Tomato Planting Tips & Techniques

The young Planet Natural blogger was instructed by his grandfather long ago to put the most tomato stems beneath the soil as much as possible during transplanting. This encouraged vigorous, new roots. In the meantime, I’ve been planting tomato seeds from nurseries or my basement (under T5 fluorescents) and in the same way since.

Grandpa, who was always a great teacher, was able to point out the refined, short hairs that grew on the stem of the tomato and explained that when they were underground, they would grow lateral roots (though I’m sure that he didn’t mention the word “lateral”). Since that time, I’ve told numerous kids the exact story.

However, I’ve had enough experience with tomato roots that they typically don’t produce a productive tap root. Even putting the stem down in the soil after getting rid of all but a handful of “true” leaves and their stems does not seem to result in a long tap root with many branches running horizontally through the soil.

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At the bottom of the plant stem is a tangle of almost woody roots with occasional runners pushing out. It’s not how we’ve thought of tomato roots since our grandpa taught us how to transplant. We’ve imagined an extended tap root with lateral roots pushing out horizontally at intervals of various lengths.

There’s an easy explanation. The tomatoes directly planted in the garden from seeds develop taproots. Tomatoes planted in pots and then transferred into gardens (or in a bigger pool and later in the park) are left with a cluster root that does not grow as deep as it’s within the planter.

Growing tomatoes from seeds directly in the garden isn’t a good solution. Our growing time is short. However, we’ve had a few experiences placing tomato seeds directly in your garden in California, even though it was in a cloudy, coastal climate. We also have learned a few things.

The tomatoes we grew from seeds and planted in the sunniest areas of our garden almost always developed into unripe fruits at the same time when the season began. Pulling the plants up to examine the root structure at the season’s close was an excellent way to confirm our theories.

After some help with some detailed information, we realized that the reason why direct-sown seeds matured in tandem was likely due to the types of roots transplants possessed versus those we started directly from sources.

A tap root with multiple lateral sources isn’t just a better base for plants but will provide more moisture throughout the critical time of growth before the appearance of blossoms.

What does this mean for those of us who cannot sow tomato seeds directly in the garden due to living in the mountains of the west and the northern climes that have a short season? It means that when we transplant, it is important to disturb the plant’s roots to the minimum extent feasible. Our old method of transplanting tomatoes from the small starter pots at about three or four inches tall to larger banks in which they can reach the height of 10 inches is now an old-fashioned practice.

Of course, an inch taller plant gives a central stem, which can be trimmed from shorter branches that reach the top of two or three leaves and still have plenty of attachment into the hole. We’ve laid plant stems in a different direction within the spot where we planted them to allow for their length. We gently turn the stems upwards as we add soil, letting nature take its course while the plant grows straight and tall, with only the slightest change of direction when it emerges from the ground.

We’ve observed throughout the years that taller tomato plants don’t develop much faster than those only four inches or less. We, therefore, start our tomatoes indoors later than the majority of our neighbors, as much as about five or six weeks ahead instead of 8 or more weeks before transplanting them into the garden after the soil gets warmer. It also prevents the roots from clumping up as much in the pot they are starting. They don’t have time.

Each time we transplant, we hit the roots with a shock and put them back. They’re more likely to form a shallow entanglement than dig as deep as possible. The best compromise — and the most effective option is to disturb your roots in the least amount you can when it’s time to plant in the garden. Containers that can be planted directly into the soil are ideal.

If our tomato plants with more minor starts contain more than three or two sets of true leaves, we trim them off, careful not to cut the stem. Then, we put the plant to the last leaves. The way our grandfather taught us.

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