If we only needed one reason to garden a fresh summer tomato would probably fit the bill. I’m not going to belabor this point, but the hard red orbs that line our produce aisles are not tomatoes, not even close. Those buggers have had the tomato cross-bred right out of them in favor of storage life, ease of shipping and ease of harvest all at the expense of flavor.

Stepping down off my tomato box… there are a couple ways to start growing tomatoes in your garden and I think the easiest way to get started is by using sets. They are young tomato plants that were started from seed early this spring in a greenhouse and are now ready to be planted outside. They have the advantage of allowing you to harvest earlier in the summer. Please consider buying your sets from a local nursery, it helps support your local economy AND you’re more likely to find a healthy plants and a diverse selection. If you live here in Fayette County you should check out Morris Plants in Oak Hill, WV.

Ready, tomato set, go.

So you’ve got some sets? Now what?
Here’s the deal, tomatoes are insanely resilient. If you plant them right and keep them happy they’ll grow like weeds. What we’re about to do might seem drastic, but trust me, it’s best for everyone involved (including that little tomato plant). Find the top three or four leafy branches at the top of your tomato plant… then pinch off every leaf and branch below them being careful not to damage the main stem.

Pinch off the lower leaves and branches retaining the top 2 or 3 leaf sets.

Tomatoes like to be planted deep, and pinching off those branches is going to help stimulate new root growth. Those roots will emerge from the main stalk of the tomato plant once it’s underground and help your plant find water during the hot summer months ahead.

Pinch off the lower leaves of your set.

Pinch off the lower leaves of your set.

Get Loose

In my corner of West Virginia we’re lucky to have fairly loose, friable soil. This next step is far more critical for folks further with a high clay content in their soil, like my family back home in the red clay country of North Carolina. As the tiny roots of your tomato set developed they grew outward into their soil until they hit the impenetrable sides of it’s plastic pot. Those roots then curved back and started working around the circumference of the pot weaving what can become an incredibly tight rug of roots. This is a condition is known as being root bound but the good news is you can easily correct the problem.
Loosening Roots

Most tomato sets will be at least a little root bound. It’s important to loosen things up a bit.

You’ll just need to gently loosen up those roots a bit. In fact if they’re excessively bound up you might need to break or even cut up the roots. You can do this with the edge of a spade, an old pocket knife or pretty much any sharp edge. It may seem aggressive, but don’t worry, much like pinching off the top branches of a tomato to stimulate top growth, breaking up those roots will stimulate more root growth. If you don’t take the time to do this, especially when planting in thick clay soil, your tomato plants may not be able to develop a wide root spread. Instead, the roots might continue growing in a cyclical fashion around the hole you’ve dug. This will make it difficult for the plant to take in enough water during the hot summer.

Loosen up the roots to prevent them from getting bound.

Loosen up the roots to prevent them from getting bound.

In The Trenches

Here’s where things start to get a little crazy. The more traditional way to plant a tomato set is to dig a super deep hole, straight down, allowing you to bury the set all the way up to the top leaves. This would make for a sturdy base and roots that reach deep for water. In contrast I’m going to try to take advantage of the common mid-day summer storms here in the New River Gorge. They rarely last more then an hour so they don’t really provide a deep soak like our spring rains do. By planting the tomato plant sideways in a trench it should grow a more shallow but widespread root system. This will hopefully allow the plants to pull in more water from the shallow summer rains.
The trench method of planting tomato sets

Planting tomatoes on their side in a trench will create a wide root base to capture rain from short showers.

Using a shovel, spade, hoe, or your hands dig a trench about 6 inches deep and as long as the tomato set is tall. Then lay the set sideways into the trench gently allowing the top of the set to curve out of one side of the trench. It wouldn’t be a terrible idea to water the tomato now in order to aid in the plant’s transition into the garden.

Finally, fill the trench back in being careful not to break the main stem of the tomato. Tamp the soil down firmly and give the plant another good watering. The final result should leave only the top leaf sets above ground. Don’t forget to stake or cage your tomato now. Both are easier to do before the tomato really takes off and it avoids damaging the leaves, stems or root system.
Planting Tomatoes

Once you’ve back filled the trench only the top leaves will be above the ground.

Buried deep and ready to grow.

Buried deep and ready to grow.

So go stick your tommy toes in the dirt. Weather or not you try the trench method of planting I hope you plant a garden this season – and I hope you grow tomatoes in it. If by some twist of fate you’ve never had a garden fresh tomato, well honestly, you’ve never tasted a tomato before. Words can’t describe how the flavor and texture exceed the store bought equivalent. Once you’ve tasted a true tomato your mouth will water every time you catch a whiff of a tomato plant.

Have questions or comments? Please add them below!

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