Everyone has it. The nurseries have been selling tomato starts for weeks already even though it is still so, so early. With the unseasonably warm, dry weather I think we’ve all started getting the garden itch earlier than we normally would.
The last week of March is the earliest I’ll even consider planting tomatoes here. Our average last frost date is February 29th, but I like to play it safe. Along with that, even if frosts end early (or not even show up for the second half of winter like this year) the soil temperature and the nighttime temps won’t be high enough for good tomato success. What you want is nighttime temps to be at least 50 F and the soil temp to be 60 F.
Planting tomatoes can be relatively straight forward – just dig a hole and plop them in the ground. Or you can take a little more care in planting them which will give you bigger, healthier, more productive plants.
First you want to start with a healthy plant that isn’t root bound. If it has flower buds developing it’s probably been in the pot for awhile, has run out of root space and is now trying to reproduce because it believes it has reached it’s full size. Turn the plant over and if you can see roots dangling out of the drainage holes it’s most likely out of space. If the pot it is in is very firm you’ve got a severely root bound plant.
When you pull the plant up out of the pot it is OK to see the roots, but you don’t want them circling the soil medium. This plant has good root development without being root bound. We generally up pot our tomato seedlings into these deep pots planting them as deep as we can so that we start with nice deep root systems like the one above.
While a lot of plants are sensitive to being planted deeper than where they began, tomatoes relish in it. See all the little hairs on the stems? Those can develop into new roots and the deeper you plant the deeper the root system will be. This is beneficial especially this year with the drought because you can focus on deeper, less frequent watering because the roots are deep in the soil. When planting deeply just pinch off the lower leaves and branches before burying it.
If blossom end rot is an issue for you even with proper watering, now is the time to make sure that your tomato (works for peppers and eggplants as well) has access to plenty of calcium. We use either crushed egg shells or oyster shell (the same oyster shell that we feed our chickens). We have some salinity issues in our soil, which effects the ability of the tomato plants to uptake calcium. Sandy soil can also be a problem since it has low water retention.
When planting the tomatoes I dig a deep hole in well amended, loosened soil that can take not only the roots of the tomato, but also the stem that I’ve plucked the leaves and branches from. I then sprinkle a couple tablespoons of oyster or egg shell into the hole and then plant the tomato. The oyster shell will break down over time releasing the calcium for the plant to take up.
Once the plant is in the ground just cover with soil and give it a good watering to reduce transplant shock. Overcast days will also help reduce shock as will handling the roots gently.
Tomatoes generally need support. The standard tomato cage is a pathetic attempt at support. They almost always collapse from the weight of the plant. There are now more sturdy ones but they are really pricey. Instead we use concrete reinforcement fabric which is a welded wire grid that comes in 7′ sheets. We just pull it into cylinder and wire it together. The grid is 4″ square which is a great size for getting your hands in and getting big tomatoes out. They last for years. We still have the first ones we made 8 years ago.
Tomatoes are pretty resilient and don’t need a lot of care, which is probably why they are the #1 garden vegetable grown. But add a few extra steps to planting and you’ll get bigger, more productive plants that can handle the drought with even more resilience.