Get your tomato plants off to a healthy start with these smart suggestions.
Bury a tomato plant's stem and the stem will sprout a slew of new roots that help the plant grow sturdy and tall quickly. You can bury just about all of stem--pluck off the branches below the top flush of leaves.
Early in the season, when the soil is still cool, dig a trench 4 or 5 inches deep in the soil and set the transplant into it, again burying the stem up to the top leaves.
If you're transplanting later in the season, when the soil has warmed or in dry climates, bury the transplant in a straight, deep hole. Cooler, moister soil below 6 inches deep helps tomatoes survive in hot, dry summers.
Feed the soil first.
Avoid the common mistake of overfeeding your tomatoes. They thrive in soil that's rich in humus for extensive, well-nourished root systems and potassium (K) for strong stems. Add too much nitrogen (N) and you'll have a big, lush plant with very little fruit.
"A lot of organic gardeners overload their soil with manure and get fewer tomatoes for it," notes Will Brinton, Ph.D., president of Woods End Research Laboratory in Mount Vernon, Maine. "I save my best compost for tomatoes and supplement it only with seaweed powder, which is a quick-acting source of potassium. We get incredible fruits."
Homemade compost typically supplies all the phosphorus (P) your tomatoes need for good flowering and fruiting. If a soil test indicates a serious phosphorus deficiency, add rock phosphate to your tomato-growing beds next fall.
Keep them warm, keep them cool.
Chilly spring temperatures (nights cooler than 50 degrees F) slow tomato plants' growth. Sizzling summer temps (days hotter than 95 degrees) cause the flowers to drop off. You can moderate both extremes with Wall O' Waters, which are plastic "teepees" with individual tubes filled with water. They also help keep the plants upright and shelter the plants from high winds.
Red plastic, maybe.
Many organic gardeners rely on plastic mulch to warm the soil in spring and prevent weeds from sprouting up. Plastic mulch isn't part of our ideal organic garden, but study after study has found that beds covered in black plastic in spring produce tomatoes earlier and more of them all season long. Where the growing season is short, plastic mulch may be essential if you want to harvest tomatoes at all. Even more effective, researchers have found, is infra-red transmitting plastic mulch, which reflects just the kind of light plants need up onto the foliage.
Mulch for sure.
While plastic mulch has proved its worth, all-natural mulches also help tomatoes grow well. Surround your plants with a layer of straw, leaves, dried grass clippings or pine needles and it will keep the plants' roots cool, prevent weeds from sprouting around them and retain moisture in the soil. Because these mulches keep the soil cool, don't apply them until after the soil warms to 65 degrees F.
Pluck the first flowers.
Growing deep, extensive roots and a full leaf canopy will help establish newly transplanted tomatoes. Many experienced tomato growers pull off the first flowers, so the plant does not devote energy to forming fruit before its roots and foliage have filled out. Amy Goldman, who grows hundreds of heirloom tomatoes in her Rhinebeck, New York, garden each season, reports, "I pull off all the flowers until the plants reach at least 1 foot tall." She also pulls off all the suckers (shoots that emerge from the main stem below the first fruiting branch).
Grow them up.
Tomato vines left to sprawl on the soil are more susceptible to attacks by pests and diseases. Sprawling vines take up a lot of room in your garden and the fruit they bear is more difficult to harvest. So stake or cage the vines for your healthiest, most productive tomato crop ever.
You can revive damaged plants.
If cutworms, mice, slugs, the neighbor's dog or other hazards hack into your transplants, don't despair. If you get to the plant before the sun has baked the life out of it, cut an inch or so off the bottom of the stem and place the rest in a container of water out of direct sun for a week or so. It will sprout roots along the stem. Then transplant it back into garden and watch it grow.