Califonia Bountiful

Gardening: The art of planting tomatoes

Mar./Apr. 2010 California Country magazine

From seed or transplant, follow these steps for successful tomatoes this season.

While the tomato is technically categorized as a fruit, it’s also considered the most commonly grown “vegetable” in the country. No surprise there. After all, there are hundreds of tomato varieties available, many of them exotic-sounding and scrumptious-tasting heirloom types.

Whether you’ve started with seeds and are now ready to plant outside or you’re buying starts from your local nursery, you’ll want to plant your tomatoes correctly so you get the biggest crop for your efforts.

First, don’t even think about planting tomatoes outside until the soil is dependably warm and all danger of frost is past. Soil temperatures should be 55 to 60 degrees. Second, don’t worry if the seedlings are leggy—that is, kind of weak and wobbly with lots of stem. In fact, if you’re buying starts, leggy ones are best. Next, throw out any rules you know or follow when planting. Tomatoes aren’t like any other vegetable when it comes to planting.

Here’s the drill: Bury tomatoes up to their top sets of leaves when planting. That’s right. Bury the stem all the way up to the top sets of leaves so that most of the stem is in the ground. You can dig a deep hole or dig a trench and lay the tomato plant sideways in the hole, then gently bend the top portion of the plant up so it sticks out of the ground.

Firm the soil around the plant and give it a drink of water. Keep the soil moist, but not wet. Newly planted tomatoes have a small root system and it takes some time for those roots to get into the surrounding soil, so keep a close eye on them to make sure they have plenty of water. The best way to judge is to poke your finger in the ground.

The reason for burying the stem? Tomato stems will root all along the buried portion. More roots mean more nutrients for the plant, which means you get a stronger, more productive plant. After all, it’s tomatoes you want. Happy growing!

Bury tomatoes up to their top sets of leaves when planting.

Most varieties will flower about a month after planting.

It’s easy to overwater. Keep soil moist, but not wet.

A ripe tomato will slip off the vine with a gentle tug. Enjoy!

Gardening to-do list for March/April

  • Check roses and vegetables for aphids. If you find them, wash aphids off plants with a strong spray of water or use insecticidal soap. Insecticidal soap only works when you spray it on the aphids. It doesn’t prevent aphids. If you see ants on the plants, chances are the ants are “milking” the aphids for the honeydew. Use sticky tape or a product like Tanglefoot to keep ants away.
  • Hang yellow jacket traps now to catch newly emerged queens.
  • Don’t rototill or dig when the soil is wet. This can cause the soil to compact and damage soil structure.
  • Annuals and perennials to plant include coreopsis, impatiens, foxglove, geranium, marguerite, lobelia, marigolds, snapdragons, stock, zinnias, petunias and cosmos.
  • Thin fruit on fruit trees to get larger, better quality fruit. Thin when fruit is 3/4 to 1 inch in diameter. A good rule of thumb is to thin fruit about 6 inches apart.
  • Keep watering spring bulbs as long as the foliage is green. Once they’ve bloomed, the bulbs begin to store food for next year’s crop. Cut foliage away after it’s turned brown.
  • Mulch.
  • Once the soil is warm—55 to 60 degrees—you can safely put out summer vegetables like tomatoes, corn, beans, squash, eggplant, melons, peppers and cucumbers.
  • Pull or spray weeds early and often.

Pat Rubin is a long-time gardener and garden writer. Send questions or comments to her at

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