Community Philosphy Blog and Library

HOMEGROWN Life: Planting Tomatoes. It’s Time!


HOMEGROWN-LIFE-LT-GREENSpring Fever! Everyone has it. The nurseries have been selling tomato starts for weeks already. With the unseasonably warm, dry weather we’ve had in Northern California, I think we’ve all started getting the garden itch earlier than we usually would.

The last week of March is the earliest I’ll even consider planting tomatoes here in the Bay Area. Our average last frost date is February 29, but I like to play it safe. Along with that, even if frosts end early (or don’t show up the second half of winter, like this year), the soil temperature and the nighttime temps won’t be high enough for tomato success. What you want is nighttime temps of at least 50F and a soil temp of 60F.

Planting tomatoes can be relatively straightforward: Just dig a hole and plop them in the ground. Or you can take a little more care in planting them, which will give you bigger, healthier, more productive plants.


First you want to start with a healthy plant that isn’t root bound. If it has flower buds developing, it’s probably been in the pot for awhile, has run out of root space, and is now trying to reproduce because it believes it has reached its full size. Turn the plant over; if you can see roots dangling out of the drainage holes, it’s most likely out of space. If the pot it’s in is very firm, you’ve got a severely root-bound plant.


When you pull the plant up out of the pot, it’s OK to see the roots, but you don’t want them circling the soil medium. This plant has good root development without being root bound. We generally up-pot our tomato seedlings into these deep pots, planting them as deep as we can so that we start with nice, deep root systems like the one above.


While a lot of plants are sensitive to being planted deeper than where they began, tomatoes relish it. See all the little hairs on the stems? Those can develop into new roots, and the deeper you plant, the deeper the root system will be. This is beneficial, especially this year, with the drought: You can focus on deeper, less frequent watering because the roots are deep in the soil. When planting deeply, just pinch off the lower leaves and branches before burying the roots and lower stem.


If blossom end rot is an issue for you, even with proper watering, now is the time to make sure your tomato has access to plenty of calcium. (This works for peppers and eggplants, as well.) We use either crushed egg shells or oyster shells—the same oyster shells we feed our chickens. We have some salinity issues in our soil, which effects the ability of the tomato plants to uptake calcium. Sandy soil can also be a problem, since it has low water retention.


When planting the tomatoes, I dig a deep hole in well amended, loosened soil that can take not only the roots of the tomato but also the stem that I’ve plucked the leaves and branches from. I sprinkle a couple tablespoons of oyster or egg shell into the hole and then I plant the tomato. The oyster shell will break down over time, releasing calcium for the plant to take up.


Once the plant is in the ground, cover it with soil and give it a good watering to reduce transplant shock. Overcast days will also help reduce shock, as will handling the roots gently.


Tomatoes generally need support. The standard tomato cage is a pathetic attempt at support. They almost always collapse under the weight of the plant. There are more sturdy ones, but they are really pricey. Instead, we use concrete reinforcement fabric, which is a welded wire grid that comes in 7-foot sheets. We just pull it into a cylinder and wire it together. The grid is 4 inches square, which is a great size for getting your hands in and getting big tomatoes out. These homemade cages last for years. We still have the first ones we made eight years ago.

Tomatoes are pretty resilient and don’t need a lot of care, which is probably why they are the number one garden vegetable grown. Add a few extra steps to planting, and you’ll get bigger, more productive plants that can handle the drought with even more resilience.

Rachel-Dog-Island-FarmRachel’s friends in college used to call her a Renaissance woman. She was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. She still is. Instead of arts and crafts, her focus these days has been farming as much of her urban quarter-acre as humanly possible. Along with her husband, she runs Dog Island Farm, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. They’re always keeping busy. If Rachel isn’t out in the yard, she’s in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!

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