Today apparently a reader found this blog by typing the question “tomato shoots have come up now what?” into a search engine. It’s a really good question, so I’ll answer it as a follow-up to my Little Green Shoots post. My knowledge on planting tomatoes comes from learning from my grandfather, from reading, and from my own experience. The summer that my grandparents had to give up their place, Granddaddy planted his tomatoes in April and then hurt his back in early May. By early June, my grandparents were living out of state. I did the last clean-up on the house in late August. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Despite months of complete neglect, Granddaddy’s tomato plants were all full of big, juicy, ripe tomatoes, some of the biggest, most flavorful I’ve ever seen. I’ve included some of his techniques here.
Once you’ve successfully started tomato plants, you’ll need to make sure that they have three–okay, maybe four–things: strong light, room to grow, and adequate water (but not too much!). They also need wind to make them strong.
Let’s start with your light source. If you live in a warmer climate (so that the temperatures are at least 70 degrees F during the day), you can put your seedlings first in dappled sunlight and then gradually in full sunlight during the day. If your climate is a bit cooler, you’ll either need grow lights or a greenhouse or grow tent. Grow lights should be full spectrum lights designed specifically for growing plants, and you need to make sure that the light source is no more than about 2 inches from the tops of the plants. Otherwise the seedlings will be leggy–tall and spindly. Grow tents or a greenhouses should be warm–around 75 to 80 degrees F but not much warmer than 90 degrees F–and should have southern exposure.
When I say tomatoes need room to grow, I mean their roots. Tomatoes rely on big root systems to feed lots of fruits at once with lots of liquified nutrients. The root system helps them do that. As soon as your tomatoes get their real leaves (the second pair of leaves), plant them in a bigger container–at least the size of a pint milk carton. I use old plant pots I got with nursery plants, plastic cups with holes cut in the bottom: you name it. If you can drain it, you can use it. And every year I end up giving some plants more room than others. The ones with more room always grow better.
Seedlings need constant but light moisture. Too much water and you’ll get damping off, where the stem shrinks and withers and the seedling dies. Too little water and, of course, the seedling will die. Always water from the bottom to avoid leaf problems. I use old salad containers for my saucers. Seedlings have everything they need to start, so you only need a tiny bit of light fertilizing (like fish emulsion) every two weeks or so after your seedlings are a few weeks old. If you are using a potting soil with fertilizer already included (yes, you can get organic mixes this way), you won’t even need to add fertilizer with water. Over-fertilizing can also kill your plants.
The only problem with using grow tents or green houses for seedlings is wind. A light breeze pushing on the stem will help it grow sturdier. If you don’t have wind available, make some using a fan.
What if you do get spindly, leggy seedlings? Re-pot them deeper. Tomatoes and other nightshade plants like peppers and eggplants have a remarkable ability to grow extra roots along their stem. Some plants suffocate if you plant them deeper than they were originally, but not tomatoes and their close cousins. Just be sure to gently strip off any leaves that will be under soil, as un-stripped leaves can rot and kill the plant ultimately.
Finally, when your daytime temperatures are in the 70s and nighttime temperatures are in the 50s, you can plant out your seedlings. If you are able to plant now and live in warm area, by all means plant! Dig a very deep hole–at least eighteen inches–and fill it with peat, organic compost, manure, blood and bone meal, and soil. (Your county extension agent most likely offers free soil analysis; he or she can tell you specifically what you need to add.) Now strip off all of the leaves except the top two splits of leaves. Plant your tomato so that only the top two splits of leaves are showing and everything else is underground. Your plant will develop a very strong root system that will let it survive dry spells without your watering much. Fashion a collar to go 2 inches above and 2 inches below the soil around the plant. This collar will protect against cut worms. (I use half-gallon paper milk cartons cut in half.) Next, plant a marigold or two next to each tomato plant. Marigolds secrete a substance that confuses tomato parasites like cut worms–and the flowers are pretty!
Do you have favorite methods for planting tomatoes? Share! Do you have questions? Feel free to ask them here, and I’ll do my best to answer.
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