Putting Tomatoes in the Ground

So, we’ve got the seed.

What do we do now?

The typical time to order seed is in December or January when the seed catalogs come out.  It’s a lovely time to do it.  A nice winter evening spent looking through the catalogs makes anyone who likes to garden feel better.

Tomatoes are typically grown from starts.

All that means is that people plant the seed early, indoors, to give the plants a head start on the season.


We do it for several reasons.

One, tomatoes benefit from being transplanted.  Unlike many other vegetables, tomatoes can grow roots all along their stems, anywhere.  Ever notice those little white roots poking out near the soil line?

Two, tomatoes have a way of petering out and dying very dead in the heat of August.  This can vary a bit depending on where you live, but I’m speaking mostly about Kentucky.

Because of this tendency, it is better to get a head start on the season. That means more tomatoes in the end.

Third, little baby tomato plants are little.

image courtesy Rosa Say at Flickr

See these squash seedlings?  See how big they are?  Notice the one in the foreground?  It has one true leaf (along with the two seed leaves) and has grown enormously from when it sprouted, in a very short period of time.

If you planted that seed directly in the ground, right in the garden, which is what I do, it’s easy to see when it comes up (put a little stake beside it though at first), and it has little trouble pushing the garden soil out of the way as it emerges.


In contrast, here are some tomato seedlings. The flat is the type I use. Those seedlings have two true leaves, which means that they are not newly sprouted.  They’ve been up for several days.  They are miniscule compared with the squash seedlings.

I have experimented with growing tomato plants by planting the seed right in the ground and not bothering with the whole transplanting thing. I did it mostly because I had a little bit of extra space, a couple of extra stakes and hell, why not?  I also wanted to see if it made any difference.

It does.

In the first place, it’s hard to find those seedlings in the ground. You think you’re going to know where you planted them, and I marked the place carefully, but I still had trouble.  In addition, the organic matter we’d added to the garden meant that our garden soil is sort of rough. There are bits of bark and leaves and stuff like that and for a baby seedling, those are huge things to push out of the way.  They struggled.

It was hard to keep them watered properly and if tomato seedlings go dry, they die rapidly. I found myself watering the damn things several times a day, which is way more trouble than keeping a flat damp.

And finally, in spite of the fact that those plants didn’t have to undergo transplantation, they did not do as well or grow as quickly as the ones we’d planted as started plants.

At this point, somebody will tell me about how a tomato plant came up in their compost bin (everyone with a compost bin has probably had this happen) and it was a wonderful tomato plant and grew like crazy.  I know that.  It’s happened to us.  But it was the one tomato that made it out of all the ones you put in the compost bin.  It was Super Tomato.  All your tomatoes are not going to be Super Tomato.

The moral of the story?

Start the plants indoors well ahead of the season.  In this area, that means mid-March at the latest.  If they get too big for those little cells in that flat, and they can’t go outside in the ground yet, well, that means you have to transplant them into larger containers.

And when it comes to growing seeds indoors, you need light.

I don’t mean a little light.

I don’t mean put the flat on the window sill and kiss it.

I mean light.


Here’s my lighting setup in our basement. There are four four-foot fluorescent fixtures there.  They are fastened to the joists overhead with chains.  The cording you see there is where each one is plugged into a power strip so that when it’s in use, I can turn them on and off with a broom handle and I don’t have to get on a ladder.

In the background is our milk refrigerator and to the left of it is one of our chest freezers.

Those fixtures are raised right now, above head level, because they are not in use, but when I use them, we lower them with the chains.  I put a long portable table underneath them, and the flats of seedlings sit there.  The lights in the beginning at about 1 inch above the soil, no more than two inches.

You read that right.

One inch.

Don’t cheat.

Seedlings don’t need light until they sprout, but boy golly when they do, they will reach for it rapidly and if  you don’t provide it, you get this.

leggy tomatoes
photo courtesy Jeff Myers at Flickr

Tomatoes are on the right. Not enough light.  The stems just get longer and longer, and this can happen practically overnight.

As the seedlings grow, I raise the light to keep it about an inch above them, perhaps a little higher as they get bigger.

I suspect this business of not providing enough light is the number one mistake made by people new to gardening who are trying to grow starts indoors.  If you can’t give them enough light, just go buy seedlings at the nursery.  I learned this the hard way. There is nothing I haven’t tried.

Once the weather has moderated enough to start putting the little darlings outside, you have to do it in stages. Not only is there going to be a temperature change; no matter how good my lighting is, they are going to experience light like they cannot imagine, and they are also going to have to contend with air movement (breezes).

So I put them out on the porch, not in direct sunlight, for about an hour the first day.  And then for a couple of hours the second day. And so it goes until they are outside all the time.

And then graduation day occurs.


This is our tomato garden.   It’s our smaller garden area.  My guess is that it’s about 20 feet across by 40 feet in length.  The building to the left is the garage. The one straight ahead is our wood shed.

Those are onions in the foreground. They go in the ground early.

This is not this year. We aren’t growing a garden this year because we bit off more than we could chew with all the remodeling we’ve done and we’re old and retired and we don’t have to work ourselves to death.

Anyway, each of those stakes represents a tomato plant.  They are babies. You can’t see them very well, but they are there.

We always drive all the stakes into the ground before planting the plants because we’ve killed a plant or two trying to drive in a stake later.

I was trying to count the stakes across, and can’t, but I believe that there are five stakes in each row and if I remember correctly, there were ten rows.  Maybe.  Something like that.  Approximately 50 plants.

In our family, I am the plant crowder. Dave is the more sensible person and spreads stuff out.  He also plants straight rows and pulls a line and everything is neat.  I don’t bother and have rows that are slanted and curved and it drives him nuts.

But when it comes to crowding, don’t be me. Be Dave.

Tomatoes need to go at least three feet apart in all directions.

Read that again.

Three feet.

Dave likes to have them three feet apart in rows that are four feet apart, so we have some room to get down the rows and don’t have to crawl through foliage.

We have planted 75 plants in that same space and before the season was over, Dave made me promise to never do that again.  It was too many plants for the area.

Here’s why.

Tomatoes come in two main categories:  determinate and indeterminate.

Those are fancy words, but it’s really pretty simple.

Determinate tomatoes grow to a particular height and size and quit growing, sort of like people do. Once they get all grown up, they set all their fruit, ripen it pretty much all at once, and then die deader than a doornail.

Determinate tomatoes grow well in containers because you know how big they’re going to get.  They are nice if you’re canning and want two bushels of tomatoes all at once.

Indeterminate tomatoes are more like vines. They just grow and grow and grow and who knows when they quit. And all along that stem that gets longer and longer and that plant that gets bushier and bushier, there are more and more tomatoes being formed, right up until frost finally kills them (if the August heat doesn’t do them in first).

I grow indeterminates because we have plenty of space.

So, if you have a determinate tomato and you know it’s one of those itty bitty “bush” tomatoes, you can put them a bit closer together.  “A bit” means two feet apart, maybe, instead of three.

It’s all about roots.

Take a look at this page.

I don’t want to swipe that person’s photos but I want you to see them. Note the little roots forming along the stem of the seedling and notice what they are talking about, planting the plant right on up and choking it (you can’t do that with most other plants, but you can and should with tomatoes).

More importantly, though, look at the roots.

See how they have been crammed into the container? See how they are going around and around in the circle?  They are looking for space to spread out.

That’s what they’ll do underground:  spread out.

If a tomato plant is four feet tall and two feet wide, then there are roots that you cannot see that are about four feet deep and two feet wide. Yes, they are tiny feeder roots and yes, if you pull up the plant, you won’t see four feet of roots stringing along because they will break off, but they are there nonetheless.

And if you put the next tomato plant one foot away, see what is going to happen?

Not only does the plant get crowded above ground (which makes it more difficult for pollinators to get to the flowers, but also means that air flow is restricted and all kinds of nasty diseases flourish in those conditions), it gets crowded below ground and competes with all its neighbors for nutrients and water.

Spread plants out.

This applies to everything you put in a garden.  Spread them out.  Thin them. Be ruthless. Give them space.  You will get more produce, bigger produce and healthier plants as a result.

If you don’t, be ready to feed the hell out of them and water them a lot.

So, how many tomato plants can you grow in a space that’s, say, five feet by twelve feet?

Maybe six plants.

Not sixty.






16 thoughts on “Putting Tomatoes in the Ground”

  1. I am like you; my rows are as crooked as a pig’s tail and I tend to plant things way too close together. This year, my tomatoes are way too close but so far they have been very productive. I just set out six more plants because my sister who is in her 80s picked up tomato plants the other day and forgot that she wasn’t doing a garden so she had the plants and hated to see them die…so I have some small plants that I did space more generously. I bought all of my pepper and tomato plants this year because our move into our fixer upper left me with barely enough space for my house plants let alone giving me space for starting seeds. I do know that planting tomato seeds directly in the soil is a waste of time. I’ve also tried to grow them and it takes forever for them to come up; I think it’s something about the temperature of the soil and the amount of sunlight they need and the time frame for getting a good harvest. The year I tried the seeds in the soil, I planted my seeds in March and the soil wasn’t warm enough until the first of May and the sky was always cloudy…so mine just didn’t work.


  2. No, Sally! See, there’s this guy who wrote a book, an actual book, about this super special gardening called Square Foot Gardening. Since it’s a book, and the single most expensive way to plant a garden if his directions are followed to the letter, that must mean it’s the bestest way for wannabe “homesteaders” to plant a subsistence garden. Totally. Bigly even.

    I’ve only ever planted lettuce and spinach like that. I don’t bother with starts myself, because there is a fabulous nursery just down the road, and I like to throw business at them.


  3. Write a book with all this stuff.

    Cheese, yogurt, pressure cookers, tomatoes…..all of it. Canning, cows..

    I’ll buy it. And more copies to give as gifts.

    I always enjoy your practical tips.


  4. Write a book with all this stuff.

    Cheese, yogurt, pressure cookers, tomatoes…..all of it. Canning, cows..

    I’ll buy it. And more copies to give as gifts.

    “Wit and Wisdom: The Best of the BlessedLittleBlog”

    I’ll take three.


  5. What Nicole is failing to tell you about Jeff Shoar’s children’s removal:

    Jeff and his wife had another child, a half African American baby who was reported to be the result of Jeff’s wife being raped. Supposedly, the rapist went to jail. But was also released from jail three years later.

    Jeff and his wife, Tabitha, named the little girl Khloe Shoars.

    In 2014, Jeff and Tabitha left Khloe and their other SEVEN children ages 2-9, with a 20-something male babysitter and went out for the evening.

    The babysitter reports that Khloe “took a fall”, but seemed ok. He put her to bed with the other children. Later that night, she woke up screaming. The sitter says he lead her by the hand to the kitchen to get a drink of water, and she was stumbling and uncoordinated. She took a drink of water and then collapsed.

    911 was called.

    Khloe was taken to the hospital….where she died two days later of injuries (one source says a brain hemorrhage and kidney hemorrhage) categorized by doctors as non-accidental trauma.


    Some of Nicoles nutbaggery sites will say “the autopsy hasn’t been released!” To the public? Hell no, it hasn’t. But it has to the courts….and it appears to have resulted in the court’s decision to remove all the children.

    Poor kid died 3 years ago….that report is long since in…and I’m guessing they found some very specific reasons to take those kids away.

    When your kid dies of non-accidental trauma….that’s usually a pretty good reason for people to criticize your parenting and the safety of your behavior and decisions.


  6. You and I are very similar in our gardening styles. I start specific tomatoes in spring, and pop them in the garden after they’ve been hardened off, or acclimated. I also use a darn good rooting powder to really get those roots growing. And careful fertilizing. I love making sauces and salsas to can and freeze. Also, a beautiful, sun warmed tomato, fresh off the vine, tossed with a plain pasta and a bit of cheese is a delicious lunch.


  7. I hill my tomatoes. Each tomato plant has their own hill with a moat around it. I take as much leaves off when I plant them. I do it a little differently. I lay the plant side way and then cover with dirt deep. I bend the green top so it is not covered and shoots up (sort of think of planting the letter L with the long side being buried) I then cage each plant with large cages and train them as they grow. This gives the stem to root really well. The plant is much more sturdy as well. I water only in the morning, filling each moat with water, making sure not to get the leaves or blossoms wet. When the plants are heavy with tomatoes I take a few (usually the beefsteak ones) and stress them (I don’t water as much). This gives the tomatoes a richer, fuller flavor for sliced tomatoes. I really love heirloom tomatoes that have been stressed. I eat them still warm from the summer sun with fresh basil, balsamic vineager and olive oil. My husband hates my funny shaped and different colored heirloom tomatoes. I love them!

    I agree you should write a book. Something like the encyclopedia of country living (Carla Emery did one, twenty years & more in the making, she did it with a Christian twist). You could do it without that twist! I still have my 1st addition of that book. She had a lot of knowledge and actually worked hard. Of course it didn’t turn out all that well for her, but she was interesting & passionate about her way of living.


  8. Only ever grown herbs and tomatoes in planter pots. Have been too chicken to try gardening in the ground in our backyard, even though there’s room. This blog was especially educational 🙂 . There is always hope for a “black thumb” if one heeds the sage advice of those who’ve gardened and succeeded (or failed, understand why, and can fess up to the mistakes.).


  9. Also, a beautiful, sun warmed tomato, fresh off the vine, tossed with a plain pasta and a bit of cheese is a delicious lunch.

    Tomato sandwiches. That’s one thing I missed so much when we lived in AK, where they do not have decent tomatoes, ever.


  10. I lay the plant side way and then cover with dirt deep.

    So do I. I didn’t want the piece to get really long, so I didn’t go into that, but yeah, I lie it down sideways. That’s how we killed those few tomato plants driving in stakes, by forgetting which way it was laying and literally cutting it in half.


  11. Overcrowding seems to be a common theme with NN. Survival of the fittest? There are some great National Geographical vids on _The Secret Lives of Plants_ and plant intelligence that are very good on this topic. Interesting plant behaviors on overcrowding. Highly recommend, great entertainment too.
    FWIW, I’ve had success with tomato starts by germinating indoors end of February, then moving flats out onto a dark glass table (prob any heat sink surface will work) against a white wall during non freezing temps. Def need to pot up early too. Beautiful full plants already hardened off when soil temps are right for transplanting. Also, I like to use old t-shirt material under plant pots in the bottom of the tray with one end draped into a large container of water for continual moisture. Baby diapers in the bottom of outdoor planters also work great for improved moisture conditions in our hot dry summertime.
    Great info Sally. Yes, put me on the advanced book order list too.


  12. I planted 5 tomato plants in Feb..2 roma, 2 beefy and one cherry..they are coming outta my eyeballs now..I can’t imagine planting 60..unless I was a farmer and my intention was to sell them…next yr I think I will scale back to two….I have been more successful planting seeds in small pots and then replanting in the garden..but, I think I will just stick with getting the already seeded plants at the nursery..


  13. .I can’t imagine planting 60

    If you make ketchup and spaghetti sauce you can go through a whole lot of tomatoes in a big hurry. When I’ve had that many tomatoes, I also canned many quarts of tomato juice.


  14. I didn’t quite plant sixty but next year I will increase the number I plant. I can tomato sauce, whole and also diced tomatoes, picante sauce, spaghetti sauce, my version of V8 juice, soup, and ketchup. I will have enough this year with my daughter’s and my garden but I like to can just a little extra because it is so damn easy to walk in the door and open a jar of something…

    Today, I picked two squash out of my garden and we had fried green tomatoes, baked squash, green beans with new little taters that I stole from under a potato plant, and homemade biscuits with fresh butter (my friend has a dairy and hooks me up with butter she makes). Retirement suits me just fine. My Old Fart, on the other hand, well, let’s just say that now that he doesn’t have to go to the office every single day, he has sort of let himself go. The city inspector came by today to look over the plans for our room additions, and he knows he can always find me in the garden. He didn’t realize the Old Fart was at home. So he is coming to the garden and he said, how’s life of leisure treating you and I said, well, I’m doing great. Then my hubby comes out the back door and I say, but my old man, well, I don’t think retirement is going to look so good on him. For real, he was wearing a pair of sweats with the pockets turned inside out so it looked like he had ears on his hips; he was wearing a sleeveless tshirt; he hadn’t shaved in two weeks; and he had two different house slippers on. But, he is so proud of my garden. His contribution is watching me work. LOL


  15. Last night i found my new favorite food. Grilled tomatoes. They were marinated with zucchini in a grillmates balsamic season pack and put right on the grates of a charcoal bbq. It was amazing.


  16. I love the way you write, and man do I love the way you talk about growing things. I’ve recently discovered how much I love gardening, and we expanded our raised box garden to about 12 boxes. I love it. Everything. The dirty fingernails. Worrying over my seedlings when it’s cold. Worrying over my seedlings when they’re hardening off. Worrying over my seedlings when they get in the ground. Watching my little seedlings flourish in the ground. Those quiet moments in the morning when I discover another little sprout coming out of the ground. I hope to learn to can in the next year, but I admit it’s quite daunting, so I’ve read your posts with a lot of interest. Basically, thanks for these posts because I really love reading them, lol.


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