How to transplant tomatoes

This time of the year, racks of tomato seedlings are piled high outside of every grocery store. They beckon with the promise of fresh-picked fruits ripened in the sun and served with a bit of olive oil, balsamic, fresh-picked basil and burrata (I’m drooling a little just writing this). But what do you do with the seedlings once you’ve brought them home? And what do you do if you followed my advice on how to start your own tomatoes from seed and now your plants are six weeks old and almost jumping out of their pots?

Transplanting tomatoes into their final homes takes a bit of skill. Here’s how to do it.

Get them ready for the outside world

If you grew your tomatoes from seed, you’ll need to harden them off. That’s the process of acclimatizing your seedlings, which until now have enjoyed a cushy indoor lifestyle, to the real world. Without hardening off, your plants could stop growing or even die.

In traditional schools of thought, you’re supposed to harden your seedlings off very slowly, over the course of a week to ten days, by putting them outdoors (in a shady, protected spot) for just an hour the first day, then two hours, etc., until they’re ready to spend full days and then a few nights outdoors. Then, and only then, do you transplant.

But this is an urban gardening blog and let’s be honest, I don’t have the time to babysit my plants and you don’t, either. Instead, I put my tomatoes (or any other seedling I started indoors) outside for a couple of hours on a Saturday, half a day on a Sunday, and then the full day for Monday to Wednesday. Then I leave them outdoors full-time, but still in their pots, until the following Sunday when they’re ready to plant. My secret? I build a little clear plastic tent (with open sides for airflow) around the seedlings while they’re outdoors, and keep them well-watered and in a protected, shady spot.

If you bought your seedlings from a store, you can skip this step as they’ve already been hardened off in the nursery.

Prepare your site

Choose a warm sunny spot in your garden. Tomatoes do equally well in large pots or a raised bed. Either way, they like a good, rich soil that contains lots of compost. Use potting soil for pots and a good quality garden soil, with lots of well-rotted compost added, for raised beds.

Planting

Tomatoes have a unique ability to grow roots from buried stems. We want to take advantage of this ability by planting our tomatoes REALLY deep, covering most of the stem with soil. So go ahead and dig a big hole. Test it until you get the right depth so that just the top few leaves and a bit of stem poke out of the container. Remove any leaves that are lower on the stem.

Once you have the right planting depth, squeeze the container, and, being careful not to bruise the delicate stem, remove the plant from its pot. Gently plant your seedlings and pat the soil down to remove air bubbles.

Protect your plants

Tomatoes are prone to a host of diseases. In order to prevent them, we need to find the sweet spots between protecting our plants from cold and rain, AND giving them lots of airflow. My solution? Covering them with clear plastic (using a bamboo poles or PVC hoops for structure) but leaving air-flow, especially near the soil-line. You can also slash a few holes in the plastic.

What’s next?

Tomatoes are a lot of work. Give your freshly planted seedlings a deep watering, and then let the surface of the soil dry out slightly between drinks. A week after planting, you’ll want to start them on a weekly feeding of an organic liquid fertilizer. They’ll start growing fast — and that’s when we’ll need to start training them. Oh yes, your tomato babies need training! Stay tuned.

 

Tomato plants in pots in the urban vegetable garden.

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