Step by Step: Planting tomatoes

Have you planted your tomato seedlings yet? That might sound like a dumb question since it's nearly the first of June but with our crazy weather extremes lately, it's been hard knowing when to go for it.

I planted 4 cherry tomatoes about 10 days ago since the weather seemed like it had settled down. No sooner were they in the ground than the forecast changed with the potential for frosts. It figures. I covered them with floating row cover but one of the plants still got frosted. I think it's going to make it; it just looks a little funky (technical horticultural term). At least the long-range forecast is looking really good at this point so you should be able to get your tomatoes planted if they're not already...

Here are step-by-step instructions for planting tomato seedlings, using the methods I've found successful over the years. Remember that you can click on all of the photos for a larger image.

1) Add either bone meal or an organic tomato/vegetable fertilizer to the soil, at a rate recommended on the label. This will add additional phosphorus to the soil, which promotes 3 very important things: good root growth, flowering and fruit set. Be sure to work it into the first few inches of the soil.

2) Cover the tomato bed with a sheet of red plastic tomato mulch (see 1st photo). This is available locally at Northwest Seed & Pet and other well-stocked garden centers, or online. Either pin it down to the soil using metal pins (if you have such things) or weight it down using rocks, bricks or small boards. I find metal pins work best. The red plastic increases the soil temperature and the amount of light reflected up into the plants, which in turn increases tomato production. I've used it for years now and it really does work.

3) You should also know that we use soaker hoses on the surface of the soil before placing the red plastic onto the top of the bed. This way, the surface of the soil gets watered rather than needing to use an overhead  watering system which wastes water.

4) Note in the first photo that I have a sheet of concrete-reinforcing wire placed vertically for a tomato support, down the middle of the bed. It's been secured with metal stakes (we use 5' lengths of metal conduit). I really like planting on either side of the wire and occasionally using some twine to secure the plants to the wire. Sturdy tomato cages (found at garden centers everywhere) also work well but I find you can squeeze more plants into the bed by using the sheet-of-wire method.

Photo 2
5) Determine where you will need to plant each seedling. I'd recommend a spacing of 18 inches if you're using the wire method above, otherwise about 24 inches between each plant if you're using tomato cages. Cut an "X" into the red plastic with a pair of scissors at each spot where you'll be planting (2nd photo).

6) Dig a hole through the "X" in the plastic that is large enough to hold the plant, and also a few inches deeper than the plant is currently plants in its pot. You'll need to set the soil from the hole on the plastic until the seedling has been planted.
Photo 3

7) While the plant is still in the pot, carefully clip off a few of the lowest branches on the plant's stem (3rd photo). This is because you should to bury the plant a little deep than it was in the pot; this will encourage root growth along the stem which will make for a stronger, more robust plant. Carefully remove tomato plant from pot. It's important NOT to pull on the plant stem when you do it because this damages the plant!

Photo 4
8) If your plant is a little "leggy" -- meaning it outgrew the pot -- you can plant it even deeper (after stripping off some of the lowest leaves) by either digging a deeper hole or dig a really wide hole so you can place the plant's root ball horizontally.

9) Place the plant in the hole and adjust the depth if necessary. Replace most of the soil that you set aside and press down around the plant so there aren't any air pockets next to the roots (4th photo).

10) You'll probably have some leftover soil from digging the hole. Just put it into another bed since the tomato won't be needing it.

11) If your plant is tall enough to require extra support, especially if it's in a windy area, use some jute twine to tie it loosely to the sheet of wire (if you're using that method) or perhaps tie it to a small stake inside the tomato cage to keep it supported until it's strong enough to manage on its own.