Through the years of this blog I’ve written here and there about tomatoes – which I believe I’ve read are the #1 vegetable planted in backyards across the country – starting them from seeds, slug attacks, dog attacks, how to get them to ripen earlier, crazy tomato covers and ripening them at the end of the growing season. But looking back through old posts I realized that I’ve never done a planting tutorial – and such a popular plant deserves it’s own post, don’t you think?
Especially because I’ve now been planting tomatoes for almost 20 years (eek! how is this possible?) and there are a few tips and tricks I’ve learned through the years that I’m happy to share. Some are tried-and-true techniques and some I just stumbled upon by accident, but all result in healthy plants that produce what we’re all after – juicy and delicious ripe tomatoes.
Here’s how to plant tomatoes and have them thrive:
- I use raised beds in our garden as part of my easy care design, but to be able to plant your tomatoes out as soon as possible it’s almost essential that they be in a raised bed or container of some sort. Even if it’s just raised rows in a traditional bed (that you don’t till) it will help, because the ground will be dryer and warmer.
- I’m including Amazon links mainly so that you can see examples of what I’m talking about, though many of these items are easily found at garden centers (though if you buy from Amazon through AOC, you do help support the site at no cost to you, so thank you if you do!)
1. Prepare your soil. Add a 3-4 inch layer of compost, preferably one that contains some additional natural fertilizer (I buy a load of “barnyard compost” from our local garden products company). Use a garden fork to turn in the top layer in places – you don’t have to do a total turn over of the bed, just enough to mix it up a bit here and there and then smooth with a rake.
2. Lay a soaker hose down, snaking it around the bed (hold with garden staples if needed) – here’s a link to the type I use (round, not flat) on Amazon. Consistent, even watering is the key to tomatoes with less blossom-end rot, less splitting and more evenly sized.
3. Cover the bed with red or black plastic and cut holes for plants at your desired spacing. Red plastic “mulch” (Amazon link) has been shown to increase ripe tomato yield by 20% (read more here) and black plastic helps to warm soil and deter weeds. I’m all about the tomatoes, so red plastic is part of my steps to get tomatoes earlier. Both, however, help retain water and keep the ground more evenly moist. With soakers and a plastic mulch, you will only need to water once every 4-7 days, depending on the weather. I space tomatoes in this raised bed at 2 to 2-1/2 feet apart.
4. Water seedlings well before planting. I’ve read that one of the best ways to ensure the success of newly planted vegetable (or flower) starts is to water them well in the pots about an hour before planting. Water them first and then start preparing the holes to give them the best chances to thrive. Note that my home-grown seedling in the photo is really lanky and doesn’t look all that healthy – it doesn’t matter as much with tomatoes (peppers are a different story…) because we can bury all the stem and it will grow roots, creating a really healthy plant. Moral? Don’t throw out sad looking tomato starts because you think you did something ‘wrong’ – you’ll be surprised how well they do for you!
5. Dig a trench or deep hole. You want to bury the stem as far as possible (preferably up to the first leaves), so dig the deepest hole you can.
6. Add about a 1/3 c. of organic fertilizer to the hole/trench and mix into the soil (or use recommended amount on package).
7. Plant tomato seedlings…deep. With a trench dug about 5-inches deep for taller tomatoes, place the root ball at one end and the leafy top ending at the point you want the plant to grow (in this case, though your hole in the plastic). If using a hole, place the root ball at the bottom and fill in around stem with soil.
8. Firm soil around tomato, mounding it right up to the stem. I’m not gonna lie, it’s not as easy to plant in and around the plastic – but be careful not to tear it and just remind yourself that the plastic will make your watering life easier…
9. Stake and tie tomato stem. Insert a stake and loosely tie the stem to it as high up as possible to keep the tomato off the ground (and away from critters and standing water). I didn’t do this for many years, thinking the tomato cages were enough support, but the year that I started staking, my tomatoes got a better start and were stronger.
10. Place cages around tomatoes. Be careful to avoid the soaker hose and gently lift the seedling through the cage.
These are the 10 steps to plant your tomatoes, and if you live in a warmer climate than I do here in the Pacific Northwest, you can call it done. If your weather will still be on-and-off rain for the next month like ours (with occasional lows into the upper 30s even) you’ll want to provide some protection. Wall O Waters work great for a few plants, but when you’ve got a lot planted like my big beds it takes too long to fill all the little water channels (ask me how I know…) so I’ve devised the following method to help the tomato seedlings along.
An easy method to add protection for early planted tomato seedlings that WORKS:
1. Fill gallon jugs with water, cap and place down the center of the tomato bed (or rows). These act as little solar ‘heaters’ providing just a bit more warmth after the bed is covered.
2. Cover the tomato cages with a spun row cover (I use something similar to this cover). Just clip the cover to the cages with clothespins and make sure all the sides and tops are covered. I use rebar pieces to hold the sides down on top of the soil, but rocks or pieces of wood will work as well. You want to make sure it can’t be blown off in the wind.
3. Check the seedlings occasionally to make sure all is well (and bait for slugs if you need to!) and when the weather is starting to warm up you can gradually ‘wean’ the plants from the cover by opening the top for a week or so before removing the cover completely when your nightly lows are staying in the 50-60 degree range.
This row-cover method may not win any beautiful garden prizes, but you can’t argue with the results I’ve had even in the nastiest of spring weather (sometimes hail, frost, and LOTS of rain):
By mid-July the tomatoes are growing strong and are full of green tomatoes that we’re usually able to start harvesting early to mid August (you can see a full mid-July tour of the vegetable garden here). Love it!
So – how do you like to plant your tomatoes? Any tips to share?
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