KC Gardens

Dreaming of that summer BLT with garden-fresh tomatoes? Here’s how to start off right

The ideal transplant is about six inches tall, has dark green foliage, and the pot is packed with creamy-white, healthy roots.
The ideal transplant is about six inches tall, has dark green foliage, and the pot is packed with creamy-white, healthy roots. Johnson County K-State Research and Extension

It’s the most wonderful time of the year — no, not Christmas, but tomato planting.

Modern technologies and a global market allow us to get fresh fruits and vegetables year round. While this produce is delicious, none of it can match the flavor of a tomato picked from your own garden.

Tomatoes are a warm season vegetable. Early planting does not always result in picking the first fruits on the block.

Air temperature is just one factor in planting time. Soil temperatures must be in the mid-50s before the roots develop. If soil temperatures are lower, then the transplant will struggle to survive.

Mid-May is usually the time local soils reach 55 degrees several inches deep. Warm soil means it’s time to plant.

Tomatoes are planted from what is a called a transplant — a young seedling grown in a local greenhouse. The ideal transplant is about six inches tall, has dark green foliage, and the pot is packed with creamy-white, healthy roots. Avoid tall, spindly plants as they are overgrown.

There is a trend to purchase more mature plants grown in a gallon, or larger, container. Bigger transplants don’t translate into quicker vine-ripened tomatoes. These plants are costly and may only gain a week or so in harvest. Varieties are also limited in this size.

Tomato transplants are forgiving on how they are planted. The recommended method is to prepare a planting hole, pop the plant from the pot, and gently tease the roots to break out of the mass. Set the plant slightly deeper than grown in the pot and lightly settle the soil.

Tomato planting has a number of old wives tales, ranging from setting the plant deep into the hole or laying it on its side. Since tomatoes root along the stem, the theory is they will develop more roots sooner and be stronger. The best advice is to plant a short, stocky plant that does not require deep planting or being laid over to protect the tall stem.

Tomatoes produce best with even moisture. Keep the young transplants evenly moist. A transplant starter solution or a water-soluble fertilizer can be used to settle the soil and help give the plant a boost for quick establishment.

Tomatoes are not heavy feeders. In addition to the transplant solution at planting, a follow-up application of fertilizer when the plants first set fruit will give them a boost for the rest of the season.

A common practice is to mulch tomatoes for the summer. Mulch keeps the soil cooler during the heat of summer and conserves moisture.

But don’t rush to mulch until late May or even early June. Delayed mulching lets the soil continue to warm up during spring days. The warmer soils result in early, robust growth. Mulching materials can range from shredded leaves, straw or grass clippings that have not been treated with a lawn herbicide.

Nothing tastes better than a fresh picked tomato. My mouth is watering for the flavor of summer but it might be a tad early to buy the bacon for that summer BLT.

Dennis Patton is a horticulture agent with Kansas State University Research and Extension. Got a question for him or other university extension experts? You can also email them to garden.help@jocogov.org.

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