can keep tomato plants outdoors but cover with a heavy fabric row cover or frost blankets.
  5. Water Sparingly:
    • Reduce the frequency of watering during the winter. Allow the soil to dry slightly between waterings, as overwatering can lead to root rot.
    • Water just enough to keep the plant from wilting.
  6. Monitor and Prune:
    • Check the plants regularly for signs of pests or disease. Address any issues promptly.
    • Continue to prune the plants to maintain their shape and remove any dead or yellowing leaves.
  7. Fertilize Lightly (Optional):
    • You can provide a diluted, balanced fertilizer every 4-6 weeks during the winter. However, do so sparingly to avoid overstimulating the plants.
    • If you choose to fertilize, we recommend using a granular fertilizer that will slowly release into the soil. Our go-to tomato fertilizer is Jobe’s Organic Vegetable And Tomato Fertilizer.
  8. Support and Stake:
    • If the tomato plants become leggy or weak, provide support and stake them as needed to prevent them from toppling over.
  9. Be Patient:
    • Overwintered tomatoes may not produce fruit during the winter months. They might start flowering and fruiting again when the days get longer and temperatures rise in the spring.
  10. Transplant Back Outdoors:
    • Once the last frost date has passed and temperatures are consistently above 50°F (10°C) in the spring, you can transplant your overwintered tomato plants back into the garden or a larger pot.

Keep in mind that overwintering tomatoes can be a bit of an experiment and may not always yield a bountiful harvest. Success can vary depending on the climate, the variety of tomatoes, and the care you provide during the winter months. Nonetheless, it’s a fun way to extend your tomato-growing season in cooler regions.

3. Overwintering Tomato Plants Using Cuttings

Overwintering tomatoes using cuttings, also known as tomato clones or tomato suckers, is a technique that allows you to preserve your favorite tomato varieties for the next growing season. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to overwinter tomatoes using cuttings:

1. Start With Healthy Plants:

  • Choose a healthy, disease-free tomato plant that you want to overwinter. This should be a determinate or indeterminate variety, not a hybrid.

2. Take Cuttings:

  • In the late summer or early fall, take cuttings from the chosen tomato plant. To do this:
    • a. Use a sharp, clean pair of scissors or pruning shears.
    • b. Select a sucker, which is a young, non-flowering side shoot that has at least a few inches of growth.
    • c. Cut the sucker just below a leaf node (the point where the leaves meet the stem).
    • d. The cutting should be around 4-6 inches long.e. Remove the lower leaves, leaving only a few leaves at the tip.

3. Root the Cuttings:

  • There are a few methods for rooting tomato cuttings:a. In Water: Place the cuttings in a glass of water, ensuring the leafless stem is submerged. Change the water regularly, and roots should develop in a few weeks.b. In Soil: Plant the cuttings in a container filled with well-draining potting soil. Water the soil thoroughly and keep it consistently moist. Cover the container with a plastic bag or a clear plastic dome to maintain high humidity.

4. Provide Adequate Light:

  • Place the cuttings in a location that receives plenty of light. Tomato cuttings prefer bright, indirect light. South-facing windows or under grow lights is ideal.

5. Monitor and Transplant:

  • Check the cuttings regularly for root development. Once they have developed a good root system (usually within a few weeks), they are ready for transplanting.
  • Transplant the rooted cuttings into individual pots with fresh potting soil, or you can transplant them into your garden if the outdoor conditions are suitable.

6. Care for the Transplants:

  • Provide proper care for the transplants, just like you would for any young tomato plants. This includes maintaining the right temperature, humidity, and light conditions.

7. Overwinter Indoors:

  • If you are in a region with harsh winters, overwinter the tomato transplants indoors in a sunny location. You can use grow lights if necessary to ensure they receive adequate light.

8. Transplant Outdoors (Optional):

  • When the last frosts have passed in the spring and outdoor temperatures are consistently warm, you can transplant your overwintered tomato plants into the garden. For most midwestern climates, late spring is a safe time to plant tomatoes.

Overwintering tomatoes using cuttings can be a successful way to save your favorite varieties for the next growing season. However, it’s essential to start with healthy parent plants and provide proper care for the cuttings to ensure they develop strong root systems and thrive.

A tomato plant will overwinter indoors under an LED grow light.

Indoor Tomato Plant Under LED Grow Light

What Are The Best Cold Hardy Tomato Varieties?

Cold-hardy tomato plants are specifically bred or selected for their ability to tolerate cooler temperatures and can withstand mild frosts. These varieties are suitable for regions with shorter growing seasons or cool spring and fall conditions. Here are a few examples of cold-hardy tomato plants:

  1. Sub-Arctic Plenty: As the name suggests, this tomato variety is known for its ability to withstand cooler temperatures. It’s an early-season tomato with small to medium-sized fruit.
  2. Stupice: Stupice is a cold-tolerant heirloom tomato that produces small to medium-sized, red, round fruits. It’s an early-season variety and can withstand chilly conditions.
  3. Siberian: Siberian tomatoes are another cold-tolerant variety that matures early. They produce small to medium-sized fruits and are known for their hardiness.
  4. Polish Linguisa: This cold-hardy tomato variety is excellent for cooler climates. It produces large, paste-type tomatoes that are great for sauces and canning.
  5. Glacier: Glacier tomatoes are small, round, and cold-tolerant. They are known for their adaptability to cooler conditions and their early maturation.
  6. Latah: Latah is a determinate tomato variety that is well-suited for short growing seasons. It produces small, sweet, and flavorful fruits.
  7. Oregon Spring: Oregon Spring is an early-season, cold-tolerant tomato with medium-sized, red, round fruits. It’s ideal for regions with cool springs.
  8. Moskvich: Moskvich tomatoes are known for their ability to produce early in the season, making them suitable for cooler climates. They have a rich, sweet flavor and are medium-sized.

Remember that even cold-hardy tomato varieties have limits to how much cold they can tolerate. While they can withstand mild frosts and cool temperatures better than other varieties, they still require protection if the weather becomes too harsh. Using techniques like row covers and mulch can help them thrive in less-than-ideal conditions. Additionally, it’s always a good idea to consult with local gardening experts or extension offices for tomato varieties best suited to your specific climate.

What Are The Benefits Of Overwintering Tomatoes?

Overwintering tomatoes can have several benefits, depending on your gardening goals and local climate. Here are some advantages of overwintering tomatoes:

  1. Continuity of Tomato Production: Overwintering allows you to extend the tomato growing season. You can enjoy fresh, homegrown tomatoes earlier in the spring or even throughout the winter months, depending on your climate.
  2. Preservation of Preferred Varieties: If you have tomato varieties that you particularly enjoy or have grown from heirloom seeds, overwintering allows you to preserve these varieties for the next growing season, ensuring a consistent supply of your favorite tomatoes.
  3. Higher Yields: Overwintered tomato plants can start producing fruit earlier in the growing season, leading to potentially higher yields. This can be especially advantageous for gardeners who want to maximize their tomato harvests.
  4. Cost Savings: By overwintering tomato plants, you can save money on seeds or starter plants in the spring. You’re essentially using the same plants for multiple seasons, reducing the need to start from scratch each year.
  5. Time Savings: Overwintered plants may become more established and robust, saving you time and effort in the early stages of the growing season. They are already mature and ready for growth when spring arrives.
  6. Reduced Risk of Pests and Disease: Indoor or protected overwintered plants are less exposed to outdoor pests and diseases. This can lead to healthier plants and a lower risk of infestations.
  7. Educational Value: Overwintering tomatoes provides an opportunity to learn about the specific requirements and care of plants during the winter months. It’s an interesting and educational gardening experiment.

It’s important to note that overwintering tomatoes does require effort, attention, and space. It may not be suitable for all gardeners or regions. Additionally, the success of overwintering can vary depending on your specific climate and growing conditions. If you’re interested in giving it a try, research and preparation are essential to increase your chances of a successful overwintering experience.

Move Your Garden Indoors This Winter

There are many advantages to continuing your growing season indoors over the winter months. Enjoying fresh produce year round and tending to a garden with increased artificial light can be a mood booster during a statistically depressing season. If you’re interested in learning more about indoor gardening, check out these related articles:

Fresh tomatoes harvested from indoor tomato plants. It is easy to overwinter tomatoes with these 3 methods.

Fresh Tomatoes Harvested From Indoor Tomato Plants