Knowing how to plant tomatoes makes all the difference in both the taste and how much fruit your harvest will yield. So in this article, we’ll talk about the right way to plant your tomatoes and what you should (or shouldn’t) put in the hole.
Tomatoes are the most frequently grown vegetable in home gardens. However, if you have ever tried to plant some and got some less than stellar results, you are not alone.
Personally, I absolutely love the flavor of vine-ripened homegrown tomatoes. The flesh of the tomato is still warm from the sun when you sink your teeth in.
Then—pop!—juicy goodness floods your mouth when you bite in. Thinking about it makes my mouth water—it is seriously the best! However, I have had my share of bad homegrown tomatoes and the result is a lot less than the appealing one above.
Even though tomatoes are not hard to grow at home, a lot of home gardeners find that they don’t get as much fruit or as flavorful tomatoes as they wished because they don’t know how to plant tomatoes the right way.
In my experience, the most common reason for garden failures is that we don’t choose either the right place or the right way to plant.
If this is you, don’t feel bad! If you don’t have a garden mentor to tell you the caveats of growing tomatoes, then it’s easy to gloss over many of the important steps. I highly encourage you not to, however, as these few simple steps can make all the difference with your crop.
There’s a lot of misinformation about planting tomatoes out there, too.
Many websites and even experienced gardeners will talk about all the weird things you should put in the hole you dig for your tomato before adding the seed or seedling. But, like most things on the internet, not everything you read is true.
So in this article, we’ll talk about how to plant tomatoes and what you can put in the hole prior to planting to give your new plant a jumpstart in life.
How to plant tomatoes (the right way)
Before we dig into the soil and start our planting process, you will need to make sure of two things:
- Made sure your last chance of frost in the spring has passed (check the Farmer’s Almanac here if you’re not sure).
- Chose a location in your garden that gets at least 6 hours of sun every day.
What kind of soil do you need to plant tomatoes?
Before we move any further, let’s discuss one other crucial foundational element: your soil.
Soil is perhaps the most important factor when it comes to the flavor of your tomatoes, so you will need to make sure you’re using soil rich in organic matter (think compost and worm castings) as well as a balanced blend of macro and micronutrients.
Don’t freak out! It’s not hard to make sure you’re working with healthy soil.
If you’re planting straight in the ground:
- add compost and mix it into the top six inches of your garden bed
If you’re planting in a raised bed:
- new beds – fill with purchased potting soil or garden soil
- old beds – top off the garden bed with new garden soil and/or compost
If you’re planting in containers:
- fill with or top off with new soil or compost
Preparing the Tomato Plants for Planting
If you don’t know how to plant tomatoes from seeds, it’s pretty easy to purchase a plant at the farmer’s market, plant sales, or bix box stores.
Always start with a healthy tomato plant that is at least 4 weeks old. When choosing plants for purchase, avoid those with brown spots on the leaves, pests or sticky spots on the leaves or soil.
I’d also recommend steering clear of rootbound plants, and indeterminate plants that have flowers. Sometimes big box stores don’t care for their plants well, and that stress can induce flowering in young plants. Just like people, stressed plants don’t always make the best end result.
The best thing for planting tomatoes is to get them as deep in the ground as you can. Tomato plants love to be buried as deep as you can get them. So make an extra-deep hole and fill it with my magic blend (more on that below!) then add the plant.
Prune the leaves off your tomato before planting
You do need to prep the seedlings before you plant them by pruning off the lower leaves that will be buried below dirt level. A quick rule of thumb is to leave at least 2 sets of leaves above the soil and everything else pruned and in the ground.
This is because buried leaves invite rot and mold—the very thing you don’t want. The bare stem will be putting out new roots once it’s buried.
Offering your plant this opportunity has three main benefits:
- Stronger, deeper root system means your plant is more sturdy so it won’t get uprooted by strong winds or storms.
- More roots mean better uptake of water and nutrients, and that equals yummier tomatoes.
- Access to water and nutrients deeper in the soil means less watering and fertilizing input from you.
You could stop here and plop your plant into your hole at this point, but if you really, really want to make sure your plant is protected, you can dip it first. There are a couple of things you could consider dipping into:
- Surround – surround is kaolin clay coating that helps protect your plants from sunburn and disease. Hopefully, your plants were well hardened off, but the clay coating helps decrease transplant stress by blocking evaporation through the leaves and acting as a sunscreen. It will rinse off with watering, rain, or dew so it’s very temporary, but it helps a lot especially if you’re planting on a very hot day.
- Serenade – the active ingredient in Serenade is a strain of bacteria that helps fight fungal (and some bacterial) diseases. It works by boosting the plant’s immune system and preventing infection with disease-causing pathogens.
What Goes in the Hole for your Tomato Plant
Now, onto the ever-illusive tomato hole. If you want to know how to plant tomatoes, you’ve got to take care of the hole. Like I mentioned, I’ve heard lots of things recommended for the tomato plant hole.
We really only use one thing:
A balanced or nitrogen-heavy fertilizer is really all you need to add to the planting hole for your tomato plant. You can tell if it is nitrogen-heavy if the first number of the NPK ratio is equal to or higher than the others.
Yes, all those numbers on the bags of fertilizer actually DO mean something. I wrote an entire article about it, right here.
Before you add your plant, STOP! Make sure you mix the fertilizer into the soil at the bottom of the hole. If you set your plant roots right on top of it, you could kill your plant.
If just using fertilizer in the tomato hole seems too easy, I do have a few other suggestions to layer in that have a proven benefit.
Some organic matter like worm castings is great to add in the planting hole. Worm castings are basically worm fecal material that’s full of nutrients and soil conditioning properties. It gives you the majority of the benefits of a worm, in a powdered, easy to add in form.
Mycorrhizal fungi are beneficial at helping transplants establish healthy root systems. I like to add them with the fertilizer in a product like this one.
That’s how we plant tomatoes
But I wanted to address some other items I’ve seen recommended on the great world of the internet.
I know there’s a lot of information out there about other magical things you can put in the tomato hole. I thought it would be helpful to list out all the other things that you might read about and explain how they’ll help or why they’re bogus. Let’s go!
Some people claim that putting baking soda in the hole with your tomato plant will make the soil less acidic and therefore your tomatoes will be sweeter.
Okay. Let’s pause for a second and think about this:
Tomatoes need their soil to be at a pH of 6.2-6.5 to be healthy. It’s at this pH range that tomato plant roots can take up nutrients from the soil. If you start adding things to raise the pH of your soil without knowing what the pH of your soil actually is, you could be doing more harm than good.
With that said, in all the time I’ve been gardening and learning about creating healthy soil, I have never, ever seen a recommendation to use baking soil to change the pH in any kind of proven way.
I’m also not convinced that the pH of the soil has much to do with the acidity of the tomato. I believe that has more to do with genetics and watering, but you’ll have to take my word on that one. I don’t have anything to back up that opinion.
I can’t argue with this one. Everything to do with dead fish is great for plants in general including tomatoes. So if you have a dead fish, go ahead and throw it in the hole. Better yet, serve fish for dinner and use the bones for your garden—let mother nature do her thing!
I’m not convinced putting an aspirin in the tomato hole is of benefit based on scientific studies I’ve read. But there could be some benefits to using aspirin for tomatoes and they probably will not do any harm, so you could either try it or just keep your aspirin for headaches.
Eggshells offer lots of calcium and promote healthy microorganisms in the soil. They are beneficial for improving the soil for sure, but they are NOT going to help with blossom end rot. So if you decide to use them, you’re doing a good thing but not because you’re preventing BER.
Epsom salt is magnesium sulfate. It’s a great soil amendment, and it does provide nutrients that tomatoes need. But it’s not as magical as most garden bloggers would have you think it is.
I feel like there are much better options out there than this. In fact, I wrote an entire article about what Epsom salt will and won’t do for your tomatoes.
Kelp Meal/Alfalfa Meal
These are great natural fertilizers that are beneficial in the vegetable garden. Kelp meal has potassium and nitrogen, while alfalfa meal is a great nitrogen source. If you’re not using a balanced traditional fertilizer, definitely add some kelp or alfalfa meal to your tomato hole. Otherwise, your fertilizer should have you covered.
Blood and/or Bone Meal
Blood meal is another high nitrogen source, and bone meal provides calcium and phosphorous. Both are good choices, but you have to be careful not to overdo the bone meal. According to a recent study, bone meal has high amounts of lead and mercury. It also can transmit Mad Cow Disease, so use caution!
Used Coffee Grounds
Composted coffee grounds are an excellent soil conditioner. Too much can increase the acidity of your soil, so use them sparingly if your pH is already low. This is another situation in which you would be better off testing your pH balance before using an additive.
After reading this again, I remain convinced that your best bet for those juicy sweet tomatoes is to dig a deep hole and mix your dirt with balanced fertilizer before planting. If you want to go a step further and get your soil pH balance tested, I’d say go for it—it certainly can’t hurt to know what you are starting with.
What do you put in the hole when you’re planting tomatoes?
Share your experience in the comments below!