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It is that time of the year, where it is time to transplant your tomato seedlings into their final spot for the summer growing season. In this article, I will share with you how to transplant tomato seedlings. If you need a tutorial on how to plant tomato seed, please see my article Seed Sowing 101: Planting Tomato Seed. I will show you how to plant tomato seedlings in pots, the traditional way in the ground, or how to plant them in the ground in trenches.
Before moving your tomato seedlings to their permanent location outdoors, they need to be hardened off. This means that they are slowly and gradually allowed to accustom themselves to real outdoors conditions rather than the sheltered and stable indoor conditions that they have been growing in from seed. Start by moving your seedlings outdoors into a sheltered area, away from wind and hot direct sun, for an hour or two the first day. Three to four hours the second day, increasing the time by a little bit more each day until they have been outside all day. Same goes for exposing them to full hot sun. Don’t move them from the sheltered location, into a full day of hot hot sun. They will get sun scald and may go into shock. Slowly allow them to become accustomed to the direct sun as well.
Once the seedlings have been hardened off, it is time to prepare them for their transplanting. Prior to transplanting your tomato seedlings, give them a good drink of water. I always water my tomato seedlings in trays from the bottom. By giving them a good drink ahead of time, this will help prevent them from struggling, or going into shock, right after they have been moved. Also, remove all the extra lower leaves, just leaving the top two clusters of leaves. At planting time, you will want to bury as much stem as possible, as the tomatoes will grow new roots along the lower stem and from the leaf nodules where you removed leaves, to make for a stronger plant. I just use my thumb finger nail and pinch those leaves off as close to the stem as possible. Be careful not to bend or fold the main stem while doing this.
I live in a cool, short growing season here in the Pacific Northwest. Because of this, I plant my tomatoes in pots because it allows the plants to get warmer, roots and all, which they like. If you are planting into the ground, make sure to choose an area you have not grown night shades in for the last 3 or 4 years. Nightshades include tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplants. Make sure the area gets a full day of sun and that the soil is well draining, and mix in some good compost. Plan to space your tomatoes at least 24″ apart, more space is better. They need good air circulation around each plant.
I’m going to talk about this option for a minute because a lot of people are unfamiliar with it. Trench planting your tomatoes is exactly how it sounds. Traditional planting of a tomato plant into the ground, consists of digging a deep hole and dropping your tomato plant down 12-18″ into the hole. For trench planting, you dig a shallow trench the length of the main stem + the root ball of the plant, about 6-8″ down. Place the supplements down at the bottom of this trench, along the length of it. Sprinkle 1-2″ of soil over the supplements. Then you will lay your tomato plant down into the trench on it’s side, holding the top cluster of leaves above the soil by bending them slightly upwards.
Than bury the entire stem and root ball with soil. This allows for the entire root system of the plant, to be closer to the surface, therefore WARMER. If you live in a cooler climate like I do, this is critical for growing a good crop of tomatoes. If you live in a HOT DRY DESERT climate, this is not a good idea, as the roots will dry out in no time.
I like to use pots that are 4-5 gallons in size for my tomatoes. To get them ready for planting, I wash them all well. Then I sanitize all my pots by dipping them in a bleach/water solution in a large plastic bin. To sanitize, I put in a couple of inches of water and maybe 2 cups of bleach. Than dip each pot in and roll it in the bleach/water solution, than let it air dry in the sun. For potting soil, I prefer to use Organic Miracle Grow Moisture Control Potting Soil which I buy at Costco. It helps to prevent the pots from drying out too quickly and I have had great success with it. You might wonder where to get pots, as buying them is money that I’d rather use elsewhere. I’ve gotten most of my pots for free, utilizing local Facebook homesteading and gardening groups. Or look for Buy Nothing type groups or on Craigslist. You can often find people giving them away for free!
For either the ground or the planting pot, I mix in 2 TBSN’s of organic vegetable fertilizer, 1 TBSN of Epsom salts, and 1 TBSN of crushed eggshells. See my article How to Use Egg Shells in the Garden If planting in a pot, fill the pot about 1/4-1/3 full with the potting soil you are using, add all these supplements, and mix well. Make sure the supplements are a few inches below where the actual plant will be, whether you are planting in a hole or in a trench.
Whether you are planting in a pot or in the ground, at this point it is the same. First, dig a hole, deep enough for the majority of the stem and root ball to be planted. Put the supplements in the bottom of the hole and mix well into the soil. Place the plant gently into the hole, and gently add soil to bury it while you hold the plant upright. If planting in a pot, leave a good 2″ at the top free of soil. This is so when watering, the water will stay inside the pot and not run off the top surface. If planting into the ground, mulch around the base of the plant to help keep the soil from drying out quickly.
It is a good idea to provide some type of support for your tomato plant to climb at this point. Don’t wait until the roots have spread and risk damaging the plant by pounding a stake in later. Do it now. There are many many methods for supporting the tomato plant. I will have to do another post on this now come to think of it! There are tomato cages, the string method, home made tomato supports of all kinds. Think about what you plan to use before you transplant them so you will have the supplies you need on hand.
After planting, give a good deep watering to help get all those new roots growing. Then water regularly, waiting until the top 1″ or so of soil is dry. If you wait too long, and water sporadically, this will cause your ripening fruit to split. I then mix a solution of water, Epsom salts and fish emulsion fertilizer (one TBSN of each per gallon of water) and spray on the plants once a month using a garden sprayer. Spray early in the day on a cloudy day. This allows the plants have time to dry before the cooler evening air sets in. If sprayed on a sunny day, the solution can burn the plant. I do this fertilizing all the while the plants are flowering to set new fruit. Later in the season, when there is more fruit setting than flowers flowering, I let up on the fertilizing.
This is how I have been transplanting my tomatoes for a number of years with great success. I hope that it works for you just as well. If you have any further questions, please let me know in the comments. Thanks so much for stopping by, I wish you all a very plentiful tomato harvest this year!Tamara