Everyone plants tomatoes. Well, everyone who vegetable gardens, that is, or at least that’s how it seems. Tomatoes are the gateway drug to edible gardening. Once you’ve had one season of healthy plants with an abundant harvest of luscious tomatoes, you’re totally hooked. But what if you don’t? What if your tomato plants are limpy and wimpy and succumb to the diseases or pests that plants are so susceptible to in the heat of summer? Then you may give up altogether and go back to buying all your tomatoes in the grocery, and I just can’t have that!
So, I’ll tell you a little secret, one that stingy gardeners keep to themselves. Listen up: It’s all in the roots. This is true for most plants in your garden, but for tomatoes it’s especially true. Tomatoes need a good base to grow up tall and strong and to support all the weight of that yummy fruit. Indeterminate types that keep on growing until frost need this strong base even more. One way to ensure healthy roots is to focus on your soil first—after all, that’s where the all-important roots take up all those nutrients to feed the plant.
Another trick seems totally counter-intuitive, but it works. When planting tomatoes, bury half the plant or more. Yep, it’s true. While for most plants, you can use the container you’re transplanting from as a guide for how deep to plant, for tomatoes, you should bury at least half the stem. If you want, you can trim off the existing leaves and branches along the bottom half of the stem, but I usually just bury the plant stems and leaves and all. Under the ground, those stems will magically become additional roots that will support your plant, both physically and nutritionally.
One way to plant tomatoes deeply is to dig a deep hole and drop the plant in with only the top half or third above ground, then cover the lower stem up. I learned this method while working for Bonnie Plants, where our motto was “Plant tomatoes deep.” Another method is called trenching tomatoes. This involves digging a long trench, again with the top third above ground but with the rest of the plant laying sideways. While there’s very little debate about whether tomato plants should be sunk half or more underground, I’ve heard seasoned gardeners debate, in the field even, about whether the best practice is to plant in a deep hole or to using the trenching method. I’d say that either way, you’re in for a better harvest.
Okay, so now you know the secret. Ready to plant? Here’s a little tutorial on planting tomatoes in trenches, from my garden this week.