At our last Grow Food Calgary class, Donna showed us a method of transplanting tomatoes by cutting almost all the side branches off, and laying them on their side in the garden bed. From what I gather, this is not a typical transplant method and she encouraged us to try it with the tomato plants she gave each of us. Apparently, once laying in the soil, a root system will sprout all along the bare stem.
Donna also talked to us about the benefit of using plastic sheeting against the soil where the tomatoes are planted, to keep the soil warm and increase the chances of success for the tomato plants. She had brought a sample of some red sheeting with perforations that let in moisture, and metal stakes that keep the plastic down. I recall that the red plastic is useful because it reflects appropriate wavelengths of light that are helpful to the plant.
Tomato Transplanting in 5 Easy Steps
This is how we did our tomato transplant!
Step 1: Clip the Side Branches Off
Carefully cut side branches along the main stem off, leaving the top section intact.
For us it was fairly easy to identify what to cut and what to leave, because the plants were both starting to flower at the top.
My understanding is that adventitious roots will grow from every part of the buried stem, and that each branch draws energy away from the flowering portion at the top, so I decided to cut off nearly every side branch and only leave a little bit at the top.
Of course, I happily put the cuttings into my compost!
Step 2: Soak the Root Ball
Tip the tomato plant upside down and gently get the plant out of its starter pot. Dip the root ball (the clump of dirt that used to be in the pot) in a bucket of water to thoroughly wet it before transplanting, to give the plant a good start once in the bed. Embarrassingly, we forgot about this step! I only remembered once I looked at my notes from class, before typing up this post.
Oops! Insert “Bad Newbie Garden Blogger” badge here!
Step 3: Lay the Plant into Garden Bed Sideways
Dig up a space for the tomato plant in the garden bed the same length as the height of the tomato transplant.
Remove the tomato plant from its starter pot, and lay it sideways down into the garden bed, like it is reclining in its comfy soil bed.
Cover the transplants with soil, being careful to gently bend the tip up above the soil surface.
Step 4: Prepare the Plastic Sheeting
Cut an appropriately-sized section of the plastic sheeting. We decided to try to cover the entire surface of soil where the stem was buried.
Cut holes in the plastic sheeting to allow the tips of the transplants to come out. Make sure you cut an “X” instead of just a slit. Donna mentioned that if you just cut a slit and put the plant through, whenever there is wind, the slit can act like a little guillotine slicing into the plant stem.
Step 5: Lay Sheeting on Soil Surface and Stake
Lay the plastic sheeting against the soil surface, and carefully bring the top / exposed part of the transplant through the “X” slit in the plastic. Stake the plastic down. Here we are using 2 metal stakes that Donna gave to us for the back (these work really well!) and the popsicle stick labels that came with each plant, to stake the front.
At this point, both our plants were happy. I didn’t notice until the next day that I think some of that guillotine-like action occurred on the transplant on the right (the ISIS variety, which produces a yellow cherry tomato). I think it occurred during our watering time right after transplant and staking the plastic down. The tip had made its way into the bottom left portion of the “X” slit, and we allowed our son to water the garden and the new transplants while we tidied up. We usually set the nozzle to something gentle, but I think our son was a bit overzealous, and likely the pressure and motion applied to the exposed stem caused it to move around the slit in a guillotine-like action.
The stem is quite weakened, like it was partially snapped. However, it’s still connected and will be unless and until the top portion dies. I am still holding out hope that in its zeal to live, the plant will heal itself, or if the tip gets disconnected, it will form roots into the soil or the existing stem will grow a new tip.
It may be wishful thinking, but I’ve seen some pretty determined plants who have a surprising will to live!
Just in case, I’m doing a form of penance by having started 2 tomato seeds (seeds from Donna Balzer that I “cleaned” during our first session) in the starter pots that these two transplants vacated. Those pots are at my “inside garden station” on the heat mat now! They’ll be transplanted to the garden after they become strong seedlings, and hopefully won’t suffer the same absent-minded newbie gardener fate!