Of all the plants in the garden, tomatoes are one of the most sacred to veggie gardeners. And rightly so, after all there’s nothing like a garden fresh tomato!
And now’s the perfect time to plant tomatoes the chance of frost is minor, the soil is warm and there’s a chance of rain – perfect!
Ask gardeners for advice on how to grow tomatoes and you’ll get a variety of answers. Every gardener, it seems has his or her own ritual for planting tomatoes. Here’s our ritual starting with a trip to a garden centre.
Choosing Tomato Plants
Our tomato planting ritual begins with a trip to a local greenhouse where I choose an assortment of tomato plants including slicing tomatoes, paste tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, Heirloom tomatoes and some new or unique varieties (Stripey German). I also select tomatoes based on days to maturity so I can have some super early tomatoes and a large batch that ripens at the same time so I can preserve them all at once. Here’s a sketch of the various tomatoes we planted and more info about them. Having a sketch like this will help me remember which plant is what (even if the tags disappear) during harvest time. That way I can keep track of our favorite varieties. No need to be fancy!
I saved a few other specialty varieties for around the house. Having the little cherry tomatoes right beside the patio makes them perfect for snacking on!
You may hear about Determinate or Indeterminate tomatoes. It’s another way to help you select tomato plants according to growth shape and how long a particular type of tomato will produce. Read more at Gardening KnowHow.
Hardening off Tomatoes
Tomato plants from a store or greenhouse have likely been indoors all their life. To give these plants the best chance of making it in the garden, it’s good to “harden off” your plants by gradually introducing them to more and more sunlight and wind each day.
Our “hardening off” involves putting the plants in the wagon in the backyard for a couple of days before planting. If there’s a chance of frost, we take them into the garage at night, otherwise they stay outside.
When to Plant Tomatoes in Zone 2b/3
Tomatoes are warm weather plants. They like warm soil and do not tolerate any frost. For Winnipeg and southern Manitoba that usually means well after May 24 and into early June. Last year, I covered my tomato plants on June 5 due to frost warnings. There’s no point in planting tomatoes too early.
Tomatoes need a strong root network that will support their weight and gather moisture and nutrients. The roots grow down from the rootball and off the sides of the stem. For all those reasons, tomatoes should be planted deep. According to “The Postage Stamp Vegetable Garden” by Karen Newcomb (Ten Speed Press, 2015 first published in 1975) “Tomatoes are deep rooted, often going 6 feet deep or more”.
I buried this San Marzano tomato well past the bottom two sets of leaves to ensure it forms a strong root system. But that’s nothing, some gardeners and gardening books say to put half to three quarters of the plant in the ground.
Blossom End Rot Protection & A Little Boost
Have you ever had this happen to your tomatoes?
It’s blossom end rot (BER) and it’s not pretty! BER is not a fungus, disease or pest, it’s a physiological condition caused by lack of calcium absorption due to soil conditions, uneven water conditions and stress (weather, disturbing roots, pests, etc.). Luckily, it does not spread from one tomato to the other, but spoiled fruit may attract other pests from moving in.
Preparing your soil, adding the right nutrients and planning a water conservation strategy are the best way to prevent BER. While some of my fellow gardeners recommend adding coffee grounds, tea, egg shells or bananas to the bottom of the tomato planting hole, I chose to use The Talk of Tomato powder designed specifically for tomatoes. Giving my tomatoes the right mix of nutrients and prevent BER, is worth the $10!
You’ll also notice in my pictures, that I add some four-way soil mix to each hole to help break up our clay soil.
A look at my gardening neighbors tomatoes was all the reminder I needed to ensure I planted my tomatoes with proper cutworm protection. Can you spot the four tomato plants that have been cut down. Only a couple, including the one with the collar are still standing. How sad, luckily there’s still time to replant!
As I started digging, I found quite a few of these curly short worms with diamond like patterns on their back. They’re just under the surface of the soil and are most active late in the day or early evening. Have a scratch around any green plant and you might find one.
I’m testing two methods of cutworm protection. One is placing a nail right next to the stem of the tomato plant and the other is a protective collar.
Here’s an Ultra Sweet tomato plant with a nail tucked right next to it. Since cutworms curl around a stalk to eat/cut it, the nail should foil there evil plans – not even cutworms can cut through nails!
Here’s a Bush Early Girl with a protective collar. I cut a 3-4 inch wide band from any old plastic or metal containers (yogurt, margarine, coffee, plant containers, etc). The collar lets the roots grow down into the soil while putting up a barrier that the cutworms can’t climb. The container should go 1-2 inches below the ground and about 1 inch above. Make sure there is no soil or foliage providing a bridge for cutworms to get into the collar! By the way, do you see the critter on the right side of the photo? That’s a cutworm trying to get at my tomato!
Keeping tomatoes off ground is a good way to prevent damage from slugs and/or mice. Tomato plants also get very heavy and dense. Indeterminate tomatoes can also grow very tall. Giving them a strong support system in the form of stakes, cages or trellises helps out those luscious tomato plants you’re going to grow. We use those not too sturdy cages that you can get just about anywhere. To provide added support, I think I’ll adopt another fellow gardener’s practice of staking and caging.
Over the years, I’ve learned the best time to put the cage on the tomato plants is the day you plant them! Threading large plants through a cage is frustrating and may damage the leaves and root system of your tomatoes.
Even watering is important for strong, healthy tomatoes. It’s another way you can help prevent blossom end rot.
Here’s me watering the banana peel at the bottom of the tomato hole. Gardening friend Ed swears by this technique, figured it was worth a try since I had a banana for snack! Banana or not, I like to drench the planting hole before I add the tomato plant so the roots get immediate access to moisture.
During the summer, our watering is very sporadic at the garden plot – that’s why mulching is really important at the plot. In the yard, we water much more consistently – it’s handy to have that rain barrel close at hand!
Since our watering is limited, especially during the summer, we rely on a good layer of mulch to help conserve water. This year I used a layer of leaves, I’ve also used straw and newspaper as mulch. They’ve all been effective at keeping moisture in and at controlling the weeds. Although, I think the straw provided some excellent cover for mice – not good. Oh and remember, keep the mulch away from the collars so it doesn’t provide a ramp for those pesky cutworms!
And that’s how we plant tomatoes. While we’ve had a few issues here and there over the last 8 years or so, we always get tons of tomatoes.
Do you have any family rituals for planting tomatoes? Do you have a favorite variety?
Need help planning or getting your vegetable garden going? Get Getty to help you figure things out. Getty Stewart is a freelance Professional Home Economist, author of Manitoba’s best-selling Prairie Fruit Cookbook, Founder of Fruit Share, mom and avid veggie gardener. She loves growing food and has been doing so forever. Need a workshop or a little one-on-one, Get Getty!