Nothing says summer like a beautiful fresh tomato. Once you start growing your own you’ll be reluctant to buy them fresh at the store – particularly the sorry ones that show up in winter.
In the northern US, our growing season is too short to start tomatoes from seed outdoors. Unless you’re really ambitious and want to try growing them indoors from seed, it is easiest to buy tomato seedlings for planting. This also lets you try a number of different varieties without the hassle.
We recommend finding a farmer / farm stand, a local garden center, or the like for purchasing seedlings. This helps ensure the seedlings you get are timed well for your location. Many tomato plants have been lost to the May freezes that we get in Chicagoland, so be patient with your planting! We plant ours Memorial Day weekend with great results.
There are two tips for tomato seedling planting. First, prune off any flowers that appear on your seedling. You don’t want the plant to focus on fruiting before its roots are set. Keep an eye on this until the plant is a couple feet tall.
Second, tomatoes are special because you can plant them “up to their necks” – or up to about 2/3 rd the height of the stem. How? If you look closely at the stem of the tomato, you’ll see it is covered in fine hairs. These hairs will develop into roots if buried under soil. We recommend pinching or pruning off the bottom few leaf sets and planting the tomato in a nice deep hole. This also helps if the seedlings you got are “leggy” or seem unstable.
You’ll want to make sure the remaining leaves are clear of the soil because tomatoes are sensitive to water on the leaves. The same applies for watering. For most plants, but particularly nightshades (tomatoes, eggplant, peppers) and cucurbits (zucchini, cucumber, squash), you want to keep the leaves dry and direct the water at the soil only. This helps keep them disease-free. A watering wand with a brass (better than plastic) shutoff valve will save you from bending over at each plant.
After a couple weeks, you won’t believe the growth the tomatoes put on. They will quickly get a little wild and rangy. Check back for another post soon on methods for staking your tomatoes.