Homegrown tomatoes fresh off the vine are full of flavor and bring out the best of summer. Tomatoes are grown in many backyard gardens, and no other crop has as many home remedies for success. Neighbors, friends and, of course, the internet are full of tips. Some are spot-on, while others have no benefits or could even slow your harvest.
Tomatoes are grown from a transplant. One internet tip that does not cut the muster is transplant size. Many home remedy sites suggest buying a bigger transplant so you harvest sooner. However, bigger is not always better.
Tall, leggy, overgrown transplants are often stressed, as they have been grown too long in a small container. Stressed plants have a difficult time overcoming limited root development. The result is a plant that is slow to establish and produce new growth once planted. The size of the transplant does not mean an early harvest. The varieties’ days to maturity are the best indication of when to expect vine-ripened fruit. Select early-season varieties or those that require fewer days of growth.
Instead of picking big transplants in small pots, look for short, stocky, dark green plants around 6 inches tall. These plants have been in their cramped container for less time and have not endured the stress. Once planted, the vigorous roots should quickly develop and set up the plant for a season of fresh fruit.
How to plant the transplant is a point of debate. Everyone has their ideas, and separating good gardening practices from fake news on the internet is not always easy. Some sources say to plant them deep, to lay them on their side or to be sure to throw in a handful of Epsom salts for the best tomatoes. None of these remedies is based on good science.
Vigorous, healthy transplants are best planted at the same depth they have been growing in the pot or pack. Planting deeper or laying the plant on its side places additional stress on the plant, slowing establishment. These poor planting recommendations are an outgrowth of the first incorrect myth, buying larger plants. Overgrown, leggy plants quickly get whipped around in the wind. People overcame this problem by planting deeply. The take-home message here is that two wrongs don’t make a right.
Epsom salts in the planting hole has been passed down for generations. This soaking salt is high in magnesium. The theory behind adding it to the soil is to help the plant overcome blossom-end rot. Blossom-end rot is a result of a combination of environmental early season issues that tie up the calcium in the soil, making it unavailable to the plant. Epsom salt contains little or no calcium, so this wives’ tale will not improve growth or prevent the rot issues.
Tomatoes are best planted when the soil is warm, helping to release the calcium and create a nice environment for root development. The ideal time to plant tomatoes in the Kansas City area is after all danger of frost has passed, which is around early to mid-May. With luck and good growing conditions, a fresh tomato could be yours around the Fourth of July.
Dennis Patton is a horticulture agent with Kansas State University Research and Extension. Got a question for him or other university extension experts? Email them to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit KCGardens.KansasCity.com.