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Top Ten Tips For Terrific Tomatoes

Mike: What is the best time to put tomato plants in the ground?
    ---Ray in Hatfield, Pa.
Mr. Mike: Right now my tomato plants are about 8 inches high. I want to work them up into getting used to the outside; how exactly should I do this?
    ---Chuck in Lees burg, Virginia
Mike: My wife and I recently bought a tomato plant—our first attempt at growing something to eat! Its about two feet high and seems to be standing okay, but most gardens I see use stakes to help the plants stay up. Should we do the same? Thank you.
    ---Ray and Melissa in Plains boro, 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 plant them that way when the weather is warm, or should I prune down to one seedling per pot? Thanks,
    --Dan in Swarthmore, Pa.
I have some crushed oyster shells left over from making rock for my saltwater aquarium, and was wondering if they would serve the same purpose as the eggshells you always recommend when planting tomatoes.
    --Kevin in Cochranville, PA
Answer. Thanks, all! This is the perfect time of year for me to help get everybody's tomato plants off to a great start, so I'm going to answer your questions—and more—with my Top Ten Tips for Terrific Tomatoes!
1. Thin them out! This is the hardest thing to do in gardening, but if you leave more than one plant in each pot, none of them will thrive. If you've been gardening for a good long time and have done this kind of thing before (successfully), use a sharp knife to cut straight down through the root mass, then pot each plant up again separately. (Don't try this if you a newbie and NEVER try and pull them apart!) A safer bet is to just snip the weakest ones off at the soil line with a little pair of scissors. Lose the ones with the thinnest stalks—unlike us, thick stalks are good.

2. Don't rush the season! Actual frost isn't the only consideration. Tomatoes are tropical plants that don't like to catch a chill. So don't even think about planting them outdoors until nighttime temps are in consistently the fifties. My 'last average frost date' is May 15th (you should be able to find yours online; otherwise, just contact your local county extension office), but I often wait until June 1st if Spring has been a little slow. I'll get ripe tomatoes at the same time as if I had planted earlier in the season, and the plants will not sulk nearly as much.

3. 'Harden off' your tomatoes before you plant them. Take the potted plants out in the morning, water them well, place them where they'll get some sun and then bring them back inside that evening. Repeat this for a few days, ideally increasing the amount of sun they get each day. Then leave them out all night for another couple of days (unless overnight temps drop below the mid to high forties, then bring them back in—tomatoes have very little sense of humor about these things). Don't neglect this step! Plants that go right from a warm home or greenhouse into the unpredictable outdoors often suffer severe early season setbacks.


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