How to Plant Tomatoes (and Get the Best Root System)
Homegrown tomatoes (and basil) are the reason most of us began growing food in the first place. Though some people direct sow their tomato seeds, most begin the season with transplants. Tomato transplants are a little different than other vegetables — there are some simple tricks that can improve their root system and vigor in your garden. This photo tutorial will show you how.
If you just came for the produce pictures, check out How to Increase a “Tomato Problem” (with Gratuitous Photos).
First, decide if you’re going to direct sow from seed or if you would like to use transplants. One factor is your season — you need at least 4 months between your spring frost-free date and your first frost date in the fall in order to successfully direct sow tomatoes. Tomato diseases are another thing to consider. In many areas a head start from transplants will mean that you get a good crop before late summer pathogens attack your plants. Personally, my main reason for using transplants is pests. I find that tall, thick-stemmed transplants are less tempting to slugs, snails, cutworms, and pillbugs than newly emerging fragile seedlings. I often struggle to get direct sown crops to flourish when these species are abundant.
Next, make sure you are planting in an ideal tomato location. Full sun is crucial. If you have 6 hours or less of sun a day you’ll have better luck with small-fruited tomatoes like cherries. Big, flavorful tomatoes need lots of sun and plenty of leaves to photosynthesize with. Loamy soil, high fertility, consistent irrigation, strong support (cages, trellising), and some kind of mulch are also recommended.
Once you’ve decided on seeds or transplants and a planting site you can put them in the ground on or after your area’s frost-free date. In addition to throwing some fertilizer into the planting hole you can give your tomatoes an edge by planting them deeper than they were in their pots. Most vegetables suffer when their crowns are buried too deeply, but tomatoes thrive on it because they can produce roots all along the length of their stems.
If you decided to direct sow from seeds you can still use this method. Instead of seeding on a level garden bed surface, dig a shallow pit (about 6″ deep) and sow your seeds at the bottom of it. Once your seedlings have grown at least 10″ tall you can fill in the soil so that the tomato has a larger length of buried stem. Alternately, you can try leaning a seedling on its side and covering it with soil — but this is risky since tomatoes are often brittle and will snap.
For transplants, the photo tutorial below demonstrates how to plant them in order to maximize root growth. Click on the image to see a larger version.
A thorough list of tomato seed sources can be found here. Transplants are frequently available from farmers markets (they’re a good early season product while farms wait for their summer crops to come in). Also, locally owned feed & seeds usually have better veggie transplant prices than big box stores.