Planting Tomatoes: Tips and Techniques

Planting tomatoes is easy, and can make for an enjoyable day in the garden.

For best success, learn how to plant your tomato seedlings properly.

And learn how to decide when the time is right for planting tomato plants.

Both are important, and both are easy...

When to Plant Tomatoes

Choosing the right time to plant tomatoes – or any gardening crop – is important.

Too early, and you risk losing your plants to freeze damage. But the later you wait, the less production you’ll get.

So just when is the right time for tomato planting?

Usually, you’ll want to plant at around the time of the last average frost date in your area.

By planting at this time, you’ll still be at risk of suffering some freeze damage, but if you’re prepared to provide frost protection, you’ll probably be OK.

The only way to completely avoid the risk of freeze damage is to wait until the last historic frost date for your area. But you’ll be getting quite a late start to your tomato season that way.

Of course, if you are growing your own tomato seedlings, then you’ll have effectively already made the decision on when to plant based on when you started the seed.

You still have some flexibility. Just because the tomato seedlings are X days old doesn’t mean you have to plant TODAY, regardless of the conditions.

So you’ll want to be sure that a freeze or monsoon isn’t in the forecast for the next several days. 

How to Prepare Your Garden for Planting Tomato Plants 

When you’re picking a spot for your tomatoes, remember that tomatoes need lots of sunlight and lots of water. So ideally, you’ll want to pick a spot that gets full sun, and one that’s reasonably close to a source of water (hauling water to your plants by the bucketful will get old very quickly!).

And if you’re using the same plot of ground each year for your garden, as most of us are, keep track of what grows in each location yearly. That way, you can avoid growing the same crop in the same spot in consecutive years. Rotating your crops really can help in the eternal fight against pests and diseases.

With your plot selected and laid-out, you’re ready to prepare your garden soil for tomatoes.

While preparing your soil for tomatoes, you’ll have 3 primary concerns: Soil pH, soil nutrients and the level of organic matter in the soil. The closer you can get to perfect for each of those criteria, the more productive your tomatoes will be.

The ideal soil pH for tomatoes is about 6.5 to 7. But it’s best to have your pH tested and adjusted long before planting time. Taking care of this in the fall before spring planting is ideal. (Click these links for more info about garden soil pH, testing soil pH , and raising or lowering the pH of your soil.)

Giving specific advice about adjusting the level of nutrients and organic matter for your soil is difficult because each garden is different. Your garden soil may be sand, heavy clay, or somewhere in between. You might have high levels of certain nutrients in your soil, or very little. You might have lots of organic matter or almost none.

And whether you prefer to use organic or synthetic fertilizers will also factor in to determining the types and quantities of amendments and fertilizers you add to your soil.

That’s why it’s a great idea to have your soil tested by a lab before you start planning your garden. That way you’ll know specifically what’s in your soil, and what you need to add.

In general, though, tomatoes like lots of organic matter in the soil. So working 1 or 2 inches of organic matter into the top foot of soil may be very helpful. Compost and well-rotted manure are great organic amendments (don’t use fresh manure unless you’re preparing the soil several weeks ahead of time). Peat moss can also be used as an organic amendment, but it’s very acidic so you won’t want to use it if you’re trying to raise the pH of your soil.

If you’re applying a synthetic fertilizer, choosing one with a lower nitrogen number (the first number), a high phosphorus number (the middle number) and a somewhat high potassium number (the last number) will probably be best (again, that’s just guesswork without knowing the nutrient levels in your soil). So a fertilizer analysis such as 8-32-16 might work well for you. (Excess nitrogen is liable to leave you with lots of foliage and very little tomato production.)

If you don’t have a soil test to guide you, plan on working about 2 to 3 pounds of fertilizer (such as 8-32-16) into the soil for every 100 square feet when you’re preparing your soil for planting.

Here are some general tips for garden soil preparation

How to Plant Tomatoes 

Once you’ve got your plot laid out, and the soil prepared, most of the hard work is done! The actual planting of the tomato plants is the easiest part of the process.

You’ll use one of two methods for planting tomatoes:

The Trench Method:

If your tomato plants are lanky, leggy and spindly, use the trench method. Rather than digging a hole, you’ll dig a trench.

Make the trench about 2 to 3 inches deep, and dig it at roughly a 30 degree angle rather than horizontal. Gently strip the leaves off of the lower part of the stem, leaving just the top 5 or 6 inches of leaves.

Place the bare portion of the stem in the trench (the rootball end will be angling downward, of course), fill in with soil and gently tamp it down.

Be especially careful as you’re tamping the soil down around where the stem emerges from the ground. Since the stem is bending where it emerges from the soil, at would be easy to break or kink if you tamp the soil down too hard.

Using the trench method of planting tomatoes takes advantage of the fact that tomato plants will grow roots out of their stem when the stem is buried. This will get your plant off to a quicker start.

The Hole Method:

If your plant is not particularly tall or leggy, just dig a hole deep enough so that the top of the root ball will be covered by about an inch of soil.

Be certain that the root ball is completely buried. If any part of the root ball is exposed to the air, it could dry out very quickly, killing the roots. 

And Before You Start Planting...

  Before planting tomatoes, of course, you’ll want to be sure to take them out of the container they’re growing in. (If the plants are growing in peat pots you can plant them container and all).

Once they’re planted, be sure to water the plants in thoroughly by giving the soil a good soaking. And for the first several days you’ll want to water frequently until the plants are able to establish a strong root system. 

Tomatoes on the Way!

If you’ve done everything right in the process of planting tomatoes and if nature is kind, you could be chowing down on your own tasty, juicy homegrown tomatoes in just a couple of months.

I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you! 

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