We used to know a tomato farmer in California that always grew the most robust tomato plants. Whenever anyone asked him what his secret was he would answer, “Roots is Fruits”. Funny way of saying it, but if you want to harvest lots of tomatoes you need a healthy plant, and to have a healthy plant you need strong roots.
I know it’s not always easy to wait, but you should put your tomatoes in the ground only after the chance of frost is past. The Old Farmer’s Almanac has a calculator to help you find the last spring frost dates for your location. Just keep in mind that this is just an estimate though, so you’ll still have to keep an eye on the weather.
Tomatoes are happiest when soil temperatures range between 60 and 70. They will have a difficult time flowering and set fruiting fruit in colder temperatures and it may even stunt their growth, so it’s best to wait. One thing I am always being reminded with gardening is that plants will not grow until conditions are just right, and rushing them will only slow things down in the long run. Probably a good lesson in life, as well.
If you look at the stem of a tomato close up, you will see that it is covered in fine “hairs”. Those are root hairs and if they come in contact with the soil, the plant will grow roots from that point. Before planting, I pinch off the lower two or three sets of leaves, and bury the plant as deep as possible for the most root development.
TIP: If you are not able to dig a hole to bury the stem deep enough, you can try this trick: Lay the tomato plant on it’s side for a day or two. The plant will always look for the sun and will turn up towards the light. Now you can dig a trench and bury the plant in this position.
These rules apply to both indeterminate and determinate tomatoes, as well as whether you are planting in a bed or in a container.
The typical spacing for tomatoes is about 24 inches if you leave more than one main stem. Because we like to single stem though, the plant is kept much more tidy, and I find that I can go as close as 18 inches between plants.
I don’t recommend using tomato cages, because they are just not high enough. Most indeterminate tomato plants will grow much taller than your average tomato cage will allow. You are better off using a stake – at least 6 ft tall – or a trellis to give those plants the support to grow tall.
TIP: Another trick I use in order to further strengthen the plant’s roots is to snap off any flowers before I transplant the tomato outside. At this point I want the plant to use all its energy into putting down strong roots, rather than diverting that energy to the first flowers.
It’s always a good idea to add a top layer of mulch to your beds. You can use wood chips, dry leaves, grass or straw. Although it’s not necessary to mulch, it will help protect the soil from drying out as quickly and will keep your vegetables cooler in the hot summer weather. Don’t add mulch to the beds until the soil has warmed. Adding the mulch over cold soil will keep it cooler longer and your summer plants like warm soil.