by Sarah West
For those of us with an inclination to garden, this time of year boils with excitement—we start more seedlings than our beds could ever hold, bring home bundles of baby plants, imagining how, with a bit of warmth and water, they’ll transform our little plot into a paradise. It starts innocently enough with things like kale or lettuce, a pea plant or twenty, but nothing sets the mind strolling down a summer lane quite like the sight of a tomato plant. They arrive in nurseries and farmers markets in early April, tempting our better judgment with their perky green stems and floppy leaves.
If you have the gardening bug, you probably won’t be able to resist them. Go ahead and pick out the ones that fit your fancy, take them home even, but do not plant them. Not in April. Not really even in May (without accessories). Not, that is, unless you want your tomatoes to delay their fruiting and become more susceptible to pests and diseases.
Tomatoes are a tropical species that evolved in the jungles of Central America; subjecting young plants to winter-chilled soil and damp, cool nights shocks them into dormancy, where they’ll sit, barely growing a centimeter, until they are assured by a long string of warm days and nights that the world (as their DNA understands it to be) has returned to normal.
In the meantime, the path to tomato greatness that started in a posh greenhouse spa—where their seeds were cajoled into germinating with the help of heated mats that warmed their fluffy potted soil to a perfect 75-degrees, and their young shoots were encouraged to grow because a shelter of stretched plastic kept the cold dew from reaching their panic button—well, all that fine work has been undone. A tomato plant gone into cold dormancy has a hard time recovering even when it does spring back to life. You’ve given it reason to hesitate, you see, to doubt its boundless trust for the world (a trust all tropical plants have, living completely without caution because, in constant warmth, in a crowded jungle, they don’t need it). In its hesitation, it becomes weak.
So do this instead: bring those jolly little jungle babies home and find a place under an awning, under an overhang, even under a tree, where they can wait for summer in some semblance of shelter. If the day is sunny, take them out to bask in it (unless you have a sheltered spot that gets sun, in which case, lucky you); but when night falls, don’t forget to bring them back. It seems counter intuitive, but the roots of a tomato plant, tucked neatly into a plastic pot, will fare better in above ground temperatures this time of year, which warm more readily than the soil in spring’s on-again-off-again sunshine. That little overhang, pathetic as it may seem, does moderate night temperatures somewhat, buffering your tomato plants from the wider temperature swings happening just a few feet away.
If you feel you must plant your tomatoes directly into the garden when you bring them home on an unseasonably warm spring day, be aware that (to avoid cold dormancy) they will need some protection—a tool to increase their site’s soil temperature, moderate nightly drops, and, for bonus points, keep their leaves dry when the rain inevitably returns. Plastic sheeting—draped over a tomato cage, or even a couple of sticks, held down by something that will keep the wind from blowing it away—accomplishes all three. After wrestling with plastic sheeting a few times (it must be removed on sunny days to prevent “burning” the delicate young plants), you’ll begin to understand the allure of a greenhouse.
Another nifty tool involves a ring of plastic tube-like sacks with which you encircle your plant. Once in place, you fill the sacks with water to create an instant, if strange, protective dwelling. This wall o’ water, as one brand has christened it, capitalizes on water’s ability to moderate temperature exchange, holding some of the day’s warmth well into the night. And, once you’ve managed the awkward task of filling it up, you don’t need to touch it again until summer is here and it’s time to take it off.
Despite all the hoopla, tomatoes are as uncomplicated as a delicious annual fruiting plant could be. By mid-summer their jungle disposition becomes obvious—those suckers grow like crazy and seem, to gardeners who try to tame them, unstoppable. Their persistent nature will reward you with at least a few tomatoes even if you throw them in the ground willy-nilly and occasionally splash them with water. However, to succeed, to get the tomato plant of your dreams, you must start dreaming like a tomato.
Tomato Planting Tips:
- Wait to set tomato plants out in the garden until the nighttime and soil temperatures are firmly and forever above 50-degrees (generally this isn’t until June in our area).
- The bigger the plant, the better the start: Hold your tomato seedlings above ground until they are 10- 15-inches tall, robust and flowering, or even setting fruit. The plants will grow more vigorously in pots (so much so you may have to transplant them to a larger pot before putting them in the garden, but only if the pot it came in was quite small or you feel like really going for tomato glory this year), which helps bide your time while you wait for that soil to warm. Planting larger starts also means you can bury them more deeply. Clip the stems and leaves from all but the top third of the plant and dig a hole deep enough for the root ball and the lower part of the plant to fit underground. Once exposed to soil and moisture, the buried portion of the plant will begin to sprout roots, increasing its stability and expanding its ability to collect water and nutrients.
- Tomatoes need specific nutrients to produce exceptional fruits. In our region, winter rains leach minerals from the soil, lowering their pH. Along with a complete (and, I would recommend, organic) fertilizer applied at the rate the packaging suggests and mixed, for best results, with the soil at the bottom of the planting hole, also treat your soil with compost and garden lime. The compost will increase the soil’s water and nutrient capacity, and the lime will adjust the soil’s pH, making more nutrients available to all of your plants’ roots. For tomatoes, lime brings an extra boost of calcium, which, along with regular watering until ripening initiates, will prevent blossom end rot.
- Choose a site with eight hours of sun (six if you must, but expect less fruit) and some protection from the wind, being cautious not to place them in a low or wet spot that will encourage the cool/damp sort of diseases that strike tomatoes. And make sure their roots have room to stretch downward—as much room as you can give them. Tomato roots grow over twenty feet deep, when allowed. If you are planting directly into the ground, your work in this department is finished. If you are planting into raised beds, for best results, be sure there is no barrier between the bottom of the box and the earth below it. If you are planting in containers, a warning: some container gardening books depict tomato plants in things like repurposed olive oil cans. While this combination makes a cute picture, it will result in a harvest of zero to three tomatoes and cost you more than it would to just go buy zero to three tomatoes at the store. Use the biggest container you can find and keep in mind that anything smaller than five gallons just isn’t worth it.
- A note on staking: Tomatoes without a jungle full of things to climb on need support. Tomato cages work alright, in a flimsy, caged-in kind of way. There are a plethora of products out there to make trellising your tomato plants prettier, funkier, “better,” or more “professional.” They’re all good in their own way; how you stake your tomatoes is more personal preference than proper technique. For minimalists like myself, you can just use a bamboo stick or three (made into a tripod) set firmly into the ground to which you tie your growing tomato plant using string or twine. I end up needing to prune my plants a bit more than when I’ve caged them, but I like the way the bamboo becomes camouflaged and the mature plants seem hold themselves upright—unbound and heavy with fruit.