These tomato seedlings are about two months old. In March, I planted seeds indoors from tomatoes a neighbor gave me last autumn. The plants should produce large, pepper-shaped tomatoes that are mostly meat; I found only about 40 seeds in each of them. I’ll cook these tomatoes into sauce.
If you think of planting a small kitchen garden as a horse race, then most of us are on the home stretch. Despite the unusually cold spring, our cool weather crops are maturing, and we’ve been setting out seedlings of vegetables that thrive in summer heat. For many in hardiness zone 5, planting tomatoes in April or May led to some aggravation this season: frost hit well into May, and we were out in our small kitchen gardens repeatedly, covering our plants with tarps, bed sheets, buckets, flower pots, cloches, or mulch to protect them from the cold. If you were cautious, you might not yet have planted summer crops. That’s OK. There is still plenty of good growing season to come, and now is a great time to finish up your planting.
Plant Tomatoes Now
If you haven’t planted tomatoes, do it as soon as you possibly can. Many varieties of tomatoes require as many as 100 days to mature—from the time you set seedlings in the garden. But I am talking about seedlings. By this I mean plants that are growing in small pots or flats, that are about four to six weeks old, and that haven’t started to flower or grow suckers.
In preparation for planting, I used a “low-till” approach: I removed weeds across a two-foot swath of the planting bed, stretched some yarn to mark the row, and set my potted plants along the row where I intended to plant them. I explained the steps I use to prepare soil in a post titled Small Kitchen Garden Soil-Preparation – 2… but in reviewing that post just now I realize I exaggerated: When planting seedlings, I don’t turn over all the soil in a row; I remove the weeds, then dig individual holes for the seedlings. I turn all the soil in a row only if I’m planting seeds. Crazily, I set seedlings one foot apart in this row – I’ve never planted tomatoes so close, but I’ve seen it done. I hope it doesn’t cause problems.
If you follow planting instructions that come with your plants and seeds, you need to measure two-foot, three-foot, and 18-inch gaps constantly. You can mess with a tape measure, mark up the handles of your gardening tools, use your body parts as guides, or follow my mom’s lead and carve a measuring stick. This is a three-foot-long apple branch. I carved rings in the bark a foot from each end and at the center, making it easy to measure standard plant and row spacings.
In late spring, nurseries might offer older, more developed plants that may be flowering or setting fruit. You can start these in the garden and expect production many weeks earlier than you’ll see with seedlings. I wrote about these concerns in my preceding post How to Plant Tomatoes in Raised Beds. Please look it over for more thoughts about what to look for when shopping for tomato seedlings.
My tomato seedlings are about eight inches tall and the root balls add another three inches. I don’t want to dig foot-deep holes, so I plant my seedlings on their sides. I dig each hole about eight inches deep, and, perhaps, a foot or two across.
If you’re buying seedlings, select ones with short, thick stems. In late spring, your only choices may have skinny, tall stems, but don’t be discouraged; you can compensate for the “legginess.”
This late in the spring (unless you have very long summers), select varieties that mature quickly. Many varieties list 65 or 75 days to maturity; they’ll have more days to provide fruit than varieties needing 100 or more days to mature.
You can plant a seedling still packed in its peat pot, but don’t. Roots wrap around inside the pot and only slowly grow through the peat. To remove a pot – peat or plastic – gently squeeze the pot repeatedly from all sides. Then grasp the tomato plant’s stem and pull the root ball out. If the plant doesn’t leave a peat pot easily, moisten the pot and then tear it off of the root ball. If the roots are cramped, use your thumbs to separate them a smidge; you might tear some, but loosening them will help them adapt quickly to their new home in the garden. Note that I’m adding a scoop of compost to half-fill the hole before I set the seedling in it.
Have you selected determinate or indeterminate varieties? The answer may influence whether you stake your plants, use cages, or let your plants free-range (grow along the ground as they choose). If the tag that comes with the tomato plant doesn’t identify it as determinate or indeterminate, the person selling it should be able to tell you. See the box, What’s Determinate? for an explanation of the differences.
Lay the root ball at one side of the hole and angle the plant’s stem across the bottom of the hole. Bend the stem up so the top three leaves of the plant will be above ground when you fill the hole with soil. Don’t fill the hole even with the level of the garden bed; leave it a smidge low so water will pool around the plant during rain or when you water the garden. Immediately after you plant a seedling this way, it may look unhappy, but it should pep up very quickly.
Consider how you’ll manage your plants. If they’ll grow “free-range,” they’ll need a lot of ground space; a tomato plant might stretch eight or nine feet along the ground, and spread four-to-eight feet from side-to-side. Indeterminate tomatoes lend themselves well to staking. Determinate varieties might do best in cages. Will you tie them to stakes? Will you support them with strings that dangle from overhead wires, pipes, or other trellises? Will you surround them with cages? Read more about managing tomato plants in my post, Are You a Sucker-Plucker?
Let your tomatoes free-range only as a last resort. A free-range tomato plant requires virtually no attention to do well. However, fruits on free-range plants are especially vulnerable. In dry summers, rodents may snack on tomatoes that are close to the ground. And, a tomato resting on the ground invites insects and disease; you’ll get much healthier fruit if you stake or cage your plants to keep the fruits off the ground. I let only my cherry tomatoes and my “volunteers” (plants that grow from seed left in random places by last year’s crop) free-range.
Though planted less than 24 hours earlier with its crown lying on the ground, this tomato seedling has already picked itself up and pointed toward the sky. If I’m staking my tomato plants, I like to get the stakes planted within a week of planting the seedlings. I pound eight-foot stakes about a foot deep, and indeterminate plants always outgrow them.
Tomato plants are a lot like weeds: it’s very hard to destroy them by accident. I once accidentally bent a young tomato stem so it broke about half way through. I tied the plant against a tomato stake, and it grew to maturity, matching its neighboring uninjured plants.
Tomato plants root easily at any point along their stems. So, if your plant hangs down onto the soil, it may put down roots. More importantly: if a seedling is “leggy” you can get it under control by planting most of its stem underground. When you plant younger seedlings, leave only the top three leaves above the surface. The photos in the post demonstrate how to plant a leggy tomato plant without having to dig a deep hole.
Tomato plants are heavy drinkers. They shouldn’t live in soaking wet soil, but they welcome daily deep watering.
Tomato plants do not require daily deep watering. In fact, they grow very well even in arid situations. However, when tomatoes are developing, they’ll come out best when your plants receive regular watering: daily, every other day, every third day… whatever you can handle as long as it’s consistent.
Tomato enthusiasts promote all kinds of watering schemes; they’re all good. I know a grower who punched holes in #10-sized cans, and buried a can next to each tomato he planted… buried it with the can’s open top at soil level. Each day, he filled the can to the top with water; it was “The perfect amount of water for a tomato.” Poke around on the web, and I’m sure you’ll find other such watering schemes. Photo captions in this post explain my very simple watering scheme; a fine solution for a lazy garden.
Vine-ripened, shmine-ripened! Ancient farmers have told me, “A farmer can tell whether a tomato ripened on the vine.” Without scientific investigation, I can authoritatively report: HOGWASH. I wrote a post titled, Are Your Tomatoes a Mess? It explains how to harvest tomatoes with incredibly reliable results, and I stand by it. I’ve harvested tomatoes this way for ten years, and am still awed at how consistently better they are than vine-ripened tomatoes.