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.

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7 Comments

  1. I live in central fla and like to grow tomatoes. I keep trying the heirlooms over the hybrids but the results have been dismal. This year a purchased eight pink brandywine plants that have grown to about five feet tall. When the were about a foot tall the all had blooms but they all fell off and only two of the eight plants have fruit. I had my soil tested and added the proper amendments of lime and a balanced 666 fertilizer. Help.

    • Tomato blossom drop can happen with night or day temperatures are too low–in the 40s or too high, warmer than 85F. Brandywine tomatoes will flower again and again and eventually you will get pollination. When the plants are flowering, given each plant a little shake, this will help the pollen drop and pollinate the ovaries–tomatoes have self-pollinating flowers.

    • Your tomato plant has flowered at exactly the time that all of the conditions were right for flowering–that is air and soil temperature, amount of sunlight, soil nutrients, and moisture. Plants are very dependent on the surrounding environmental factors. They will flower when all is right. Of course, that does not mean that they have flowered soon enough to reach maturity and harvest. Depending upon where you live and when the first frost will arrive your plant could be flowering right on time for harvest in 55 to 100 days (depending on the variety) or it could be late (if frost is coming sooner than 50 to 100 days). If chilly nights or frost comes before the fruits reach full size, you will have to cover the plants with a clear plastic tunnel or frame to keep the plants and fruits warm enough to reach harvest.

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