2 Ways to Over-Winter Tomato Plants Without a Greenhouse

How to over-winter tomato plants

How to over-winter tomato plants without a greenhouse

What if you could grow tomatoes year-round, no matter where you live? Although tomatoes are technically a perennial, they are grown as annuals here in the US.

(By the way, this post was originally written in 2012, 
but was revised, rewritten and updated in July 2020.)

Ever since I first read about a huge, perennial tomato plant in Walt Disney World's Epcot Center, which supplies the tomatoes for the theme park's restaurants, I've been intrigued. The photo showed a plant that resembled a tree! What if it could be possible to keep a tomato plant alive over the winter?

After researching this particular tomato plant, I could only find that it grew in a greenhouse and "lived more than a year." It produced a record-breaking harvest. I was interested in its longevity but evidently the large harvest was much greater news.

I decided to embark on an experiment!

Over-wintering tomato plants in a greenhouse

Gardeners who are fortunate enough to have a greenhouse often bring in their tomato plants before the first frost so they can have vine-ripe tomatoes late in the autumn, and they'll start their tomato seeds in very early spring so they'll have big healthy plants ready to go in the ground when the weather is warm enough.

How wonderful would that be? But I don't have a greenhouse - and it wouldn't be warm enough in a greenhouse in the middle of winter to keep a tomato plant going without a heat source. I have friends with hoop houses here in Oklahoma but a hoop house isn't warm enough to keep a tomato plant alive either.

So, at least for me, the possibility of moving tomato plants to a greenhouse isn't possible.

Over-wintering tomato plants indoors

You could keep a tomato plant alive all winter if you grow it in a container that you could move indoors before the first frost.

It might or might not produce fruit during the winter, depending on the temperature of your house and the amount of light the plant receives.

Tomato plants prefer daytime temperatures of 70° to 85ยบ Fahrenheit, with night-time temperatures between 59° and 68°F according to Home Guides | SF Gate.

As for container size, bigger is better. A five-gallon bucket is a good size for one plant. Containers must have drainage holes so the plant isn't sitting in water; tomato plants don't like "wet feet."

Container plants kept indoors should have a shallow container underneath so the excess water won't ruin your floors or furniture.

Over-wintering tomato cuttings

I know from experience that it's possible to take cuttings of tomato plants and root them in water. You almost can't fail, although some varieties of tomatoes will root more easily and successfully than others.

Growing perennial tomatoes

I began to wonder: if I take cuttings of my plants before the first frost, and root them in water, could I keep them alive all winter on my windowsill?

After the cuttings develop roots, they should be planted in soil. I know that they will continue to grow in water, but they will get very leggy and outgrow their jar or glass of water long before spring arrives.

OR if they grew too tall, maybe I could take cuttings of the plants growing in water on my windowsill and root them in water. I wondered if I could do this over and over and have healthy plants to put in my garden as soon as it was warm enough in spring?

These plants wouldn't really be "perennials" in the strictest sense of the word, since it isn't the same plant when it's planted in the garden in spring, but they would be true to the "parent" plant and I'd have a head start on spring planting.

The experiment

Since I had nothing to lose if I tried, I took cuttings of my tomato plants before the first frost and stuck them in a canning jar of water.

How to keep tomato plants alive all winter.

Some varieties of tomato plants will root in water in about a week, others take a bit longer.

Perennial tomato plants

As the weeks go by, the roots kind of go crazy! After awhile you'll have a mat of roots in the water.

Keeping tomato plants alive all winter

Tomato plants are heavy drinkers, so you'll need to keep an eye on the water level in the jars and top them off when the water gets a little low.

Since we have "rural water" here in Oklahoma, which is lake water that is treated and piped to homes, I fill a glass of water and let it stand without a lid for at least 24 hours so the chlorine can dissipate in the air before I add more to the plants' jars.

The cuttings grow best in a sunny windowsill.

Spring update

That first fall, I took cuttings of the Bradley tomatoes I was growing before the first frost warning. Bradley is an heirloom variety.

I also took cuttings from the Early Girl plants, which are a hybrid variety.

I changed the water weekly, but I think the cuttings would benefit greatly from some compost tea or other diluted liquid fertilizer during the winter months. I lost the Bradley cuttings in January. I think they just ran out of energy and sustenance and they gave up.

However, the Early Girl plants did well all winter. At about the end of February their dark green leaves began to lighten. They probably needed some supplementing with fertilizer too, since water doesn't have nutrients like soil does.

How to root tomato cuttings

One of those cuttings grew really tall and even bloomed once. I pinched the flower off, not wanting the plant to put energy into producing fruit. I cut that plant in half and stuck the top half into another glass of water so that it too could root.

Overwintering tomato plants

In the photo above, you can see that the Early Girl plants have turned light green from lack of nutrients.

How to pot up your tomato cuttings

My original idea was to cut the tops off of the original cuttings and let them root for additional plants, or to replace the original cuttings if necessary. Instead, I potted up the rooted cuttings in February.

How to pot up tomato cuttings

Plastic cups work well as pots; they are inexpensive and you can write on them with a Sharpie so you'll remember what varieties you're growing. Use a sharp knife to cut a hole or two in the bottom of the cup.

Potting up tomato cuttings

Put an inch or so of potting soil in the bottom of the cup. You'll want to plant your cuttings deeply so don't use too much soil on the bottom.

Set the rooted cutting inside the cup and hold it in the center as best you can, while adding potting soil around the stem and roots. You can use a spoon to add the soil around the roots if you wish. Try not to compact the roots too close to the stem.

When the cup is full, tamp the soil down a bit or compact it with your fingers, then add more to bring the level back up to the top.

Potting up tomato plants

Water the potted cuttings well and set the cups in the sink to drain. Remember that the plants have been living in water all winter, so they will need plenty of water while they adapt to their new environment.

If needed, transplant these plants into larger pots before spring. 

You can plant your new plants in your garden after all danger of frost has passed in the spring. Tomatoes won't survive a frost, so don't be in too much of a hurry to plant them out. Tomatoes don't really take off in the garden until the weather warms up anyway.

Over wintering tomato plants

Harden your plants off before planting in the ground by setting them outside on nice days in a protected spot and bringing them back in at night, gradually increasing the time they spend outside. Pinch off any flowers on your plants until they've been planted outside. 

You now have good-sized transplants to set out in your garden. Fragile seedlings are prone to fungus and attractive to cutworms, but you've passed that stage and have large, healthy transplants that a garden center would sell for a high price. Congratulations!

You should save tomato seeds too

Because I'm a cautious sort of person, and don't like putting all my eggs in one basket so to speak, I also save seeds from my tomato plants each summer.

I like a wide variety of tomato varieties, and seeds for some of them can be hard to find. I like having a back-up plan - I take cuttings in the fall to keep over the winter, but I also save seeds to plant in spring.

Here's how to store seeds for the best germination, whether you're storing seeds from your own plants or a seed packet you purchased.

Keeping records

If you grow more than one variety of tomatoes and save cuttings from them all, keep a record of what varieties you're over-wintering. Even if you're only saving cuttings from one variety, keep records of when you took the cuttings and how they did over the winter.

Sharpie pens will write on glass jars and on plastic cups to help you keep track of which plants are which variety. 

Are you growing heirloom or hybrid varieties? Are they determinate or indeterminate plants? (Just FYI, I have not tried over-wintering determinate tomato plants.) Some varieties will grow from cuttings better than others, and the only way to find out which works best is to experiment and keep track of your results.

I kept notes each year, and shared the results (well, the first five years' worth of results) with you in this post: over-wintering tomato plants, successes and failures. You'll find out what I learned the hard way!

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Here's how to over-winter your tomato plants so you'll have a head start next spring.

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  1. How do you cut them? Do you allow a sucker to get to moderate size and then cut it? Or are you cutting off the top of the plant?

    1. I cut off the end of several branches. Be sure you have indeterminate varieties.

  2. I have done this in the spring, multiplying seedlings (Suckers work best for this), but to keep them alive and happy all winter, I am not sure. Keep us posted!

    1. Next week I'll have a new post with this year's results, Anna. Stay tuned!

  3. Anonymous12:35 PM

    Awesome! Im excited to see an update!

  4. I live in PEI and spent the coldest, snowiest winter in my lifetime, in 2015. I grew four tomatoes plants in pots and harvested ripe tomatoes all winter that were in my southerly windows. Now those same four tomato plants are out on deck, with a load of green tomatoes on them.

  5. It matters not where the plants are as long as they are happy, right? I love that you actually harvested tomatoes all winter long - that proves the plants were thriving! Great job!

  6. Lana Ar12:38 PM

    I enjoy your e-mails very much. It is very informant to me as we
    live in an ajoining state and have pretty much the same climate. We
    have a very small green house and grow lettuce year round. We have
    kept a cucumber and tomatoe alive after the season and had veggies
    around Christmas.

    1. Thank you, Lana. How wonderful to have a greenhouse and have fresh veggies all the way till Christmas!

  7. My tomato seedlings were getting leggy also. I read an article that said to move the plant closer to the grow light and to take your hand and brush over them to simulate a breeze. I do this and can't believe what a difference it has made for my plants. They have become a lot thicker.

    1. Thank you, Vickie, I didn't know that a breeze, real or otherwise, would make them thicker. I've heard you can use a fan to simulate the wind too.

  8. I have a self seeded tomato plant & found your useful post while considering keeping it going over winter, so I'd like to share my cuttings tip: I've been getting much better results since I started putting all cuttings at the side of the pot rather than the centre. They are less prone to rot, and the roots are effectively encouraged to grow from the drier, aerated edge toward the moisture at the centre.
    (I was thinking about moving the pot indoors, but I'm going to do cuttings after reading your piece - thank you)

    1. Good tips! Thank you for sharing, I'll try this!


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