Plant Tomatoes in Trenches for Better Results

cherry tomatoes, red and green

A healthy harvest of tomatoes depends on healthy plants.

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.

large ripening red tomatoes on plant in garden

This healthy plant has large leaves that shade the ripening fruit.

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.

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Step 1

 Open GalleryLizzano tomato planted ready to be planted

I started with a large, healthy plant. This tomato plant is Lizzano, a cherry tomato variety that is an All-America Selections winner. Lizzano doesn’t get very tall and is great for small gardens and containers. While a friend grew this from seed for me, you can find Lizzano and its cousin, Terenzo, in many seed catalogs and as transplants in your local garden center.

Step 2

 Open Gallerytrench dug for planting tomato plant

My plant was already about 14 inches tall, so I needed to dig a long trench. If you start with a smaller plant, you’ll dig a smaller trench. I dug down about 4 inches and about 12 inches across to accommodate about half the plant and its current root structure.

Step 3

 Open Gallerytomato plant in trench in soil

Here, you can see the tomato plant laying in the trench, with the roots at the end of the trench and part of the green plant laying sideways. All of that sideways plant was soon covered with soil. The buried branches and leaves will become roots under the soil. You can trim off the stems that will be buried if you want, but I don’t. Cuts along the stem create plant wounds that can invite diseases and pests to enter the plant, so why bother and take the risk?

Step 4

 Open GalleryLizzano tomato planted in garden

After the tomato is covered, you can see about half the plant stem now above ground. Because you plant part of the tomato sideways, you must help bend the stem (very carefully!) to come up vertically above ground. You can see here that the stem is coming out of the soil at a slight angle. This is another reason some gardeners swear by trenching tomatoes—forcing the plant to work at an angle gives it strength. It’s kind of the gardening version of the old “strength through adversity” or “that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” cliché.

Step 5

 Open Gallerytomato in cage from above

Now that your plant is tending sideways, it’s extra important to provide support. Because Lizzano is a shorter plant, I felt comfortable using a standard 30-ish-inch tomato cage. For taller tomatoes, I use something much more hefty.

Step 6

 Open Gallerya ladybug on a tomato plant leaf

This isn’t part of the tutorial at all, but I threw it in here anyway. I love seeing beneficial insects like ladybugs on my plants. Ladybugs will help you take care of the aphids, if you’re unlucky enough to have an aphid invasion. Ladybugs are on your side. So, with the strong root system plus beneficial insects, I have a feeling this tomato plant is gonna be a great garden success!

Materials

  • tomato plant
  • tomato cage
  • good soil, enriched with compost

Tools

  • spade or small shovel
About Kelly Smith Trimble 

60Posts

I grow vegetables wherever I can find enough sunlight and forage roadsides and hiking trails for plants that can be used to make natural dyes. You can find both vintage ...

More About Kelly Smith Trimble

171 Responses

  1. Jackbenimble says:

    I always collect the fall leaves. Then as spring and summer arrive, I mix a thin layer of leaves, a thin layer of fresh cut grass (sans weed killer, don't need it), and finally a thin layer of soil. I repeat this until my composting ring is over filled and my fall leaves are all used. Need spring I have the best compost ever. Mix garden soil half and half, then plant those tomatoes extra deep (like they say). No one ever believes the size and quality of tomatoes I consistently grow. My raspberries are outstanding too.

  2. David foster says:

    Everyone should use a rain barrel … Free water

  3. Daniel says:

    For great tomatoes and peppers, about once a month put some epsom salt around the plants. You will have more tomatoes and peppers than you know what to do with.

  4. guest says:

    The wife also likes to scratch or break the surface (ever so lightly) of the main stem of the tomato that goes under the ground. It helps promote root growth as I understand it.

  5. Carol Yachnik says:

    Miracle grow is the fertilizer that the biggest champion tomatoes experts use. The soil must be good, no too much clay or lime; my back yard (100 years ago) was a garbage dump and all the houses had outside toilets. I could grow anything at that house. My new house has clay soil, and I do not have as much luck with tomatoes. What about "suckers"? nobody mentioned them.

    • Ron L says:

      Start adding compost to your soil. Chicken manure is best, next is horse manure, lawn clippings, tree leaves. I have clay soil here in Pennsylvania and have amended my soil with the above and my tomatoes do very well.
      PS: You can get free horse manure easily, just look on Craigslist. Or just ask any stable around you, they'll gladly give it to you for free. Just be aware whether the horse manure is straw based or sawdust based. I prefer the straw based material.

    • DesertGrown says:

      Pruning your Tomato is always a good idea… it allows good airflow throughout the plants and boosts the growing tips and fruitset. Remove suckers, but leave the branches.

      As for clay soil… one could amend the clay with limestone or gypsum for quicker results.
      For heavy clay soils there are products available( Liquid Gypsum, aka Liquid Thrive in some states), that will help break down the clay quickly.
      The best way(if you have the time) is to use some humus/compost and work it into the ground down at least 8 inches. You can also use animal manures, but you will want to let them break down naturally in the soil; this will also take the 'heat' out of the manures as to be more plant friendly.

      Clay soil abounds with nutrients(macro & micro), but it's unuseable to most plants until it becomes broken down some.

      Good luck with this and happy gardening!

  6. Leroy says:

    I plant all my tomatoes in big pots burying 2/3 of the stem. I use Miracle Grow soil mixed with a hand full of lime pellets which helps with bottom rot. In 2 months plants are 6 feet tall with more tomatoes then I could ever use.

  7. Granpa49 says:

    When you need more tomatoe plants pinch off the "sucker" shoots and place them in a glass of water. in 2-3 days you will see roots start to form. in about a week you can plant them. For support buy a roll of concrete reinforcement wire (4"x4" x 60") and cut in six to seven foot lengths. Roll into a tube and crimp wire ends to hold. Place over plants and bury 6 inches into ground. Holds heaviest fruit loads. Warning – concrete wire is stiff and cutting and forming takes a lot of elbow grease. Mine have lasted 25 years. It was worth the work.

  8. Safi says:

    Time to replant those tomato plants. In the past, my tomatoe harvest has been minimal! Thanks for the tip!

  9. Elizabeth says:

    Pruning tomato plants: a fantastic method my neighbor taught me. "You're gonna think I've killed them," he said as he did the first one. Wow.
    You see…think of all those suckers tomato plants have. Suckers are bad, right? You should pick them off, right? Not at all! Cut off the big fronds, the deep green ones. Cut them off mercilessly; they will never bear tomatoes; see any blossoms on them? Of course now. I've used this method now for 2 years.

  10. buddy says:

    i use spikes that i put in ground and a two lt. plastic bottle goes on end is how i water my garden. my tomatoes get huge also you have to prune your plants to get more tomatoes.

  11. Cathy says:

    What is the solution to yellow leaves with black spots at the bottom of your tomato plants? Eventually this blight works its way up the stalk and takes over the plant. I'd appreciate any suggestions. One tip I've learned – last year we had great tomatoes but the bottoms were black. I learned this was due to a calcium deficiency – so now I water occasionally with eggshell-soaked water, or water with diluted tums. We're having much better luck this year as a result.

    • Kelly Smith Trimble says:

      Hi Cathy, You can start by removing the affected leaves from the bottom of the plant. Wet conditions can cause this problem to spread from the ground up, but if you remove those leaves, your plant may be OK once conditions are drier and warmer. I hope this helps! Kelly

    • Shirley says:

      For black bottom problem: make sure you are keeping the soil evenly moist. If you let them dry out too much, then give them a lot of water, that can cause this ("blossom end rot") also. For blight, an organic spray called Serenade works like a charm.

  12. Sue says:

    What's the best tomato supports for indeterminate tomato plants at their maturity? Open to suggestions.

    • Jim says:

      I use field fence cut to make 2 1/2 foot circles. 5 foot field fence will last forever. Mine are over 8 years old. Use 3 heavy metal stakes on each cage. I use 1 foot pieces of reinforcement bar for stakes. These also last forever. Use common wire to wire the cages to the stakes. These are not pretty, but they work and last forever – they are strong.

    • Ron L says:

      I use the square foldable tomatoe cages. I stack them 2 high to get able 8 feet tall for indeterminate plants.

  13. Sue says:

    Anyone with suggestions for what to use for tomato supports when the tomato plants get so large and heavy that large wire cages won't accommodate the weight? I currently use four 5' stakes from the lumber store for each plant with links to hold the stakes together, but even the stakes start bending when the plants get tall and heavy.

    • Kelly Smith Trimble says:

      Hi Sue, I have made tomato cages from concrete reinforcement wire in the past, and they've worked great. For more strength, you can attach the wire to stakes stuck far into the ground. Here is a how-to for this technique: http://www.diynetwork.com/how-to/how-to-make-a-wi….

    • Chuck says:

      Also, if you have a farm supply store such as Tractor Supply you can get what they call "hog panels" 3' to 5' tall about 15 feet long. They wire is about 3/16" thick, a little difficult to cut. The holes vary, usually 4" x 4" They are galvanized metal and will last forever & hold any size plants.Cost $20/30.

    • Tray says:

      I use cattle panels mounted horizontally on wooden supports with cross slats, two panels per raised bed. First panel about 2 feet above ground with another about 2 1/2 feet above that.

    • william says:

      You could get some "T" posts from lumber yard then some heavy fencing material . Will also need something to keep attached to the posts. Probably want to do this before plants get to big. Hope this works for you.

  14. Doug says:

    Epson salts will help tomatoes produce, sprinkle about a teaspoon or so around the base after planting. This adds magnesium which the plants need to produce.

  15. Bertha H says:

    I love Rhubarb pie.as kids we use to go out and get a piece from our gmother's
    patch. Once they moved to ind from ky ,and the big lot out back of the house use to be .for chickens with a coop still there.I never in my life saw so much Rhubarb & big at that

  16. MaryAnn says:

    We were taught by an old farmer in Vermont how to grow Hugh tomatoes . Dig a deep hole, put in some fertilizer (cow manure) or what ever you chose , 2 big handfuls of sawdust, more soil and then your tomato plant. We had the biggest tomatoes I ever saw. The sawdust stays moist even when there is no rain, so the plants still blossom and you get Hugh tomatoes.

    • jim says:

      And here I thought you only grew foliage and Maple syrup…:-)
      Never heard of the saw-dust entry……Nice

  17. LaurelRidge says:

    I grow HUGE tomatoes and share with all the neighbors. My secret: Epsom Salts. Every couple of weeks I throw a handful around the bottom of each plant. It helps the plants absorb the nutrients in the soil. I had heirloom plants over 8 feet tall, and cherry tomatoes producing more tomatoes than we could handle.

    • jim says:

      Ditto on that with my Gardenias here in Fl. too…

      • LaurelRidge says:

        ME TOO in Tennessee! I carry my bag of epsom salts around the yard with a big spoon and throw it out around everything I planted as veggies, plus azaleas, gardenias, rhododendrons, and anything else that looks like it needs a boost. My grandfather taught me this as a little girl 45 years ago. But it seems no one else around here has ever heard of it, so they all thought I was killing my plants when they saw me putting it out! Helps with the red clay soil we have to deal with here in East Tennessee.

  18. Bonnie A says:

    Core a quarter-size hole in a small to medium size potato and gently thread the roots of the tomato plant through the hole. Plant the tomato plant with 1/2 to 2/3 of it under the ground, as noted in the article, with the potato just above the root ball. When the tomato plants die at the first frost at the end of the season, you will be able to dig several nice size potatoes out with the spent tomato plant! They grow together perfectly well and you get two crops in the space for 1 plant! Have done this for years!

  19. jenn raven says:

    every Sunday after breakfast, I take my egg shells and coffee grinds and put it in the blender and make a slurry then feed my roses and tomatoe plants!

  20. immafubared says:

    For you tomoto lovers. Take your ripe tomato's, the ones you have coming our your ears. Cut the stem out, place in pot of boiling water until you see the skins curl. Remove them from pot, peel off the skins. Put tomato – no need to seed them, back in pot and add enough water to half cover them. Turn up the heat and using an emersion blender, blend up the tomatoes into a nice sauce. Let cook for ten minutes, cool and place in freezer containers for the winter. Makes great tomato sauce for Spaghetti, or add creame for tomato bisque soup.
    The great thing is you do not have to worry about the seeds and go through the mess of trying to get them out. This is fast and efficient.

  21. immafubared says:

    I may try that next year. Just curios, if I'm using heavy tomato baskets, doesn't that support the plant? I can understand if your not going to use baskets to get all the roots strength you can, especially if your planting a lot of tomato plants.

  22. @TIMBOLITE says:

    Hi Kelly,liked your article.I have a patented plant support called the Tomato Cradle that is outselling all cages in my area! Thought this might interest you.Please check out my website at http://www.tomatocradles.com. Thanks,Tim Lien.

  23. Brady says:

    i go every year to a local cotton gin and get a load of gin trash to put in my garden.my tomatoes and okra love it.last year they got about 7 feet tall.

  24. fred says:

    Those plants are lying in the trench. Because they are not carrying anything they are incapable of laying anything down.

  25. Edgar J says:

    An old gardner that produced large tomatoes gave me this tip. He put a book of gopher matches at the bottom of each plant (pull the cover off first.) There is enough phosphorus in the matches for the plant. Another tomato gardener put a dried cow patty in a bucket and added water. He fed the "juice" to his plants that grew above his roof top. Fantastic tomatoes as well.

    • jim says:

      Gotta give you the award for local terminology….
      What are gopher matches?
      How long did the guy leave the cow paddy in the bucket of water before using for fertilizer?

      Great stuff!

      Thanks!

    • Lester Hoot says:

      Edgar ,Take your medicine.

    • DesertGrown says:

      I have heard of the matches trick before… my Grandparents used it when I was a boy. It does work.

      As for the cow patty in a bucket… this is nothing more than an 'old school' way to make a simple tea for your plants. Let the cow patty steep in the bucket of water for a few days to a week… this also takes the 'heat' out of the cow patty so you don't burn the plants roots. Use as you would compost teas.

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