Is it time to plant your tomatoes? Tomatoes are best planted after all danger of a frost has passed. Here in the Mid-Columbia I’ve made a tradition of planting on Mother’s Day. Only once have I had frost nip the plants. But this year my plants are HUGE and begging to be put in the ground. So I am obliging. But there are a few steps to follow for successful planting that will lead to baskets of ripe tomatoes later this summer.
1. Harden off your plants. If your tomato plants have been lounging in a sunny window or in the greenhouse they need to adjust to the cooler outside before being plunked in the ground. You can do this over a period of about a week. It’s like taking your plants on a play date. Leave the tomato plants outside during the day, and bring them in at night for 2 or 3 nights. Then let them stay outside, but not planted in the ground yet, for another 5-7 days. Remember to shelter them from the wind so they don’t snap off, and keep them moist but not soggy.
2. Decide on planting space. Although your plants don’t take up much space right now, before you know it they will be filling in your garden space with strong stems and large foliage. Remember to give each seedling at least one square foot of planting space. More space is fine, less space may result in too much crowding and a lower tomato harvest. Unlike many plants, tomatoes prefer to be planted in the same spot year after year. So if you had good luck last year, go ahead and plant in the same location again this year. If your tomatoes didn’t produce well last year, feel free to find them a new garden location this year. To reduce potential insect damage, don’t plant tomatoes in last year’s potato bed or near this year’s corn bed.
3. Fertilize the soil. Mix in some well matured compost (either home made or purchased) or add a special tomato fertilizer when planting. I have had good luck in the past with Jobs Tomato Stakes. Tomato plants will grow in depleted soil, but for healthy tomatoes the soil needs a good supply of calcium and other minerals. There is nothing more frustrating than losing your ripening tomatoes to blossom end rot! Also, if you have a rainy spell after planting your tomatoes and the leaves start looking a little yellow, another dose of fertilizer or compost will usually fix them right up. It’s like a multi-vitamin for tomato plants.
4. Plant deeply. Remember how we planted our seedlings deeply? (See Starting Tomato Seeds – Step by Step.) We are going to do the same here. Dig a deep hole and plant the step right up to the first leaves if possible. This will help the plant develop additional strong roots. Conversely, you can dig a trench and bury the stem like it’s lounging. The top of the plant will straighten out and grow up towards the sun within a few days. Trenching works best if you have lots of room for your tomato plants.
5. Protect from the elements. Now that your plants are in the ground, they may still need a little protection from wind, rain, and even sun. Some years I cover them with row cover, a tightly woven rayon “blanket” that allows the sun to get through but helps keep the insects out. This year I am using Wall O’ Water (see photo below) to protect my plants against unseasonably cold nights. Wall O’ Water works by the sun heating the water, kind of like making individual greenhouses for each plant. As soon as I get the whole tomato bed planted, I will also add mulch in the form of newspaper and grass clippings to keep the soil moist and the weeds away.
Although I love planting all kinds of vegetables, there is just something magical about tomatoes. I look forward with anticipation to enjoying sweet cherry tomatoes, multi-colored heirloom tomato salad, and meaty paste tomato sauce. What about you? What is your favorite garden plant?