Want to know how to plant a tomato plant? The process seems straightforward. Dig a hole, stick the plant in the opening, back fill it, and POOF! You’re done.
That’s the short version. But my guess is that you’d like to have the healthiest, most productive tomato plants possible. With just a bit of TLC on the front end, you can give your plants the best chance of rewarding you with an amazing crop.
And there’s good news for enthusiastic gardeners who can’t wait for growing season. Many of the steps for how to plant a tomato plant successfully have less to do with the planting process than with the preparation. Give yourself a bit of time on the front end. Here’s how to plant a tomato plant with success.
If you need a quick-and-dirty version of how to plant a tomato, follow these steps.
But to be best prepared and do a thorough job, read on.
Here are some frequently asked questions that address details about planting a tomato plant.
In early spring your fingers are itching to get into the soil. Accommodate them. Use a tiller or spade to turn the soil in in your garden area. Remove debris. Cart away mummified fruit and stalks from last season, particularly if your crop presented with disease, wilt, fungus, or any kind of blight. You don’t want those spores or bacteria remaining in your garden if you can help it.
Conduct a soil test to ensure an even balance between nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Where necessary, add amendments. And check your soil’s pH. Tomatoes grow best in slightly acidic soil – optimum is 6.5 -7.0.
Cover the planting area with a thick coat of compost. Use a tiller, hoe, or spade to work it into the soil. Break up clumps so that soil is a fine texture.
Tomatoes are heat lovers. You’ll fare best when you plant them after the ground has warmed and after all chance of frost has passed.
Even though you’re not Mother Nature, you can help the process along. Several weeks before planting, spread garden fabric, black plastic sheets, or dark weed barrier over your planting area. The sun will heat the covering and seep through to the soil. This step benefits your tomato plants in a few ways.
Know your gardening zone and the last expected frost date in your area. Be sure to wait to plant tomatoes until after all threat of freeze or frost has passed for your designated area. In fact, it’s best to postpone planting tomatoes for 10-15 days or more – up to four weeks – after your local extension’s recommended last frost date, especially if you haven’t been able to help warm your soil.
The best conditions for planting tomatoes: warm and overcast. That satisfies the tomato plant’s heat-loving tendencies. And a bit of cloud cover helps along your tomato plant by reducing extra stress as it moves from seed sprouting containers to its new home in your garden.
Plant tomatoes in the afternoon once the heat of the day has passed. This will allow them to adjust overnight before facing the blazing sun the next day.
About 7-10 days before planting, begin the process of hardening off your tomato seedlings. Set them outside for a few hours each day, first in a protected or shaded area. Gradually leave seedlings outside for increasing length of time and in brighter areas. Hardening off prepares seedlings for the shock of transplanting.
On the day you plant tomatoes, water the seedlings deeply – ideally at least an hour before setting them in the ground.
Tomato Dirt best recommendation: allow at least 24-36 inches in between each tomato plant.
Indeterminate vining tomato varieties can grow quite tall – up to 7-10 feet or more, especially if they are staked. But they also grow wide. And bush varieties need even more space in between plants. When you give tomato plants room, you allow air to circulate which prevents the spread of diseases. The space also allows you to get in between plants to pick tomatoes when they ripen.
You can dig individual holes for each plant. Or you can create a trench in order to plant tomatoes sideways. This is a good option if your tomato seedlings are leggy.
To dig individual holes, follow the standard planting rule of thumb in gardening – “dig a twenty-dollar hole for a two-dollar plant.” If you’ve prepared the area well, then the soil will be loose. Dig holes that are two-thirds the depth of the entire tomato plant, including the root ball.
To dig trenches for trench planting, dig a channel that is 4-6 inches deep and long enough to accommodate the number of tomatoes you want to plant (plus at least 24-36 inches or more in between each one.)
Plant tomatoes deeply. About two-thirds of the plant should go into the ground, to include the root ball and most of the stem – up to the lowest set of leaves. That’s one reason trench planting works so well for leggy tomatoes. You can lay the plant’s stem sideways in the trench and cover it with soil. It will root from any part of the stem that is beneath the soil.
At the very least, add a handful of compost or composted manure. But you can also add other amendments to enrich the soil, such as:
Once you add any extra amendments to the soil, work them into the soil at the bottom of the hole or trench. Then …
Yes! Fill the hole or trench at least halfway with water. Allow water to be absorbed into the soil before setting the seedling in the hole or trench.
Insert stake into the ground about 3-6 inches from the base of the tomato seedling, just after planting. This will allow you to set support in place before the plant begins to spread its roots, preventing future root damage.
Place stake on north side of plant so stake won’t shade the tomato. The stake should extend at least four feet high above the soil surface – preferably 7-8 feet since plants can grow to be quite tall. Wait to tie plants to stakes until first flowers appear. This encourages the main stem to grow strong.
Wait until the soil has warmed to mulch tomato plants – about 2-5 weeks after setting plants in the garden. Tomatoes like heat. The soil needs to warm before adding layers.
There’s one exception. If you’ve set out sheet plastic weed block or black plastic to warm the soil early in the spring, then you needn’t wait to mulch tomato plants. The soil temperatures have already warmed, thanks to the fabric or plastic covering the garden surface.
For the first 7-10 days after you plant, keep a daily watch on your newly-planted seedlings. If temperatures are hot, provide shade in the middle of the day. Give each plant at least a quart of water each day, more if the weather is especially warm. And watch your seedlings grow into healthy, productive plants.
More on Planting Tomato Plants
By Kathy Widenhouse, award-winning writer and owner of Tomato Dirt, a leading online source for growing tomatoes and using them.
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