The Q&A Archives: planting tomatoes

Question: ok , I planted seeds in a 72 cell growing unit and they are all now about 7 inches tall. Can I put them outdoors now and what should I put them in? I have a slight hillside more like a mound but the ground isnt the best. Should I mix in a bunch of topsoil with compost? I know its stupid but I would like to see them all grow. and how to stake all of them? they would be by a fence in a sunny location. Thanks again...dave

Answer: First of all, congratulations on your successful seed sowing adventure! You'll want to set your plants out in the garden after the soil warms and the temperatures remain above 50F. Acclimate your indoor-grown tomato seedlings slowly to their new outdoor home; this lessens the shock to the plant, allowing it to grow at a quicker pace. About a week before setting them out in their permanent garden home, place them outside during the day in a shady or semi-shady location; bring the plants in at night.

While you're acclimating your plants you'll have time to amend the soil in the planting site. I'd spread 3-4 inches of compost or other organic amendment over the top of the entire bed and then dig it down to a depth of 8-10 inches. This will loosen the soil and help it drain quickly. The roots of your plants will appreciate this extra effort and will quickly establish themselves.

Plant tomato transplants when the soil has warmed enough to keep the plant actively growing. Around here, late April or early May is the optimum time to set tomato plants outdoors, unprotected, in a garden area that gets full sun. If you can't wait that long, protect those tender young plants with hot caps, row covers or "Walls of Water" - plastic, cone shaped enclosures that are filled with water which collect heat during the day, slowly releasing it at night.

Plant deeply. Place the tomato deep into the soil, clipping off the lower leaves and leaving only the top leaves and branches exposed. This will cause more roots to develop along the stem, speeding development.

Once they're in the ground, stake them up. Supported tomato plants produce more fruit and are subject to fewer problems than plants that are allowed to sprawl on the ground. One of the best tomato support systems that can be used repeatedly for a number of years include "cages" made from concrete reinforcement wire. A 50-foot roll of this six-inch mesh, five feet-high wire can be cut to make about a half dozen tomato cages, each with a diameter of two to three feet. The six inch mesh allows for easy access at picking time. Stake and tie the cages to the ground, with one stake on either side of the cage. Or, you can use metal garden stakes or ready-made tomato cages.

Water carefully. Tomato plants like water on a regular basis, deeply, once or twice a week. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation work best because they deliver water slowly enough for it to trickle down and wet the entire rootmass. Or, you can build a basin surrounding each plant and flood the basin when it's time to water. Regularly scheduled deep watering reduces plant stress, one of the causes for that mushy, black or brown discoloration on the bottom of tomatoes, called blossom end rot.

Fertilize regularly, but sparingly. Lightly feed the plants every other week with a balanced fertilizer (10-10-10, for example). Use half the recommended dosage. For organic gardens, use fish emulsion, kelp meal and compost.

Hope this information helps you grow the best tomatoes ever!

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