Tomato plants have unique growing needs, including susceptibility to cutworms and a need for support later in the season. Transplanting tomatoes is a bit different from transplanting other vegetable plants and herbs in a home vegetable garden.
Unlike many vegetable garden plants, tomatoes can grow roots from the entire length of the plant’s stem and benefit from being planted deeper than they were grown in the starter containers. To encourage extensive, healthy roots, transplant tomatoes all the way up to the first set of leaves. You can either dig a planting hole deep enough to accommodate the height of the plant vertically, or dig a shallower trench and place the transplant on its side, carefully bending the top of the plant upward as you fill in the trench with good-quality garden soil. Once the planting hole is backfilled, water the tomato transplant thoroughly.
Protect from Cutworms
Cutworm caterpillars burrow just under the soil surface and sever tomato plant stems off at ground level. To protect tomato transplants from cutworm damage, place a stiff paper or plastic collar around the stem of the plant to block the cutworm’s path, burying the collar 1 to 2 inches below the soil level and extending at least an inch above.
Paper collars can be a cylinder of several sheets of paper lengths of paper towel or toilet paper cores. Paper collars are easier to place around the plant before filling in the planting hole. Add a small amount of soil inside the collar to prevent it from collapsing, then fill in the hole outside the collar. Paper collars will decompose.
Plastic collars can be made by cutting the bottoms out of containers like 2-inch nursery pots or yogurt containers. These can be pushed into the soil around the tomato transplant’s stem after the plant is in the ground. Plastic collars must be removed during garden cleanup in the fall.
Feed the Tomato Transplant
As with many plants, a dose of starter fertilizer at transplanting time gets tomatoes off to a good start as they establish root systems in the new soil. Compost tea or water-soluble fertilizer diluted to half strength and applied around the base of the plant gives a boost of nutrients.
Eggshells added to the planting hole when transplanting tomatoes do not discourage blossom end rot in the fruit. Eggshells break down too slowly for the minerals to be available to the tomato plant.
Install Tomato Support
Most varieties of tomato vines require some support as they grow. Whether you are using stakes, cages or a trellis weave system, install the tomato plant supports at transplanting time to avoid disturbing the root system. Roots will grow around a stake or cage leg more easily than the plant will recover from having a spike driven into its root ball.
Mulch the Tomatoes
As with any vegetable garden plant a layer of mulch around transplanted tomatoes keeps weeds down, retains soil moisture and regulates soil temperature. Spread organic mulches such as compost, shredded leaves, newspaper, weed-free grass clippings or straw after the plant is placed, mulching up to but not inside the cutworm collar. Black or red plastic mulches, are also popular when growing tomatoes since they help warm the soil in early spring. Install plastic mulch sheets before digging the planting hole, then cut through it to place the transplant.