Planting tomato seedlings, your own or purchased, is a good opportunity for getting your tomatoes off to a good start. We all want the earliest and sweetest tomatoes but we need to follow some guidelines to do so.
1. Hopefully, you have picked disease resistant tomatoes that meet your other requirements and have set the stage for success.
2. Pick a site in the garden that gives the tomato plants at least 6 (six) hours of sun per day. Tomatoes plants in shadier conditions may grow and produce fruit but they will be spindly and less productive. If you have no choice, go a head and put the plants in the sunniest place possible. We all understand.
3. Watch the temperature and when the night-time temperatures are well above 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius), start planning and planting. Tomatoes are warm weather plants and will not grow well until soil temperatures are above 70 F (21 C). If you are really in to getting the earliest tomatoes you can put black plastic (garbage) bags on the soil where you want to plant the tomatoes and let the solar heat warm the soil.
4. Prepare the soil that tomato plants love:
rich in organic matter
slighly acid (pH6.2-6-8)
(add compost or manure to help to create the first two.)
5. On a shady day or in the evening, plant the tomato plants 2’-4’ apart and deep enough so that the entire stem up to the leaves is under the soil. If you have “leggy” plants make a ditch, lay them horizontally, and cover the stems; they will develop roots all along the stems. Be sure that the roots of the plants are loose, not twisted around the bottom of the root ball.
6. Place stakes or cages (only suitable for determinate tomato plants) in place when you plant as later intrusions into the soil will hurt the roots of the tomato plants.
7. Once the soil and air temperatures have warmed up, mulch the tomato plants with organic mulch such as compost or manure. This will give nutrients to the growing plants as well as improve the moisture retentive qualities of the soil. Resist the temptation to mulch early in the season before the soil warms up as this will only hurt the plants by preventing the sun from warming the soil.
8. As the branches of the plants develop consider nipping off the small branches (suckers) that emerge in the axils (“V’s”) of the branches leaving only one to three at the base of the plant. The suckers compete with the fruit for nutrients, water, and light so you will get larger fruit if you remove them. You don’t need to do this with determinate plants. This pruning is a controversial issue because it also reduces the number of fruit in favor or larger fruit.
9. Check the soil moisture weekly and make sure the tomatoes get 1” of water per week. This is more than you think. But don’t over water or you will incur other problems that reduce yield, like blossom end rot.
10. Harvest tomatoes when they have turned color and are softening. Do NOT store in the refrigerator, as they will lose flavor. This is harder than you think because a huge number ripen at about the same time and you will want to preserve them in the refrigerator. The best thing to do is make a plan that includes friends, family, neighbors, food bank and maybe more, in your grand scheme of things.
Nota Bene (note well): If you have not mulched with organic matter you may want to add a complete fertilizer such as 5-10-10 or 5-20-20 early in the season. Once the plants have set fruit you can add a side dressing of 10-10-10. Resist the temptation to add a high nitrogen fertilizer before fruit set as you will get vigorous vine growth at the expense of fruit production.
I must confess that I am a tomatoholic and so I over start, over plant, and over cultivate tomato plants. In most years I get a huge crop and totally indulge myself in tomatoes (with basil, red onions and a bit of olive oil) and have many to give away. If I don’t get a bumper crop, I am not disappointed because there are usually “enough”. This is really a win-win situation. If you like/love tomatoes, give them a try…you will not be disappointed.
If you would like tips for selecting which tomato plants to grow see: My seven points to ponder when selecting tomato plants.