When to mulch tomatoes?

How and When to Mulch Tomatoes

Mulch is a covering placed over the soil around your tomatoes. It’s key step to take in effective tomato care!

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Benefits to mulching

  • It keeps moisture in. A layer spread over bare soil allows the area to soak up more water. The outer layer dries faster than the soil below it. That reduces the rate of evaporation from the soil, plus it lets the soil to retain moisture for your tomato plants.
  • It regulates soil temperature. In hot summer months, a layer helps keep the underlying soil cooler. In the fall when temperatures fall off, the layer around your tomato plants keep roots warm.
  • It smothers weeds. Fewer weeds sprout because seeds are buried beneath the surface. And the weeds that sprout are weak and easy to pull.
  • It prevents disease and fruit rot. A layer keeps water from splashing on the soil, absorbing bacteria and fungi, and bouncing up onto your plants. Likewise, when a tomato falls onto a layered area, it is less likely to rot quickly than if it falls onto soil.
  • It improves the soil. Organic varieties can be turned into the soil at the end of the season.

Tomato Dirt Tip: Don’t mulch too early – wait a couple of weeks

Wait until the soil has warmed – about 3-5 weeks after setting plants in the garden. Tomatoes like heat.

The soil needs to heat up as much as possible before adding layers.

Too early in the season, the ground is still cool (especially in northern regions or where the temperatures dip at night).

Mulching traps in the cold. Do it early and you’ll also delay blossoms, which delays fruit development, which leads to a later harvest.

Bottom line: wait or you’ll be waiting extra long to eat fresh tomatoes.

Kinds for best tomato care

Organic varieties include shredded leaves, straw, grass clippings, compost, newspaper, biodegradable weed mats, shredded hardwood, sawdust, and wood chips. Organic mulch is good for the soil. As it decomposes, it adds organic material to your garden. Most are cheap or free. Take care to use grass clippings only when the yard has not been chemically treated.
Inorganic varieties for tomatoes include plastics and fabrics, such as Recycled Plastic Weedblock or various kinds of sheet plastics. They are sold in rolls at home improvement and garden centers or online.

Compare types to see what will work best for you. They each have advantages and disadvantages for your gardening situation. Read weed mat reviews for more information.

How to mulch tomato plants

  • Spread a 2-4-inch layer around your tomato plants
  • Pull back the layer about 1-2” from around the tomato stem, forming a small well around the base of the plant. This prevents compaction around the stem, which could lead to stem rot. The well creates a natural dish to capture water for your plant.
  • If you have plenty of extra, apply it in the rows between your tomatoes to keep weeds down.
  • Water your tomato plants. Make sure the moisture has penetrated by testing it with your finger.

Have a favorite mulch for growing tomatoes? One that works well for you?

Tell us what you use to mulch your tomatoes why you like it. Other gardeners want to know so can grow great tomatoes, too!

What Others Readers Have Said About Mulch …

Pea straw is the way to go
I like to use pea straw about 2 inches thick to mulch tomatoes. I find when I water my vegetables I can use the “jet” setting on the water nozzle and …

I use the free stuff!
At our local garbage dump and recycle center, in a separate section, the staff also mulch and compost wood (trees, branches, ground, and yard waste) and …

Newspapers work for me as tomato mulch
I have used newspapers for several years now to mulch tomatoes. After I plant the tomatoes, I dig ditches around the plants that are about foot or …

Grass clippings for mulch
Just make sure it comes from a fairly well-groomed lawn. If the grass or lawn weeds have gone to seed and you use it for mulch, guess what? More weeding. …

Municipal mulch
We live in Pulaski County, Arkansas. Pulaski County rents garden spots in a community garden and provides ground yard waste as free mulch. Also the City …

Coffee grounds are fantastic for tomatoes
This is our first real attempt at growing a garden. I skimmed an article that said to use coffee grounds. So, I’ve been putting out our daily coffee grounds …

Mulching with Live Oak leaves
I live in Zone 8 (South Mississippi) and usually try to get my first Early Girls (a 52-day indeterminate) planted by the second or third week in March. …

More on mulching tomatoes
What’s the best mulch for growing tomatoes?
Black plastic mulch for tomatoes …
Review: red plastic mulch – does it really make a difference?
Review: Woven weed mats for growing tomatoes …
Review: Biodegradable weed mats for growing tomatoes

More tips on our Mulching Tomatoes Pinterest board … More on growing tomatoes
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How to buy tomato plants …
How to harden off tomato plants to prepare them for the home garden
Planting tomatoes: top tips to help your new crop succeed …
Pick the best home garden spot for growing tomato plants …
Preparing your soil for planting tomatoes in the home garden
Protecting young tomato plants from frost and freezing …
Watering tomatoes when planting and just afterwards …
Tomato worms – cutworms: keep them away with …
Planting tomato plants: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)…

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Mulching Tomatoes

Mulch is simply a covering over the soil that keeps moisture in, blocks weeds and protects low-growing tomatoes from resting on the ground and developing rot. There’s some extra benefit to using organic mulches such as grass clippings, hay, leaves or sawdust because these materials — unlike plastic, aluminum or other synthetic mulches — decompose, providing food for the millions of microorganisms that live in the soil, making nutrients available to your plants and improving soil structure. What Mulches Do

Mulches can raise or lower soil temperature, too. In the North, sheets of thin black plastic are often put down at planting time to warm up the soil, so that heat-loving tomatoes can get off to a good start. As soon as the sun starts hitting that plastic in the morning, the plant roots receive extra heat.
If you use a woody material, such as bark, fresh sawdust or wood chips as a mulch, it’s a good idea to add some extra nitrogen fertilizer to the soil. Otherwise the soil microorganisms, which need nitrogen for their own growth, will temporarily tie up the nitrogen your plants need until the mulch is broken down. Adding extra fertilizer supplies enough nitrogen for both plants and microorganisms.
In the South and Southwest, gardeners often use thick mulches of hay, straw or pine needles to protect tomato roots from too much heat during the hot summer months, as well as to help retain moisture in the soil. Some gardeners also pile up soil five or six inches around the stems of their plants to insulate the roots more and promote some extra growth. This technique is called “hilling.”
Using black plastic as mulch is good in the South and Southwest only early in the season when the plants appreciate a little extra heat. If used in summer months, however, the roots would literally cook. If you use black plastic, you can cover it with a heavy organic mulch that will keep soil temperature down when the weather heats up.
Some gardeners in hot areas use a commercially available mulch with an aluminum foil surface that reflects the sun and keeps the soil cool. Of course, it also keeps weeds down and conserves soil moisture.

Mulching Pointers

Many people make a big mistake by putting heavy organic mulches around their tomatoes too early in the season. Wait four or five weeks until the ground has really warmed up — especially in the North. With hay or any heavy mulch you’re insulating the soil, so using it early in the season keeps the soil cool, and that’s no good. You delay the harvest a few weeks if you do this.
If you’re going to use black plastic, put it down at planting time when the soil is moist. (The three-foot-wide plastic is probably best.) Secure it firmly around all the edges. The better contact the plastic makes with the soil, the more heat and moisture you trap. Then, to put in a transplant, simply punch or cut a hole or a slit in the plastic. Additional small holes here and there to let rainwater soak through are a good idea, too. IRT-plastic lets in more of the sun’s warming rays, but still prevents weeds from germinating.
Staked and trellised plants usually benefit from a mulch to save moisture. More exposed to sun and wind than unstaked plants, they lose more water through their leaves. It takes extra effort to provide them with an ample and even supply of moisture, but in dry climates, it’s worth it.

Weeds

Weeds are usually no problem around tomatoes in the home garden. As the plants are starting to grow, they are far enough apart for you to get close to do any weeding necessary. If you let some plants grow freely, you’ll soon see that, with their dense foliage, they shade out weeds very well and smother them. A good mulch around staked or trellised plants will keep down weeds, so they won’t rob the plants of water and nutrients.

Best Mulch for Tomatoes and Peppers

There are lots of options for the Best Mulch for Tomatoes and Peppers, you can use fine wood mulch, compost, grass clippings, paper mulch, fabric, straw, leaves or newspaper. We think the best mulches are grass clippings or good compost as they help feed the soil. Mulching can prevent a lot of problems in the garden.
Shown below is a pepper plant (grown from Piquillo pepper seeds) that is mulched with B.O.S.S. Black Tea Compost. This is B.O.S.S. Compost’s top of the line Class 1 Compost which rich in water absorbing organic matter, while being low in salts. This compost is formulated to have a neutral/low PH to help counteract and remediate high alkaline soils. With these natural advantages, this Black Tea Compost helps in with seed germination when used as topdressing or mulch. This special compost is made from combining enzyme rich animal feed, baby poultry bird bedding, and high-quality horse bedding that contains flailed wood shavings, alfalfa, and straw. After all these ingredients have been mixed, composted, and cured we end up with premium compost diverse in healthy micro-life. It makes the perfect mulch for tomatoes and peppers! Call your local landscaping supply companies and find out what compost they have that would make great mulch, or use grass clippings from your yard if you have grass! Leaves also make great mulch.

Mulching Peppers helps conserve moisture & cut down on Weeds
You can use good compost like B.O.S.S. Black Tea Compost, fine wood mulch, leaves, or grass clippings or weed-free hay to mulch peppers and tomatoes. Mulch helps to smother weeds which would otherwise reduce air circulation around your pepper and tomato plants and increase the likelyhood of fungal diseases. Weeds can be also be hosts for pathogens, so keeping a nice layer of mulch and weeding regularly will keep your peppers healthier. Mulch also helps prevent moisture from evaporating from the soil as quickly, keeping it more evenly moist, which helps prevent problems related to water uptake like blossom end rot on tomatoes. Applying compost to the top layer of soil also prevents water and wind erosion.

Mulching Tomatoes helps cut down on Diseases like Blight!

Did you know that mulching your tomatoes helps reduce soil born diseases like Blight? Any good compost or mulch will do. It helps keep water from splashing soil into the leaves. It’s also good to prune the lowest sets of leaves to keep the air circulating under the plant for optimal health.

Leaves make great mulch, especially during the fall and winter months!

Peppers are easy to grow from seed!

Sandia Seed specializes in New Mexican Green Chile like Hatch Chile seeds, plus lots of amazing rare pepper seed varieties from around the world, so check out our seed collections for super hot pepper seeds, hot pepper seeds, Hatch chile seeds, and sweet pepper seeds. We also sell super flavorful Heirloom Tomato seeds which go great with chiles. 🙂
Happy growing!

Mulching Tomato Plants: What’s The Best Mulch For Tomatoes?

Tomatoes are a favorite of many gardeners, and it only takes a few healthy plants for an ample harvest of fresh, plump fruit. Most people who grow robust tomato plants with healthy fruit know the importance of mulching. Mulching tomato plants is a great practice for many reasons. Let’s explore some popular mulch options for tomatoes.

Tomato Mulch Options

Mulching helps retain soil moisture, protect the plant and keep weeds at bay. There are several options when it comes to tomato mulch, many of which are free or very low cost, but effective. The best mulch for tomatoes depends on many things including your budget and personal preferences.

Shredded Leaves: Don’t bag up those fall leaves; compost them instead. Composted leaves provide valuable mulch for your entire vegetable garden, including your tomatoes. Leaves provide excellent protection from weeds and also increase moisture retention.

Grass Clippings: If you mow your lawn, you’ll most likely have grass clippings. Spread evenly around the stalks of your plants, grass clippings mat together to protect plants and retain heat. Keep grass clippings a little ways away from the stems of tomatoes so that water has access to the roots.

Straw: Straw makes great mulch for tomatoes and other veggie plants. The only issue with straw is seed sprouting. To remedy this, make sure you know what you’re getting — know your source and exactly what is in the bales, as there are many different types. Golden straw and wheat straw are good choices. Stay away from feed hay, as this is full of weed seeds. Place a 3- to 6-inch layer of straw around your tomatoes, but avoid touching the stems or leaves of plants since this can increase the likelihood of fungal problems.

Peat Moss: Peat moss decomposes slowly over the growing season, adding nutrients to the soil. It makes an attractive top dressing on any garden and can be found at most home and garden centers. Be sure to water your plants thoroughly before spreading peat moss; it likes to suck moisture from the soil.

Black Plastic: Commercial tomato growers often mulch with black plastic, which retains heat and usually increases tomato plant yield. However, this type of mulch is labor intensive and costly. Unlike organic mulch, the black plastic must be put down in the spring and taken up in the fall.

Red Plastic: Similar to black plastic, red plastic mulch for tomatoes is used to retain soil heat and increase yield. Also known as Selective Reflecting Mulch, red plastic prevents erosion and retains soil moisture. Although not technically a mulch, red plastic is thought to reflect certain shades of red light. Not all red plastic will give the same results. It must be red plastic that has been proven effective for tomato growing. Some studies indicate that red plastic offer additional benefits of repelling nematodes that like to munch on the roots system of tomatoes. Tiny holes in the plastic allow air, nutrients and water to pass through. Although the red plastic costs, you can reuse it for several years.

When and How to Mulch Tomatoes

Mulching tomatoes should be done immediately after planting for best results. Spread organic mulch evenly around the plant, leaving some space around the stem so that water can reach the roots easily.

Anchor black or red plastic down around plants using earth anchor pins. Apply a couple of inches of organic mulch over tops for best results.

Now that you know about some of the most common mulch options for tomatoes, you can grow some of your own healthy, mouth-watering tomato fruits.

How to Use Organic Mulch

It is important to pick the right mulch and lay it down loosely enough to let water pass through. Blanket the garden with 2 inches of denser mulches like compost or finely ground bark, or 3 inches of lighter, airy ones like pine needles or straw. Consider these types of organic mulch:

Wheat straw is sold by the bale, and it provides a light, fluffy mulch around vegetable plants. Relatively quick to break down, it can be turned into the soil each season and replenished, adding organic matter to the soil without influencing soil pH. But don’t confuse wheat straw with hay, which has seeds!

Pine needles (pine straw) are sold by the bale. It’s also plentiful for collecting in areas with pine trees. Because the needles knit together and stay put, they’re good for slight slopes. They add acidity to the soil, so they are an excellent choice for blueberries (which prefer more acidic soil) and for gardens with neutral to alkaline soil. Otherwise, monitor the pH of the soil with periodic soil tests, and add lime if necessary. Pine needles last a relatively long time, and usually only need to be replenished annually.

Pine bark is a byproduct of milling trees for lumber. For vegetable gardens, choose soil conditioner, which is a very finely ground bark that can also be used as mulch. The finer particles of soil conditioner will turn to compost more quickly and benefit your soil.

Compost that you make at home from garden debris and kitchen trimmings is excellent mulch, as it is higher in nutrients than most other types. Bagged products such as mushroom compost and composted manure give you an instant source until you can create a compost pile. They also contain a few nutrients.

Newspaper may seem like unlikely mulch, but when carefully placed so that sheets overlap and cover the ground 3 sheets thick, newspaper forms a remarkably effective weed barrier. In gardens where weeds matured the previous season and dropped seeds to germinate in the season to come, newspaper mulch can save a lot of time and effort. Be sure to cover it with another layer, such as wheat straw or pine needles, to prevent breezes from blowing the paper sheets around the garden. Sprinkle the paper with water as you work to “prime” it and help keep it from blowing away while you work. By the time you’re ready to replant the garden for the next season, the newspaper will have decomposed enough that it can be turned into the soil like any other organic mulch. (Note: Don’t use news magazines or glossy inserts, which may contain metal-based inks.)

Are you looking for the best mulch for tomatoes?

Tomatoes are the most commonly grown vegetable plant in home gardens. It is estimated that 9 out of 10 home gardeners choose to plant at least one tomato plant in their garden plot(s).

Overall, tomatoes are relatively easy to grow and provide bountiful yields in relation to the care needed. One tomato plant can yield 8 to 10 pounds of fruit in a growing season; growing one or two plants can easily meet the needs of a small family.

A few basic principles will help to ensure a productive growing season with a successful harvest.

To ensure maximum output, in this post, we are going to consider why using mulch is important when growing tomatoes and what are some best options.

Table of Contents

What is the best mulch for tomatoes?

Here is a quick preview of a few great options

  • Grass clippings
  • Leaves
  • Wheat Straw
  • Peat Moss
  • Red plastic sheeting

Before we talk about the benefits of each of these options. Let’s take a minute and talk about why mulch is so important.

Why use mulch? Why is it important to mulch your tomatoes?

After planting tomatoes plants in the garden it is extremely beneficial to cover the surrounding exposed soil surface with mulch. This is a protective layer of material that is typically spread 3-6” deep to cover the exposed soil between and around plants.

There are many benefits to adding mulch to your garden. Mulching between plants is a fantastic way to preserve the moisture in the soil, it helps to regulate soil temperatures, it inhibits weed growth, cuts down on soil erosion, and even helps to minimize soil compaction between plants.

Over time as the mulch breaks down, it also improves the soil structure by adding necessary organic material and increases the nutrient content of the soil as well.

Common materials that are used for mulch include straw, grass clippings, pea gravel, bark chips, leaves, peat moss, wood ashes, and sawdust. Some of the best choices from this list are ones that come right from the garden and lawn.

If you have a large garden area, the cost of buying mulch can quickly add up, so it is beneficial if you can utilize material you already have available in your yard/garden.

No matter if you purchase mulch or use something already on hand you will see definitive benefits in the plants grown and their harvestable outputs when you cover the exposed soil.

There are many different options when choosing what materials to use to mulch between tomato plants. Some of the most recommended materials are grass clippings, leaves, straw, peat moss, and red plastic sheeting.

Grass clippings are one of the most recommended sources of mulch for tomato plants. They make excellent mulch for use in the garden and are readily available for most homeowners.

Their small size makes it easy for them to be spread in tight spaces and between smaller garden plants. Over time, the grass clippings will begin to mat together creating a knitted layer of material that protects the soil surface.

This mat is what helps to keep the soil moist and warm while decreasing weed germination.

Leaves work really well too as a mulch around tomato plants and are another readily available source for many homeowners. They provide natural protection from weeds and increase moisture retention in the soil.

The drawback to using them is that for them to be the most effective they need to be composted before application. This, in turn, means you can’t grab fresh leaves from the yard and spread them around the tomato plants.

The effort to compost them must be done when the leaves fall from the trees in the fall, which is well before your tomatoes are planted.

Straw bales are used frequently in rural areas where straw is readily available for use or purchase.

Straw is an extremely clean source of material for mulch and works extremely well at holding in moisture and preventing weeds between tomato plants.

If possible choose golden straw or wheat straw, staying away from hay bales as they can be full of weed seeds. A layer of straw spread 1 – 2” deep provides enough protection during the active growing season.

When using straw as mulch avoid touching the plant stems as this can increase fungal problems.

Peat moss is another popular mulch that looks nice when used in the garden.

It holds moisture well and can be purchased at most lawn and garden centers, making it easily available at an inexpensive price tag.

Peat moss will add some nutrients to the soil as it gradually decomposes and will help to slightly acidify the soil as it breaks down, a welcome benefit to tomato plants that prefer slightly acidic soil.

While discouraged by some, red plastic sheeting is also used as mulch for tomatoes plants. It is used to retain residual heat in the soil and increase plant yields.

It also reflects red light back to the plants which is believed to stimulate growth, especially with tomato plants. So if you are looking for that extra slight advantage. I would definitely take a look at red plastic sheeting.

Plastic sheeting is an inexpensive option and easy to use; you can lay the plastic sheeting down on the bare soil surface and then plant tomato plants through it at the desired plant spacing.

Look for types that have small, pre-punctured holes to allow water and air to pass through.

Don’t forget about spacing your tomato plants…

Even though tomato plants are relatively easy to grow, it is important not to forget about proper spacing.

For optimum growth, they prefer a garden spot that receives 6 to 8 hours of full sun during the day and has good air circulation to minimize diseases in the tomato plants.

Plant spacing is dependent on the varieties chosen by the homeowner but most plants (besides dwarf varieties) require 18-24” between plants.

This gives them adequate space to grow while maintaining good air flow around the base of the plant.

Most tomato plants will need to be staked or caged to keep the plants upright as they grow; tomato plants will become very heavy when the fruit forms on the plant.

FAQ About Mulching Tomatoes…..

Is Pine Bark Mulch Good For Tomatoes? Yes, pine bark mulch is good for tomatoes. They are great sources for mulch as they preserve the moisture well, help to cut down on weeds and are great for the soil. In fact, many potting soils for tomato plants contain composted pine bark.

In addition, because they are organic it is important to know they will break down over time adding more nutrients into the soil.

Is Cedar Mulch Good For Tomatoes? Like other mulches, cedar mulch helps to keep down the weeds and control the moisture. In addition, the strong smell of cedar helps to keep bugs away from your precious tomato plants.

To learn more about how to apply cedar mulch, in the following video:

Final Thoughts…

Found in most gardens, tomato plants are relatively easy to grow and provide great yields to the homeowner when properly cared for.

Adding mulch around the base of tomato plants will provide added benefits to the garden by maximizing plant growth while minimizing inputs.

A 3-6” layer of material strewn across the exposed topsoil helps to prevent weeds from germinating and soil from becoming compacted or lost due to erosion.

Most importantly though, mulch helps improve plant growth as it retains residual heat and soil moisture.

What do you think is the best mulch for tomatoes? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below…

What’s the best mulch? Compare different types to use when growing tomatoes

Gardeners often want to know the best mulch to use when growing tomatoes. In a well-known studyhref>, North Dakota State University’s Dickinson Research Extension Center evaluated different kinds of mulch to use in the tomato patch.

Use this information to help you choose the best mulch for tomatoes in your garden!

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Grass clippings

Advantages
Easy to work with
Hold moisture well
Controls weeds well
Visually attractive
Inexpensive (free) and easy to come by
Top-rated much in this evaluation!

Wood chips

Advantages
Hold moisture well
Controls weeds well
Adds organic matter to soil
Disadvantages
Limited availability for the individual gardener without access to wood shredder; packaged wood chips are expensive.
Rated as second-best much in this evaluation

Black plastic

Advantages
Maintains even soil temperature
Controls weeds well
Disadvantages
Makes watering difficult because stream must be directed at plastic opening; water tends to form puddles on plastic
Production not as significant as with grass clippings or wood chips
Rated third in this evaluation, mainly due to production

(Read more about black plastic mulch for tomatoes.)

Buckwheat hulls

Advantages
Visually very attractive
Disadvantages
Mounded hulls made watering difficult
Hulls sprouted buckwheat seedlings all season long
Production was low, likely due to the high absorption of water by the hulls
Rated fourth in this study

No mulch

Advantages
No work
No expense
Good production
Very few weeds, possibly due to an herbicide application during the previous season
A regular watering schedule meant plots did not dry out

See more mulch ideas on our Mulching Tomatoes Pinterest board.

Mulch with wheat stalks
Use wheat stalks, after harvesting, as a mulch. They’re also known as wheat straw or hay. You usually can buy a bale of it and spread it around your plants, …

Mulching with straw
I live in Phoenix, AZ, and like most homeowners here – or at least 50% of us – I have no grass, so can’t use it for mulch. To have a summer garden in Phoenix …

Spanish Moss
I live in central Florida and have lake cypress trees with Spanish Moss. I use the moss to mulch my raised beds.

Pine Needles: Not Yard Waste, But Tomato Mulch
I use white pine needles to keep the worms and bugs out of my tomato patch. It seems to repel things, just like turpentine does, but of course is healthier. …

Shredded Leaves Are My Favorite Tomato Mulch
I use shredded leaves around my tomatoes as mulch. They are free. Also they compost well over the season. I shred them with a lawn mower (some people use …

Trim Your Evergreens and Mulch Your Tomatoes!
I had to trim a long row of evergreen shrubs on my property this spring, but decided not to throw the clippings away or shred them and compost them. Instead, …

Shredded Papers Make Good Mulch
Since I have a Shaklee Distributorship, I end up with a lot of office-type paper that at the end of the year needs to be shredded: old checks, old information …

Mulch with pine straw
Pine straw for mulching tomatoes works for me. I find it keeps the weeds down and makes watering easy.

Fall tomato garden preparation
Q. I’m starting to put garden beds to sleep for winter and have raised beds in mind for tomatoes next year. What amendments do you suggest to add at …

Sugar Cane Mulch
Here in Australia, we have easy access to bales of chopped sugar cane leaves and stems, which are left over after the sugar refining process. This makes …

Tomato mulch: under the black plastic …
I’ve been mulching with black plastic for many years now. The trick to watering is to run a soak hose/ weeping hose under the plastic and about 8-10 inches …

More on mulching tomatoes
How and when to mulch tomatoes …
Black plastic mulch for tomatoes …
Review: red plastic mulch – does it really make a difference?
Review: Woven weed mats for mulching tomatoes
Review: Biodegradable weed mats for mulching tomatoes
More on growing tomatoes
Watering tomatoes: the basics …
Watering tomatoes when planting and just afterwards …
Watering tomatoes: FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) …
Techniques for watering tomato plants …
How to control weeds in the tomato garden
Why staking tomatoes produces a bigger harvest …
Use tomato fertilizer to get best production …
Kinds of tomato fertilizer …
Organic tomato fertilizer: advantages and disadvantages…
Pruning tomato plants: how and when to do it …
Growing tomatoes: top 4 areas of tomato care …

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To get a bumper crop, stagger planting dates to extend the tomato harvest (see Harvest vs. Planting Date). Staggered transplant times will also reduce pest and disease problems, though it may not be an option if you live in an area with a short growing season. For people with longer, warmer growing seasons, start with a small crop — just one or two plants — and then add plants as the season progresses. That way, you’ll have an early, mid and late harvest rather than having your crop come in all at once. (Check our listing of tomato varieties by growing season, which will help you find the right tomato for the right cultivation time.)

Wait until soil temperatures are at least 55 to 60˚F and days are in the 60s before planting your tomatoes outside. You can get them out earlier if you keep them warm using something like an insulated cloche, cold frame or row covers, but if you put them out too soon, you won’t gain anything.

Get your gardens off to a great start and keep them productive with premium quality soil amendments. Need advice? Our Soils Blog provides the ideas, information and practical experience you need to get the job done right.

Hardening Off: Preparing the Plants

Whether your seedlings are store-bought or home-grown, you’ll need to harden them off before transplanting them into your garden. Hardening-off means getting them accustomed to the colder and more changeable outdoor environment by setting them outdoors in the shade during the day, and bringing them back in (or at least covering them) at night.

Many people who know about protecting young plants from night’s chill are unaware that they also need to be protected from the shock of full-sun. Putting them in direct sunlight before they are ready can give your tomatoes the equivalent of plant sunburn. So start with shade and progress to partial sun before subjecting them to full sun (see Hardening Off Isn’t Hard).

Hardening should take anywhere from seven to ten days. This transitional time should leave the plants ready for transplanting.

Cultivating: Preparing the Soil

The term cultivating may bring to mind heavy machinery, but that isn’t what we’re discussing here. The other image that leaps to mind — hoeing in the heat of mid-summer to keep the weeds back — is also not at issue. Mulches and close spacing pretty much make hoeing unnecessary. No, the only cultivating recommended here is pre-season soil preparation. If you’re planting, for the first time, in an area of loose, super-rich, well-drained soil, you can skip this step. If, however, you are mortal, then your soil will benefit from additives.

QUICK & ACCURATE!

The Rapitest® Soil Test Kit features a “color comparator” and capsule system that’s designed for simplicity of use with accurate results. Give it a try! It’s a fast and fun way to achieve better results from your gardening efforts.

That said, it should also be noted that the days of mandatory deep digging are on their way out. Improved understanding of soil structure has led to a decreased enthusiasm for breaking up that structure and disturbing highly beneficial earthworms. A good rule of thumb is therefore to dig only on a need-to-dig basis. You need to dig if:

  • you are starting a new plot
  • you are working an old, tired plot that has not received soil amendments regularly
  • your soil is heavy and clayey
  • your soil is extremely sandy
  • your soil is extremely anything — alkaline, acidic, stony, dry, heavy.

But if you have an established plot with good, light soil, you probably only need to mix your soil amendments with compost and spread them on top of the plot.

The single, key, always helpful addition is compost. Not only is it rich in nutrients and beneficial micro-organisms, but it also improves soil texture, and that means that it increases both moisture retention and drainage (see Benefits of Using Compost). Note that not all “organic matter” is compost. Peat moss, wonderful for helping soils hold moisture and for making it lighter and easier to work, does not contain many nutrients, and coconut fiber, a similar additive, contains none. Undecayed vegetable matter (kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, fallen leaves) contain many nutrients, but most are not readily available to plants until they have been broken down. Some manures, wonderful for gardens after they’ve been allowed to stand for a year or so, can actually damage plants if applied too soon (see Manure: Safe or Not?). Mature, fully decomposed compost is the way to go.

Beyond the “use compost” dictum, most soils benefit from materials that add the three main nutrients plants need. One easy trio is blood meal (nitrogen), bone meal (phosphorus) and K-Mag (potassium).

Quick Guide to Amendments for Problem Soils

For very sandy soil: Sandy soils drain very quickly, so you need to add material that help the soil hold water long enough for plants to get at it. Organic matter in any form will do this, but coconut fiber, derived from the coarse outer fibers of a coconut, or peat moss, harvested from bogs where it acts as a giant sponge, are especially effective. The other obvious candidate would be the old standby compost, which provides a complex array of nutrients as well as improving water-retention.

For very clayey soil: Clay soils consist of very fine particles which first resist absorbing water and then retain it tenaciously. Like sandy soils, heavy clay soils tend to be low in organic matter, so again, compost is the first line of defense, followed again by coconut fiber or peat moss. If your soil is neutral to acidic, coconut fiber may be the better choice of these two, as it tends to have a higher pH (5.5-6.3, as opposed to peat moss’s 5-5.3). In very heavy soils, however, adding sand may be as important as adding organic matter.

For acidic (low pH) soils: (below 6 — i.e., you are planting under a pine tree): First, do not despair. It isn’t true that nothing will grow under a pine tree. Even tomatoes will grow under a pine tree if they receive adequate compensation in the form of high-alkaline additives like Microna® lime or wood-ashes. “Under,” however, is a relative term: if you’re talking about a blue spruce whose branches sweep the ground, then the dictum holds true. If, however, you’re talking about a lodge pole pine whose branches start eight or ten feet up and grow almost straight out, then yes, you can probably plant under it about ten feet from the trunk. The problem is as much water and light as it is acidity.

For alkaline (high pH) soils: (you live in the west, where rainfall is low): Once again, start with compost, as alkaline soils generally lack organic matter. Beyond that, any of several additives will help correct this problem, and you can choose between them on the basis of their other qualities. Elemental sulfur, which is sold in the form of small “split-pea” pellets, will add the essential plant nutrient, while peat moss will add organic matter.

Planting

Seedlings are ready to plant outdoors when they are about six inches tall. Cloudy days are best for transplanting tomatoes (video), as seedlings are less likely to dry out or to suffer from sharp temperature changes. To transplant, pinch off the lower leaves. For those of you who started your plants from seed, this is just what you did when transplanting seedlings into larger containers.

Derived from fresh Norwegian kelp (Ascophyllum nodosum), Maxicrop® Liquid Seaweed contains over 70 minerals, micronutrients, amino acids and vitamins. Used for years by organic farmers for its many plant health benefits. Mix 3 Tbsp/ gallon and water weekly.

Bathe plants with a weak solution of liquid kelp prior to transplanting. Dousing them with a super-strong, synthetic fertilizer can send them into some botanical version of shock, so go light.

Before you put your plants in the soil, add one cup of kelp meal and one cup of bone meal into each planting hole to give them a turbocharged start. Kelp is an excellent all-around plant nutrient, which is rich in micronutrients, while bone meal is rich in phosphorus, which promotes flowers and fruits. These are both slow release fertilizers which will provide nutrients over time, without sending plants into shock as might too much chemical fertilizer. Both are also rich in micronutrients. One trick old-time gardeners use is to add Epsom salts — one to two tablespoons per hole — when transplanting tomatoes. Epsom salts add magnesium, an important plant nutrient.

Handle plants gently when transplanting. Any bruising or damage will set them back or leave them vulnerable to viruses or pests. Be careful to keep leaves free of dirt, as many fungi and viruses live in soil.

In the north, both the roots and most of the stem should go into the hole. Only the top leaf cluster should protrude above the ground. Since tomato roots will grow from the stem, the plant will have a larger root structure, which has two advantages: it gives the plant a more stable base, and it allows the plant access to more nutrients. In the south, it’s best to keep the same soil level, as the buried stem can be vulnerable to fungus. The longer growing season in the south also lets the root structure reach an optimal size without the deeper planting.

If the plants you are transplanting are tall and leggy, or if you are growing tomatoes in the north, you can use trench planting instead of the traditional hole method. The trench offers two advantages, neither of which is always relevant: you don’t have to dig as deep a hole, and the entire length of the plant’s root system is in the upper layer of soil, which warms up first in the spring and which usually contains the richest nutrients. Dig a horizontal trench as long as the roots and stem together. Remove all the leaves from the plant with the exception of the top leaf cluster. Lay the plant on its side in the trench and cover the root system and bare stem up to the top leaf cluster with two to three inches of soil mixed with kelp and bone meal. When you’ve filled in the trench, the part of the plant above ground will be lying on the dirt, but not to worry; it will become vertical within a few sunny days. If you want, you can gently push a rock under it to get it started in the right direction. This is an especially good idea if the weather is likely to be cloudy or rainy.

A third transplanting method involves digging a fairly large, deep hole (a foot wide at the top, tapering to eight inches or so, and up to a foot deep), and then planting the seedling at the bottom of it. As the plant grows, remove lower leaves, and gradually fill in the hole. This method makes maximum use of the tomato’s ability to root its stems, but it also puts the seedling in much colder earth than other methods do. To alleviate that problem, dig the holes a week in advance, and put a bottomless milk jug with the top still on in the bottom of each. The jug, acting like a miniature greenhouse, will speed the heating of the soil as well as preventing its collapse into the hole. When you transplant the seedlings, cover them with the jugs, but as soon as day temperatures reach seventy, remove the tops to avoid cooking your plants. Between the hole itself and the jug, a seedling is well-protected from wind, and as the exposed soil warms, it radiates warmth around all sides of the plant. This is an excellent technique to use in barrels and containers, where digging deep holes doesn’t involve much labor.

BOOSTS YIELDS!

Developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Red Tomato Mulch has been extensively tested to show on average a 20% increase in fruit yield. Better Reds does this by reflecting a specific range of light frequencies found in sunlight up into the undersides of your crop’s leaves and to the developing fruit.

Because tomatoes love sun and heat, you can solarize the soil, covering the plot with plastic mulch for the entire season. Soil solarization helps curb or prevent disease, especially verticillium wilt. It’s easiest to do this before transplanting, so that you’re not wrestling wads of plastic around delicate seedlings. Dig in your compost and nutrients, then wet the soil, lay down your plastic, and cut slits or Xs where you plan to set plants. If you are preparing holes with individually measured nutrients, it may be best to do that preparation before laying the plastic, keeping out only enough earth to cover the seedlings. Digging a hole large enough to hold two cups of fertilizer, then refilling it through holes in plastic can make an unholy mess. Just be sure to mark where the holes (and nutrients) are, so that you can cut your slits just above them.

In a warm climate, mulching with straw (not hay!) is another option. Charles H. Wilbur, who has spent his life producing record-sized vegetables using organic methods, including a Guinness Book of World Records tomato plant in 1987, uses wheat straw, and describes his method in detail in his book How to Grow World Record Tomatoes. In the north, though, straw and other insulating mulches are a poor early-season choice, as they keep the soil from warming up.

If you plan on staking tomatoes, it’s a good idea to put in the stakes at the same time you transplant. This pretty much eliminates the chance that you’ll drive a stake through the plant’s roots at some later time. Put the stakes on the downwind side of the plants, so that when the wind blows, plants are not straining against narrow bands of material, but instead lean into the long vertical support of the stake.

Some gardeners use In a cold area where there are any doubts about the possibility of frost, it’s wise to give seedlings some sort of cold-weather protection. This can take many forms. A plastic gallon milk jug with the bottom cut out can be set over each plant, providing a personalized greenhouse with a natural vent at the top. An old tire acts as a windbreak. Floating row covers provide frost protection.

Wallo’ Waters, which are set on the ground with a seedling at the center and then filled with water. They act as effective insulators (protecting down to 16°F) as well as superb wind breaks, but can be tricky to handle until they’re full of water. Each Wallo’ Water encircles an 18-inch diameter area and should last 3 to 5 years.

Wallo’ Waters have a tendency to droop or tip when empty or half-full, which makes filling them difficult. On the other hand, when they’re full, they’re much too heavy to handle easily. It’s best to put a couple of inches of water into each tube before setting the Wallo’ Water in place, and then filling it gradually, not in a circular pattern, but going back and forth across the ring, so that one side never gets a whole lot heavier than another.

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