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Q. Mike: What is the besttime to put tomato plants in the ground?
---Ray in Hatfield, Pa.
Mr. Mike: Right now my tomato plants are about 8 inches high. Iwant to work them up into getting used to the outside; how exactlyshould I do this?
---Chuck in Leesburg, Virginia
Mike: My wife and I recently bought a tomato plant—our first attempt atgrowing something to eat! Its about two feet high and seems to bestanding okay, but most gardens I see use stakes to help the plantsstay up. Should we do the same? Thank you.
---Ray and Melissain Plainsboro, NJ, just across Route 1 from Princeton.
Mike: I started 3 kinds of tomatoes by placing two seeds in each pot.Now most of the pots sport two plants. Should I let both grow and plantthem that way when the weather is warm, or should I prune down to oneseedling per pot? Thanks,
--Dan in Swarthmore, Pa.
I have some crushed oystershells left over from making rock for mysaltwater aquarium, and was wondering if they would serve the samepurpose as the eggshells you always recommend when planting tomatoes.
--Kevin in Cochranville, PA
A. Thanks, all! This is theperfect time of year for me to help get everybody's tamata plants offto a great start, so I'm going to answer your questions—and more—withmy Top Ten Tips for Terrific Tomatoes!
1. Thin them out! This is thehardest thing to do in gardening, but if you leave more than one plantin each pot, none of them will thrive. If you're good at this kind ofthing, use a sharp knife to cut through the root mass, then pot eachone up again separately. (Don't try and pull them apart!) A safer betis to snip off the weakest ones with a little pair of scissors. Losethe ones with the thinnest stalks—unlike us, thick stalks aregood.
2. Don't rush the season! Actual frost isn't the only consideration. Tomatoes are tropical plantsthat don't like to catch a chill. So don't even think about plantingthem outdoors until nighttime temps are in the fifties. My 'lastaverage frost date' is May 15th (find yours online or contact yourlocal county extension office), but I often wait until June 1st ifSpring has been a little slow.
3. 'Harden off' your tomatoes beforeyou plant them. Take the potted plants out in the morning, waterthem well, place them where they'll get some sun and then bring themback inside that evening Repeat this for a few days, ideally,increasing the amount of sun they'll get each day. Then leave them outall night for another couple of days (unless overnight temps drop belowthe mid to high forties, then bring them back in—tomatoes have verylittle sense of humor about these things). Don't neglect this step!Plants that go right from a warm home or greenhouse into theunpredictable outdoors often suffer severe early season setbacks.
4. Scramble some eggs for them!Or, yes—crushed oyster shells, if you got 'em. Both are great naturalsources of calcium—anutrient often greatly lacking in our soils but that helps you growbetter tomatoes two ways! It helps the plants regulate their waterneeds, preventing nasty conditions like cracking and blossom end rotwhen the weather is too wet, too dry or too roller-coaster. Andtomatoes need calcium to achieve their full flavor potential! I put thecrushed shells of a dozen eggs in each planting hole. Noeggshells? Take a five-gallon bucket to any restaurant thatserves breakfast and you'll get all you need in one day. Otherwise, puta handful of a calcium-rich natural fertilizer, like "TomatoesAlive" from Gardens Alive, in the hole. (Toss in some composttoo!)
5. Pick the proper spot.Before you put your tomatoes in the ground, take a good look at theirpotential planting areas and give them the site that gets the mostmorning sun, so the wet-with-dew plants can dry off first thing in themorning; it's a great way to prevent disease problems before they start.
6. Rotate your crops. Speakingof disease, you should also try and plant your tomatoes in a spot wheretomatoes have not grown the past couple of years. If that's impossible,remove as much of the soil as you can and replace it with a mix of halfcompost and half topsoil—or half garden soil from tomato free areas.Otherwise, your plants may wilt from a common disease that builds up insoil where tomatoes are frequently planted. If that's already happeningand you've already used every possible and/or potential planting plot,try growing in BIG containers (at least 12 to 15 inches across).
7. Space them far apart. Besure to give your precious plants LOTS of room. Those little startswill eventually produce vines that are ten to fourteen feet long. Planfor that FULL size now, otherwise the plants will be too crowded anddisease will take its toll.
8. Cage them. Surround eachplant with a big cageso the tomatoes don't lay on the ground; and stake the cage so thosebig vines don't pull it down. Tomatoes are vines—they don't growupright naturally—so you have to provide good support. Those flimsylittle things they sell as 'tomato cages' won't do the job. Make a fouror five foot high circle out of sturdy animal fencing instead.
9. Bury them DEEP! Tomatoes are unique in that any part of their stem buried in the groundwill grow auxiliary roots to take up more water and nutrients. So bebrave, pull off the bottom leaves and bury a good two-thirds of theplant underground. You heard me! All you need is two to three inchesaboveground. And always plant in the evening, never in the morning; youwant to give your tomatoes time to get acclimated before theyexperience a full day of burning sun.
10. Compost against disease!When you're all done, spread an inch or two of your highest qualitycompost over the surface of the soil under your plants. This willprevent weeds, feed your tomatoes, and—perhaps more importantly—thebillions of living organisms in that compost will prevent dreaddiseases from attacking your plants.
You Bet Your Garden Question of the Week ©2006Mike McGrath
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