Can't you just hear the collective sigh of relief...Ah, we made it. Be gone you Polar Vortices!
Now that it's officially spring, it's time to start seriously thinking about tomatoes. If you grow your crops from seed hopefully your tomatoes have already sprouted and are well on their way to being a few inches tall. If not, then get to it! It's spring! Seed your tomatoes and come back to this post in about two weeks.
By now our tomatoes have all been through their first transplant. Tomatoes always benefit from being transplanted several times before hitting the garden soil. Doing this early and often is a great way to ensure hearty plants.
The main goal with transplanting is to build up the root stock of your plants. Each time you transplant you bury the tomato stem deeper in the soil allowing the roots to develop along the lower portion of the stem. If you start your plants from seed it's a good idea to transplant them two or even three times (as we will) before they get planted in the garden.
Big, strong roots mean big, strong plants.
When your plants are a few inches tall and have (approximately) their third or fourth set of true leaves, it's time to transplant. As you remove the seedling from its current pot, be careful to not pinch the stem. In fact, it's best to avoid touching the stem altogether. Holding the plant from its leaves is the safest way to avoid any nicks along the stem. If a leaf gets crimped or torn, the plant will not suffer, but if the stem gets bent the plant is a goner.
First, pinch off the lowest set of leaves right at the base of the stem. Carefully remove the plant by turning its pot upside down, holding the soil head, as pictured below.
Loosen the roots a bit by grazing the bottom of the root ball with your finger. Add a few inches of well-draining potting soil to the bottom of a clean pot, and place the tomato plant on top. Fill with more soil, and give it all a little shake to settle everything. Your plant will appear smaller, because much of the stem is now buried below the soil. But this is good. Again, we want the roots to develop along the stem that is now buried under the soil.
After transplanting, water the plants thoroughly before putting them back under the lights (or, if you're lucky, back in the greenhouse). If you're keeping the plants in a planting tray (as we are), bottom-water the plants by filling the tray with an inch or so of water (1/2 to 1 gallon for a standard size tray). If you are not using trays, top-water the plants cautiously, being careful to keep the leaves dry by pouring water in slowly around the base of each plant. Over the next few weeks our plants will be transplanted one more time into larger, gallon sized containers. And by the time mid-May comes around they'll have an amazingly strong root system when they move into their summer homes in the garden.
As always keep an eye out for any problems. Signs of under-watering can include cracked soil and droopy plants. If your plants are being over-watered you will likely see yellowing leaves and maybe even mold on top of the soil. It is better to water deeply and thoroughly less often than it is to water in smaller amounts more often. Typically we only water our seedlings 1-2 times a week.
I'll share more tips on planting your tomatoes into their garden beds in early May. This involves deep, deep holes and compost-galore!
Until then, happy gardening!
And just for fun, here's a few of my favorite tomato posts from the last few years.
My first Around the Garden post from 2011