Tomatoes are the mainstay of almost every backyard vegetable garden and our garden is no exception. Our plans this year include eating all we can while they are fresh, canning them in various forms as well as selling some at farmers’ market. We have planted several varieties of tomatoes that we plan to put in our garden this year.
Planting Tomato Seeds
I plant tomatoes differently than I plant other annual vegetables from seed. I have a special way that I start them that helps me grow strong healthy tomato plants with deep root systems. This year I discovered that I like growing them in peat pots which will be easier to transplant and cause less stress to the tomato plants than growing them in plastic pots would. Instead of planting them in a small planting cell, I like to plant them in quart-size pots and fill only half of the pot with soil. I then plant tomato seeds in the pot and cover the pot with a plastic bag. I then put the planted pot on a heating mat. Within a few days, the tomatoes begin the germinate.
After the seed germinates, I put the small plant under grow lights and let the plant grow. Once the plant has its first true leaves, I start adding more soil to the pot around the young seedling. As the plant grows, I add more soil around the stem of the plant until I have filled up the entire container. New roots will start growing around the stem of the plant. Once you have a nice plant above the rim of the pot and the danger of frost has passed, it’s time to prepare your plants to plant outdoors.
Don’t confuse ‘hardening off’ with ‘dampening off’. Dampening off is a fungal disease. Hardening off is a process in preparing your plants for planting outdoors. Plants grown indoors have been treated delicately as they grew, but when we put them outdoors, they are exposed to things they don’t get exposed to indoors like heavy rains, strong sunlight, and drying winds. Hardening them off toughens them over a week or so. By doing this they can better handle what nature throws at them. If you take plants straight out of your home or greenhouse to plant them into the garden, they don’t have a good chance of surviving the transplant. They will start by wilting badly and going into shock. Their leaves can turn white from being sunburned. You’ll slow down their growth or worse, kill them.
You’ll need to have a way to take your plants in and outside because in the next several days you will be doing just that. A strong tray or box works well for this purpose. I use cookie sheets that I picked up at a local secondhand store. Also, you will need a place to put your plants where it will offer shade at least part of the day and where they will be protected from the wind.
The hardening off process will take you between a week and ten days to accomplish. Start by placing your plants in the shaded area. Keep them outdoors for between 30 minutes and up to four hours. On the second day, increase the time your plants are outdoors by an hour. On the following day, put them in a location where they have some filtered sun and increase your time by another hour. Continue increasing the hours outdoors and exposure to sunlight by an hour every day. If a cold snap prevents you from taking your plants outdoors, you may need to start the process all over again or add a few days to the process. This depends, of course, on how cold and how long the cold snap lasted. On the last day or so before transplanting, put the containers in the garden where you plan to transplant the plants and leave them there all day. If they don’t show any signs of distress, they are ready to transplant into the garden.
While hardening off, put extra water in the plant reservoir and increase exposure to breezes as well.
How to Transplant Tomatoes
When I plant tomatoes in the garden, I plant them differently than I do other plants to produce strong root systems and increase production.
I have learned that it is important to put the support structures into the area where I am putting in the tomato plants before planting the tomatoes. This prevents damage to the plant roots. The only exception to this would be tomato cages which you would put in immediately after planting and do your best to avoid severing the roots with the cage.
Once you’ve hardened off your plants, you’re ready to transplant them into the garden. You shouldn’t plant your tomato plants to the same depth as the pot in which they were growing. Instead, remove all but the top cluster of leaves and plant the tomato plant up to that top cluster. Before planting, however, you’ll want to remove any flowers or small fruit that may already be forming. This may seem counterproductive, but at this stage of the plant’s growth, energy must be concentrated on the plant’s roots for the best production from the tomato plants. The stronger the root system, the more resilient the plant. If you live in an area that lacks rainfall and is hot, plant tomato plants deep. If you live in an area where rain falls regularly and the temperatures don’t cause soil to overheat, plant them so that the roots spread out sideways along or in front of the bed.
Dig the hole for the tomato plant in the way that you intend to plant it. Now, In the bottom of that planting hole, put a dusting of powdered kelp. Sprinkle in some worm castings, as well, if you have them. The kelp will ensure that the tomato plant gets the nutrients needed to prevent blossom end rot and the worm castings will provide nitrogen in the root zone will give them a boost for growth right after transplanting.
Water the bottom of the planting hole and then put the tomato plant into the hole. Because my tomatoes are planted in the peat pots, I can bury them pot and all. Cover the plant’s stem with soil up to the leaf cluster at the top of the plant. Again, water over the entire area where the plant is buried. Keep the soil around the plant moist until you see new growth on the plant then water deeply once per week, or let the rain do it for you, at the rate of one inch per week. It is important to maintain even watering of your tomato plants especially during dry weather to prevent your tomatoes from splitting when it does rain.
When you see new growth in the leaves on the tomato plant, mulch around the plant as well to help keep the tomato plant’s moisture from evaporating. Mulch also prevents rain or irrigation water from splashing onto the plants which can cause blight to spread from the soil onto your plants.
Through the Season Maintenance
Once you have your tomato plants established with a great root system, you’ll be in maintenance mode. Much of what you have already done will ensure that you have healthy plants that shouldn’t have as many problems during the growing season. Some of the other things that you’ll be doing, while you’re maintaining the plants, will be tying up the plants so that they are not laying on the ground, watching for pests, weeding, mulching, and watering until your tomato crop comes in. I’ll be sharing more on this in the coming weeks. Until then, happy gardening!
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