I hear often that growing amazing tomato plants is a right of passage into the garden world. Do it well and you can grow just about anything.
Do I believe this? Not really. I think there are much harder things to grow well in the garden, however, I suppose that depends on where you live. For me, what’s hard to grow changes every year with the weather. One must learn to be flexible so you can adapt to the ever changing climate.
Now before you get all climate change on me. That is not what I was implying. Our local climate changes all the time. Some years are extra rainy and humid, others dry as…. something that’s really dry. There are years where winter ends late and we jump right into 90 degree weather; others where we barely get above 80 all summer and fall comes early. All of this makes a difference in how well a certain crop will perform. The key is to know how to care for them and when to plant.
So let’s talk about tomatoes a bit today. I’ve spent the last couple of days re-potting my tomato starts one last time before they will make their way to their final spots in the garden for summer.
Tomatoes love warm weather, but not too hot. If you live in the heat of the deep south, know that you may want to plant your tomatoes NOW. Sorry, did that sound like yelling? Okay good, that’s what I was going for. If your soil is warm and your days are warm, plant now. And please, go find some baby plants at a nursery and plant those instead. You’ll have much better luck. Here in Minnesota Zone 4 I have about a month before I will plant mine out the end of May.
Now, I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty of growing tomatoes today, but I am going to show you the process of re-potting them. This technique can be applied to the plants when you place them in the garden as well.
Tomatoes will grow roots everywhere. And I mean everywhere.
On particularly humid summers, I will find roots growing from the middle of the plant, five feet in the air. That being said, a strong root system is incredibly important if you desire a hefty harvest. Tomatoes are very heavy feeders and obviously, the larger the root system, the more nutrients your plant can take in. It’s also handy if you are interested in cloning the plant you are currently growing so you have another one for later in the season but that is an entirely different topic.
These are my baby tomato plants before potting them up. When I start my seeds, to save space, I plant three to four in a single module. Now, I know someone will ask, “Why don’t you just plant one and then you don’t have to transplant them?” The answer to that is simple. I would be transplanting them to another pot anyway so why not get more plants for that initial investment of time.
Notice the long leggy stems (my apologies on the blur of a picture)? Those stems will grow roots if we plant them down into the soil. Once buried, roots will begin to form all along the stem resulting in a much stronger plant. The first step is to gently coax a plug of tomatoes out of the tray and separate them from each other. Take care not to damage the root systems as you do this. I gently push on the soil until it begins to loosen significantly and then you can easily pull them apart.
Then you want to take that little baby plant, place it down into the larger space, whatever that may be, and gently cover it with soil. I typically leave about an inch between the top of the soil and the first set of leaves.
When should you begin this process?
If you are starting from seed inside, I typically try to do this when they have one or two sets of true leaves. I just prefer this. I have more stem to bury, they are easier to handle and they don’t seem to get as leggy in the future. Sooner than this and they don’t have much of a root system established; much later and they are a little harder to separate. That being said, sometimes life gets in the way and it needs to be done a little sooner or a couple week late.
If you are starting from seeds, re-potting once should be sufficient and the next time you move them will be to the garden. Say for some reason the weather doesn’t allow you to get them planted out before they start getting too large, you can repeat this process into a larger pot if needed. If you purchased plants from me or another local nursery, you can follow this same process when you plant them in your garden.
Simple as that! When I’m growing from seed indoors, I love to add a little Dr. Earth Liquid 3-3-3 fertilizer at watering time. Just know it smells awful, but it’s so good for them. If you get it on your hands, I find a lemon soap works wonders.