Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Setting Tomatoes

Jesse Fulbright, MSU Liberty County Extension

In my visits with people in the community there is a growing unrest to get out in the gardens more and plant.  With this express purpose in mind, I wanted to talk this week about growing tomatoes, specifically, setting the plants.  This information comes from an Extension MontGuide about growing tomatoes that is available through your local county Extension office.

Set tomatoes in the garden after the danger of frost has passed.  Hopefully we are past this point, but please check your weather forecast before planting.  Plants of determinate cultivars and staked indeterminate cultivars need about four square feet/plant to develop normally.

Late afternoon of a calm, cloudy, humid day is the best time to set out transplants.  Set the plants an inch deeper than they grew in the container and tamp the soil firmly about the roots.  Water the plants well with a starter solution to eliminate air pockets about the roots, to settle the soil, and to provide water and nutrients for rapid growth.  If the transplants are spindly and have long stems, lay the stems about an inch below the soil line, letting only the upper several inches of the stem protrude above the surface.  This is called trench planting.  Tomato stems will produce roots along their entire length and this will help the plant develop a larger root system and larger, healthier plants.

Right after transplanting you can take steps to protect the nascent plants by covering them with things like row tunnels. These protect the plants from hot, drying winds, increase the humidity within the canopy to decrease wilting, and warm the plants during the early season when air temperatures are often cool.  All of this helps the plants grow faster.  Plastic milk jugs and old tires don’t substantially speed plant growth, though they can protect against wind damage.
Another way to speed plant growth in our short season is to use plastic film mulch.  Organic mulches are okay in summer but they keep the soil cool in spring and slow plant growth.  Red film mulches speed soil warming and thus root growth, help control weeds, speed tomato fruit ripening and conserve soil moisture.  Black mulches conserve soil moisture and control weeds.  If you decide to use plastic, prepare the soil as you normally would, then roll out the plastic and cover the edges with stones and soil.  Punch holes where you decide to plant and set the transplants through the holes.  Irrigation water will get to the plants through those same planting holes.  Be sure the soil is moist before you lay the plastic.

Lastly, you can cover the plants with floating row covers.  These lay on the plants and hold heat in the plant canopy to speed growth.  They tend to blow away where there’s wind, however, unless you anchor them.

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