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 

69Posts

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. Joebug says:

    I love tomatoes and i love them with a little salt and sometimes pepper! I have never had any problem growing anything so i also agree with the trenching method & I know that for peppers you do a little different and they don't take as much water but if you are growing hot peppers then you don't really need to do much at all because they repel the insects by them selves !!

  2. Veronica F says:

    I have problems with blossom end rot! What is the cause? What is the remedy?

  3. Edward Brann says:

    I used to have the early tomatoes with a black spot on the bottom. The solution was to put some crushed egg shells in the bottom of the hole when planting. I don't remember where I got this growing tip, but it worked every time.

    • Veronica F says:

      Just read your post about black spot (blossom end rot) That's what we call it here in Texas. I used egg shells on top of the soil but never in the bottom of the hole when planting. I will try this year!

  4. Joe says:

    love this information, been growing tomatoes for 50 years and have been taught some new information, thanks.

  5. Hatboro John says:

    I've been hearing about burying half the tomato plant for the past few years and I can back you up that it works. I tried something else this year. After years of having poor luck transplanting tomatoes I started in my basement, I tried planting some Jersey Devil (an heirloom tomato) seeds directly into the ground — but 4 or more inches deep. Only half of the four made it above ground, but boy are they strong and very productive. I'm going to try that on a large scale next season.

  6. Phillep Harding says:

    No surprise. Tomatoes are near cousins of potatoes.

    • DesertGrown says:

      Tomatoes and potatoes are in the same Solanaceae family, from the genus Solanum, informally known as the Nightshade family, but that's not all… so are Datura, Eggplant, Mandrake, Petunia, Tobacco and Deadly Nightshade(Belladonna) and a host of other plants.

      NOTE: The Solanaceae family consists of approx. 98 genera and 2700+ species.

  7. Lincoln Struthers says:

    I live in Nome, Alaska, and tried the trench method. Didn't work. The plant froze the night after planting.

  8. Joe says:

    I've been using the deep hole (at least 12 inches) method for planting tomatoes for many years. I also plant 5 tomato plants in a 7 foot diameter circle with a watering/ fertilizing depression in the center. The resulting crop is truly amazing.

  9. norm robison says:

    When its time for frost pull plant and hand upside down in garage. It will continue to produce for several months. I have also dug up the pot that I plant in and moved it inside and it will continue to grow and produce.

  10. JOE MORAN says:

    Had five tomato plants . I mothered them and had at lease one hundred pounds of green tomatoes . After telling neighbors not to buy any this summer . The squirrels came and took all of the tomatoes . Only eating a part and going back for more .

  11. David Lloyd Sutton says:

    AMM: When you have tomato plants dropping blossoms before fruiting, you are probably overwatering. Try letting the soil get dry between waterings. The plants will root deeper, and form fruit from those blossoms instead of dropping them.

    David S

  12. Irene L says:

    I have a question. I buried my tomatoes deep and the plants are now tall and straight — but so far that is all. There are a few blossoms but no impending fruit. I live in southern Alabama so we get plenty of sun and rain. Does anyone have an idea why my plants are not producing?

    • Russ Sydlowski says:

      I would suspect it may be too hot, tomatoes won't set well when temps are consistently 88+.Try shading your plants with poles set around your tomatoes that are taller than your plants and place plastic netting(mesh) on top of poles to provide a degree of sunshade.If your puzzled by this just watch the Godfather II movie where the Godfather(Marlin Brando)dies in his tomato patch, you'll see what I'm talking about.

    • Russ Sydlowski says:

      Also forgot Irene, you may wish to feed your tomatoes some Miracle Grow Bloom Booster.

      • Shirley says:

        If you want to go organic, you can spray them with seaweed. Actually just a light mist (so you don't knock the fragile blooms off) of water works too. Seaweed is so good for plants that it does a lot more.

    • Billy says:

      Possibly too much nitrogen. Nitrogen will grow a beautiful plant but will set little fruit. I've seen people in the past use hair spray on the issue,

  13. wacojoe says:

    Been doing what is suggested here (both methods) for 40 years, as taught by my father. He also taught me to mix in some time release fertilizer and a couple tablespoons of bone meal for root stimulization. Works ever time. More tomatoes than we can eat. Be careful not to over water when the fruit gets near ripeness…it makes them crack and dilutes the flavor.

  14. AllOrganicMom says:

    Best thing yet! Just fill those deep holes with all the neighborhood dog droppings you can find! Just stick those seedlings straight into those warm steamers! We enjoy the biggest juiciest tomatoes on the block and clean up our local park at the same time!

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