Growing Great Tomatoes: Planting Transplants

I prefer to use transplants for tomatoes.

Most often I buy the transplants at a garden center. Some years, I have started my own transplants from seed indoors when I've wanted a variety that may be hard to find at the garden center. I only grow 6 to 8 tomato plants so buying transplants is not all that expensive. If you're growing dozens or hundreds of tomatoes, though, starting your own form seed is more cost-effective!

For most gardeners in the United States, tomatoes take too long to mature and produce if started from seed in the garden. Gardeners can get to harvest more quickly using transplants, and then we will enjoy our garden tomatoes for a longer time.

How to Plant Tomato Transplants

Planting transplants is pretty obvious:

  1. Prepare a hole in your garden where you want the plant to grow
  2. Remove the transplant from its pot
  3. Place the transplant's root ball in the hole
  4. Fill in the hole with the garden soil
  5. Water the new transplant
  6. Soon after planting, put up your tomato supports (tomato cages, stakes, etc.) You can do it at the same time as planting, or in the following few weeks, before the plant gets too large. 

Exactly how to do these steps can get a bit confusing, though. You have probably seen all kinds of advice on the Internet about how to plant your tomatoes! So let's look at these steps, and I'll offer my experience to provide some perspective.

Prepare the Planting Hole

The hole should be a bit deeper than the root ball. 

I don't believe it's necessary to put any kind of "booster" in the hole, like an antacid tablet, ground up eggshells, or coffee grounds. 

I have found it is helpful to apply tomato-specific fertilizer when planting, and I will broadcast it over the planting area and dig it into the soil. Tomatoes consume a lot of plant nutrients in the soil, and providing soil rich in nutrients will help your tomatoes. Later in the season, I will side-dress the tomatoes with more fertilizer. 

You don't need the other additions. 

The hypothesis for putting an antacid tablet in the hole is that the extra calcium in the tablet will help the tomatoes. Sometimes tomatoes develop a condition called "blossom end rot." The fruits start to rot at the "bottom" as they are growing, and the prevailing wisdom is that the plant did not have enough calcium available when growing the fruit. Antacids (e.g. "Tums") are made of calcium carbonate and they dissolve, so it makes some sense that by adding calcium at the roots, you will prevent blossom end rot. 

Blossom end rot is not merely a matter of supply and demand for calcium; it's more nuanced than that. Since I'm not a plant biologist, I'm not going to go into the details here, but I will share my experience growing tomatoes and avoiding blossom end rot. 

Start with good quality soil in your garden. Add organic material every season. When you plant your tomatoes, apply an organic fertilizer or a fertilizer formulated for tomatoes. Water your tomatoes consistently, and blossom end rot will be minor. Sometimes a plant will set lots of wonderful fruit, and also have a few with blossom end rot. No big deal! Pull those baby fruits off the plant and discard them as soon as you notice the rot - it won't go away as the fruit matures. 

The hypothesis for putting ground up eggshells in the planting hole is similar to the antacid tablet: eggshells are made up of calcium carbonate, too. However, it takes a long time for eggshells to break down, years even, so it's unlikely fresh eggshells are going make much of a difference in your tomatoes. You absolutely can work ground eggshells into your soil; even better, put them in your compost then use your compost in your garden. 

Coffee grounds are another organic material that can be worked in the soil to help boost the organic matter of the soil. It isn't a miracle cure or boost for tomatoes per se. It has no effect on blossom end rot because coffee grounds do not have significant calcium. Like the eggshells, you will probably do better to mix the coffee grounds into your compost pile. 

Remove the Transplant from the Pot

Removing the transplant from the pot is pretty obvious. Work carefully. You don't want to snap the stem accidentally or have the root ball fall apart.

If you have a transplant in a biodegradable pot, like a peat pot, I recommend breaking up the peat pot a bit before planting.

I have planted a transplant in a whole peat pot before, and at the end of the season when I'm removing my tomato (or other) plants that were planted with the whole pot, I usually find the peat pot, mostly intact still in the soil. Some of the roots are bunched up in the pot, although of course, many roots broke through and grew into the soil.

This indicates to me that the roots could not penetrate the biodegradable pot easily. The plant had to use its energy to push its roots through. Despite the idea that the pot will "dissolve" in the ground, it doesn't always work that way! 

You don't want your tomato plant using its energy to push roots through a barrier. Yur garden is intended to provide a nearly ideal environment for your plant to grow so that it will reward you with an abundant harvest. You want the plant to use its energy to grow large and healthy and to produce lots of tomatoes!

Planting Tomato Transplant Sideways

Place the Root Ball in the Hole

Tomatoes can grow roots along its stem, if the stem is buried in the soil or if the stem touches the soil surface. 

You should encourage extra root growth. The extra roots will help provide the nutrition the plant needs to grow healthy and produce an abundant crop. The extra roots will also help anchor the plant more firmly in the ground. It will be less likely to fall over in high winds, or topple and lean when it is laden with heavy tomatoes. 

There are two ways to encourage extra root growth:

  • Plant the transplant deep. Bury the root ball and up to the first leaves under the soil. 
  • Plant the transplant sideways, leaving just the top few leave branches poking out of the soil. The main vine will quickly start growing straight up, perpendicular to the ground and you'll never know it was planted sideways. 

These techniques are not intuitive - it just doesn't "seem right" to bury part of your tomato plant! But they work. The plants will tolerate both of these planting techniques just fine. 

Sideways Planted Tomato Transplant
after the root ball and stem are covered with soil

Fill the Hole with Garden Soil

Again, this is obvious. Replace the soil to complete the planting process. Press the soil firmly and gently around the transplant to help it stay in place. Don't apply so much pressure that the soil compacts! You want enough soil to support the transplant, not strangle it. 

Water the New Transplant

Watering the new transplant right away is a good idea because water helps the plant recover from the stress of transplanting. 

Even if you were extra careful and gentle while planting, the transplant endured some stress during transplant and it will experience some shock as it gets used to its new environment. Water helps it recover well and start growing!

Put up Your Tomato Supports

Put your tomato supports up early while the plants are still small. It looks a little silly to have tiny plants surrounded by a full size tomato cage, but the tomato plant will grow large quickly and it will need the support before you know it. 

With so many tomato support structures and do-it-yourself solutions available, the best type of support is one that fits your growing style and your budget. If you purchase strong and durable supports, you won't have to buy more for years to come. 

Final Step: Enjoy Your Garden

Planting transplants is a lot of fun and it feels like you get an instant garden! Follow these steps and your transplants will be happy, they will grow healthy, and they'll provide a terrific harvest for you!


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