Tomato Transplanting1

Tomato TransplantingGrowing great tomatoes comes with simply knowing what to do and when to do it. Here are a few tips to take into the tomato growing season:

Seedlings. Potting up tomato seedlings–from 2-inch soil blocks to 4-inch pots and on to 6-inch pots–before transplanting to the garden will allow for larger and stronger roots: the stronger the roots, the stronger the plant.

Planting. At planting time, bury the stem vertically or horizontally (called “trenching”) so that only the top two leaves show. Strip off the leaves below the top two; new roots will grow all along the buried stem, strengthening the plant. To head off blossom-end rot, put a half a handful of lime, ground oyster shells, or crushed eggshells at the bottom of your planting hole. The calcium will help build strong cell walls once your tomatoes start fruiting. For strong plants, add a handful of aged compost and a half a handful of bone meal to the bottom of the hole as well.

Plant for a Long Harvest. At planting time, plant several tomato varieties with differing maturity dates. Plant early harvest, midseason harvest, and late season varieties all at the same time. You will have a continuous harvest without the succession of plantings.

Support. Set cages in place around each plant at planting time and be sure to stake each cage in place. Indeterminate, vining tomatoes can overgrow a cage later in the season causing it to topple. An extra stake or two will keep this from happening. Place cages at planting time to avoid severing maturing roots later on.

Sprawling. If you don’t want to cage or stake your tomatoes, set an arch of construction wire in place and let your tomatoes sprawl across the arch keeping fruit up just above the soil. Free-grown tomatoes will be heavy producers and you’ll do no pinching or pruning during the growing season.

Temperature. Don’t rush the growing season by putting tomatoes in the garden too soon. Nighttime temperatures below 55°F can cause blossoms to drop and prevent fruit from setting. If temperatures are going to dip, you need to protect young tomatoes with cloches or plastic tunnels. (Always plant tomatoes in your garden’s warmest spot. If your garden temperatures run cool, plant tomatoes near a south or west facing fence or wall. The heat taken up by the wall during the day will warm your tomato plants by night.)

Watering. Tomatoes require even watering. Never let the soil completely dry out. A deep soaking once a week is better than several light waterings. A good gauge is to give each tomato plant between 1 and 2 inches of water each week. An inch of water means covering a square foot with 1 inch of water. That requires a bit more than a half gallon of water. An inch of water for a garden bed that is 4 feet by 8 feet is about 20 gallons per week.

Feeding. Tomatoes are medium to heavy feeders. A 2-inch layer of compost or composted manure should be spread across each square foot of the tomato patch twice a year, once in fall and again in spring two week before planting. Liquid seaweed which is high in phosphorus–the element essential for fruiting–can be given once a week. Side dress plants with compost at flowering time. When fruits appear, use manure tea every 10 days until harvest.

Golden grape tomatoes
Golden grape tomatoes

Pinching and Pruning. Tomatoes produce new branches at each leaf node–between the main stem and the leaf axils. Pinching away these new branches will allow the plant to put its energy into larger fruits. Stems with fruit clusters will often keep right on growing to form new branches sapping the plant’s energy. Pinch away new growth just beyond each fruit cluster. The best practice is to pinch and prune once a week. Don’t let suckers be a substitute for fruit. (You can root the suckers you pinch out in seed starting mix and start a second crop.)

Harvesting. When your tomatoes begin to ripen, check your crop every day. The best tasting tomatoes are picked at the peak of maturity–not a week or two later. Cut or gently twist off the fruit. Six weeks before the first expected frost, pinch away all of the growing tips and new blossoms. This will terminate new growth and allow the plant to put its energy into ripening its last fruits.

Heavy frost and end of the season. When the first heavy frost is predicted, pick ripening fruit–even green ones–and set them on the kitchen counter out of the sunlight. They will ripen in time. Alternatively, you can remove your tomato plants from the garden roots, fruits, and all and hang them upside down in the garden shed, garage, or basement–away from freezing temperatures. The fruits on these vines will ripen in time as well.

Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. Harvesttotable.com has more than 10 million visitors each year.

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