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Friday, December 2, 2011

KNOL: How to Plant a Tomato and Tend to It's Needs

This entry is a copy from a KNOL I wrote found at Google. Google will be discontinuing the KNOL's platform and I am in the process of storing them on my blog. Please enjoy the article. I have about 50 coming over to this blog.

Tomatoes are vines. Roots will grow from any part of the tomato stem that touches the ground. Understanding this concept is a key to growing magnificent healthy tomato plants. Tomato plants are very easy to grow and really don't need much in the way of tending. If you start a tomato off right, you can sit back a reap the rewards all summer long. Here is the best way to plant and tend to your tomato plants. Planting with this method will allow your plants to thrive and set award winning fruit.

How to Plant a Tomato and Tend to It's Needs
by Gary Pilarchik LCSW-C

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Selecting the Tomato Transplant:


There are two types of tomato plants. Determinate and indeterminate types. Determinate means it grows to a determined size, sets fruit, and dies off. Indeterminate means it continues to grow. It will grow and grow until frost or disease kills it. You want to select an indeterminate type of tomato plant. The type of planting, I describe in this Knol, is not needed for a determinate tomato plant. The tomato label with the plant will state whether or not the tomato is determinate or indeterminate.


It is worth taking your time in carefully selecting a tomato transplant. The simple rule of thumb is that the tomato plant should be 100% green in the stem and on top of the leaves. If the plant is a deep uniformed green color then it is healthy. If the plant has yellow or purple through out the tops of the leaves or stem, do not buy it. If the plant has brown spots or discolorations of any sort, find another plant. If the plant isn't 100% green then the plant is typically distressed. I mention the tops of the leaves because tomatoes sometimes have a purple tint on the undersides of the leaves when young and healthy. This is okay as long as the tops of the leaves are completely green. Below is an example of a very healthy freshly transplanted tomato.

Courtesy of 


You want to look for healthy plants that are 8 to 12 inches tall. The plants should be in a single container not in the cello 4 or 6 packs. Remember you are going to grow magnificent awarding winning tomatoes. You don't want plants packed in tiny cells. If you get plants that are taller than 12 inches, very often they have yellow flowers. Do not purchase plants with yellow flowers. These plants are already turning growth energy toward fruits. You want that process to occur in your garden. Buying plants with yellow flowers does not mean you get fruit sooner. Once a plant is in a garden the growth is phenomenal. Small transplants catch up to big transplants.

Getting Additional Supplies:

Garden Soil

Purchase a 1 cubic foot bag of moisture control garden soil for every 2 plants you are planting. Do not buy top soil. Make sure you are buying garden soil and make sure it is a moisture control formulation. Every garden center carries this product. It is a good idea to buy extra bags of garden soil while your are there.


Purchase a box of tomato fertilizer from your garden center. Ask the employee to help you. The boxes are typically kept in the house plant section of the garden center. They are about the size of a large box of instant mash potatoes. You do not need a 40 pound bag of fertilizer. You will use to the fertilizer to prepare the planting hole for the tomato transplant.
Also buy a small box of water soluble fertilizer. You will not use this until July.


Purchase 2 - 6 foot wooden stakes for each tomato plant. The width of the stakes should be at least 1 inch x 1 inch. You also need to purchase a role of twine or jute to tie your plants. You don not need to buy tomato cages. Stakes will take care of the job.

Digging and Preparing the Hole:

Dig the Hole

I am assuming you have a garden. If you don't, you will need to dig and turn-over at least a 2 foot by 2 foot plot. I am also assuming you know a tomato needs at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight.
In your garden, dig a circular hole that is 1 1/2 to 2 feet wide and 18 inches deep. Put the dirt to the side.
In the bottom of the hole sprinkle 3 rounded tablespoons of fertilizer evenly over the bottom of the hole. You don't need be exact. Use your shovel to mix the fertilizer about another 4-6 inches deeper into the hole. That is, break up the bottom of the hole another 4-6 inches and mix the fertilizer into the loosened dirt. Do NOT remove the dirt.

Fill 1/2 the Hole

Fill half the hole with the garden soil you purchased. You will be filling in about 9 inches of the hole. Sprinkle 2 rounded tablespoons of fertilizer evenly over the hole. Using your hand evenly mix the fertilizer into the 9 inches of new garden soil. Do not mix it into the bottom level where you put the other tablespoons of fertilizer. Drop in about 2-3 shovels worth of the original dirt you put to the side and mix it evenly with the purchased garden soil. Yep, just blend it together.
You have now provided your tomato with ample growing room for its deeper roots. The purchased garden soil will ensure the soil has the right PH for growing tomatoes. There is no need for soil testing. The moisture control formulation with help prevent blossom end-rot then can occur from uneven watering.

Fill the Rest of the Hole

I know it might sound strange but do almost the same thing and fill the rest of the hole. This time only put in 1 shovel worth of the original dirt into the hole. Sprinkle in 1 tablespoons of fertilizer and mix well by hand to about 9 inches deep. You now have the perfect planting area for your transplant. You will not need to fertilize again until mid-summer. The reason you fill the hole in steps is to ensure a well mixed aerated evenly fertilized hole. You have created the perfect space for you tomato plant's roots to spread out and grow.

Planting the Tomato Transplant:

You are going to plant 2/3 of your tomato below ground. A tomato transplant is a single vine. Roots will grow anywhere along the stem when planted below the ground. You might have noticed you prepared the hole for the roots. You are now planting 2/3 of the plant below ground to ensure ample root growth to support the entire tomato plant. This will lead to a beautiful strong plant above the ground.
If your tomato transplant is 12 inches tall then you will plant the first 8 inches below the ground. Simply, pinch of any leaves on the first 8 inches of the stem. Dig a hole with you hand. Remember the soil is very loose and put the plant 8 inches into the ground.  Fill the hole you made by hand and admire your work.  Place several shovels worth of original dirt around your tomato and spread the remainder of dug earth out around the rest of your garden.

Staking Your Tomato Plant:

When your tomato plant is about 2 feet tall you will need to put the tomato stakes in the ground. There is no rush. You want to stake the plant before it begins to fall over and touch the ground. You will be training your plant to grow upwards instead of falling and sprawling all over the ground. Staking you tomato plant will help prevent disease and make it easier to harvest fruit.
Place the stakes about 6 inches from the stem on direct opposite sides of the plant. Simply put, put one on the left side and one on the right side of the plant. You will have to hammer the stakes about 2 feet into the ground to secure them. Don't worry about damaging the roots of the plant. The tomato will be fine. You are using 2 stakes because your tomato plant will become both huge with growth and heavy with tomatoes.
The easiest way to support your tomato is to tie the plants using jute, a natural brown fiber string. Jute is readily available at any garden center. Use the picture below to get an idea of how to tie the plant to a stake. Early on you will on be using one stake as shown in the picture. Over time you will need both stakes to tie off both the stem of the tomato and the branches. You are planning ahead. I suggest tying the stem off about every 8 to 10 inches.
Make sure you do NOT tightly tie any part of the stem or branch to the stake. It will choke the plant and/or damage the branch or stem. If you make a circle with you thumb and index finger you can use that as a guideline for how much space to have for the stem or branch to move when you tie it down. You will have to tie your tomato plant weekly. It not only will continue to grow over the summer but the weight of the tomatoes will cause the plant to shift. The picture gives you the general idea.

Pruning Your Tomato Plant:

Joint Suckers/New Vines

You will have to prune or pinch your tomato. The picture below shows you another example of making sure there is space for the stem when you tie it to the stake. It also shows you where a sucker grows in the joint of the branch and stem. If you put you index finger and thumb out in the shape of an L and drop your other three fingers down to your palm, you've just created a stem and leaf. Right in the curve of you index finger and thumb is where the new growth comes out in the tomato. You don't want that growth. It will become and additional vine. Just pinch the sucker off.
Tomatoes are vines. You only want a single vine growing up the stake. The “branch” that is forming between the joints in the picture, as I said, will become another vine. Yes, it will grow tomatoes. You are pinching it off with your fingers because you are tending you tomato as one vine. One vine is all you need to have a huge plant and a bountiful harvest.
I recommend you pinch-off the new growth in the joints of the tomato plant until at least mid to late July. I typically let my tomatoes grow more wild toward the end of July. I simply tie the new vines and branches to the stakes. That is, I stop pinching off the new growth in the joints of the top 1/3 of the my tomato plants. I still prune the bottom 2/3 of the plant to prevent new vines from coming up lower to the ground.

Bottom Branches/Thinning

As your tomato grows it is important to make sure air circulates beneath and through the plant. Tomatoes are susceptible to blights. You can read my upcoming Knols on tomato disease for more information. Air circulation helps prevent disease as does removing lower branches that can easily be splashed with soil when it rains or when you water your garden.
A lot of the diseases don’t start until summer kicks in. As your tomato grows in June, it is time to start removing the bottom branches. I can’t give you an exact ratio of removal to growth. Use your eye. You want the plant to have a lot of growth to collect the sun but you have to start clipping the bottom branches of the plant. I recommend by the end of June you have at least 1 foot of space beneath your plant. You can prune the plant in stages as you see fit. I sometime go to 18 inches on taller plants. Simply cut the unwanted branch to within ¼ inch of the stem. 
You can also thin your tomato plant’s upper and lower growth in August. I do recommend letting the plant grow as mention toward the end of July. That doesn’t mean you don’t eye-ball them in August and remove congestion. It is painful to cut off large branches but you do so to let air circulate through the plant. Remember you were tending to the plant. It will produce new vines and branches all along the stem. Even places you already pruned. If you can’t see through your plant to the other side or its hard to get to the fruit, then you need to prune it a bit.

Pinching Off the Growing Tip

Some people pinch of the growing tip of the main vine and side vines if you choose to have more then one. Typically this is done several weeks before your first frost. The idea is to turn the plants energy towards the remaining tomatoes. I choose not to do this. By the time mid September comes, I am tomato’d out. I just let my plants die off peacefully.

A Friendly Warning

Do not accidentally pinch off the growing tip of your tomato. At the end of the season it is fine. But sometimes pruning can be confusing. The growth above the words “Remove”, in the picture (up top), is your general growing tip area. A good rule of thumb is to leave the upper 6 inches of the tomato alone. Prune from the base of the stem upward.

Mulching Your Tomato Plant:

Tomatoes love the heat and need even moisture all year long. Uneven watering can cause blossom end rot and fruit cracking. The easiest way to prevent this is to mulch and water you plant following a regular routine. Use grass clippings. I find nothing better in the way of mulch. My neighbors know to bring me their grass clippings.
Simply put a fresh layer of 2-3 inches of grass clippings around your tomatoes. Spread the clippings out 2 feet from the stem of your tomato. When the sun dries the grass clipping up thoroughly, add another 2-3 inches. This might take 2 or 3 days depending on the weather and all that. You can do this all summer long. I cover my entire garden in grass clippings. Just make sure you do layers of 2-3 inches and let the grass dry out before piling on new layers. This is a great way to manage moisture in your garden and provide organic matter for the garden.

Watering Your Tomato Plant:

Avoid watering the leaves of your plant. Avoid splashing wet soil on your plant. You can’t stop the rain but you can change your watering habits. This is to prevent the spread of diseases. Water your tomatoes gently at the base of the stem. I just use a hose without a nozzle and let the water flow. Water the plant well 2-3 times a week if there is no rain. With mulching and a watering routine, the moisture level will be fine. Really hot days will require you to water your garden every other day.

Mid-Summer Water Soluble Fertilizing: 

The time you spent preparing the hole for your tomato included ample fertilizer. I recommend a water soluble feeding every 2 weeks starting toward the end of July and ending when August is over. I use Miracle Grow. I follow the directions for 2 gallons and sprinkle it over the entire plant. This is the only time I wet the leaves. It is best to do in the morning of a sunny day. I give each plant a full 2 gallons of soluble fertilizer. I sprinkle one gallon over the top of the plant and pour the other gallon onto the ground around the base of the plant.
Good luck!

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