How to Transplant a Tomato; and other life lessons

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I don’t remember learning how to plant a tomato per SE,  it’s something I’ve just always  known.  Planting tomatoes was a yearly event in both my parent’s garden, and my grandparent’s.  The distinct smell of the young tomato plants, mixed with sun-warmed dirt is one of my very favorite early memories.  The planting out of the garden was a family affair.

“Now,  you want to bury the stem down deep . . . all the way to these first leaves.  You can lay it down on it’s side, like so (indicated by tipping the tomato plant on it’s side) if you need to.  It’ll sprout roots all up along this here stem, that’ll make the plant stronger.  You want lots of roots, that’ll make the plant sturdy.”

I’ve heard this speech since I was a wee girl.  It was something my grandfather always lectured on.

When we first moved back to Missouri with our young family,  our landlord,  Howard,  God Bless ‘im,  Showed up one day with some old railroad ties and a dump truck load of dirt!  Creek bed soil, to be exact.  Good Stuff.  No, that’s not part of being a landlord in Missouri- he’s just an extra special guy.  Grandpa and I went to the greenhouse together and picked out the shortest, sturdiest tomato plants he could find  . . . you don’t want the very tall spindly ones.  When we got back he set right to work helping me transplant them.  I got the speech.  This is significant because Grandpa was a man of few words, and fewer lectures.  We planted out those tomatoes and they did VERY well.  There is nothing comparable to the excitement of a first garden doing well!

Through the years there were many planting seasons, Grandpa was there for most of them.  Later, he brought a lawn chair and sat at the edge of the garden to be a part.  He gave his advice from there.  The last few years of his life he struggled with dementia.  He couldn’t remember what Grandma had sent him to the bedroom to fetch.  He couldn’t remember what he’d had to eat that morning, or even if he’d eaten.  He couldn’t remember that his favorite people had visited a couple of weeks ago, and he couldn’t remember how to write out a check.  .  .  .  but he remembered how to plant a tomato!  When I brought my tomato plants to him to show him, he said they were fine.  One was a little spindly, but it was the variety I had wanted.  It’ll be fine, he said, “just plant it down deep, clear up to these first leaves.”

Then, later, as I was kissing him goodbye,

“Now,  you want to bury the stem down deep . . . all the way to these first leaves.  You can lay it down on it’s side, like so (indicated by tipping the tomato plant on it’s side) if you need to.  It’ll sprout roots all up along this here stem, that’ll make the plant stronger.  You want lots of roots, that’ll make the plant sturdy.”

I smiled.  It’s one of my favorite memories of him.  You see, it was part of him.  A part that had been lived so long, and so well that it wouldn’t leave, even when most other things did.  It makes me think about my own life.  What parts are going to be there for good.  What is so important, and so ingrained, that it will stand the worst tests?  I hope it isn’t my nagging over chores, or my making sure the towels are folded just so. It certainly won’t be being particular about a spotless house 😉  I hope it isn’t my penchant for judgmental-ness, or the way whatever I happen to think just comes out of my  mouth without being filtered, . . .eek!

You see, it’s what we think and do hour after hour, day after day, and year after year that turns us into who we are in the end.  The decisions we make on an hourly and daily basis form the habits that make or break us.  It’s easy to dismiss one lousy bad decision or attitude today, then it is even easier the next day.  Before we know it, we have an ingrained habit that is hard to break, sadly, it more often than not becomes part of us, and makes us who we are by default.  But, happily, the reverse is also true.  One small act, thought, or decision at a time forms a habit that fundamentally changes who we are! And the impact is eternal.

So here it is.  If you’ve never had the joy of planting a tomato seedling, watching it grow, and eating that first sun-ripened tomato right in the garden, now is your chance.


How to transplant a tomato seedling

  1. Dig a hole.  A much bigger hole than the cell of soil it’s been growing in. the hole needs to be big enough to fit the roots plus the stem – “clear up to the bottom leaves”



dig a hole

2. Put any amendments you may be using in that hole ( I recommend crushed egg shells and rabbit poo)

3. Add water.  Enough to fill that hole at least halfway.


add water

4. Remove the tomato plant from its cell. If it is a plastic container, squeeze it gently from side, to side. Place your hand on top of the container around the plant and gently flip the whole container upside down. Gently push on the bottom of the container with the other hand until the soil and root system block pops out.                                                      If it is a biodegradable container, simply poke a hole in the bottom gently (so as not to damage any of the roots), to make it easier for the roots to escape and grow.


5. Gently place the seedling into the hole. If it is an especially tall transplant, you may lay it on it’s side in the hole.  When handling the tomato plant, be gentle and handle by the soil/root block and by the leaves as much as possible.

The plant can grow new leaves, but if the stem is damaged, the plant cannot recover.



6. Cover the plant in soil, up to the bottom leaves, and pat the soil gently, but firmly around the plant.




7.Mulch.  Use Straw, wood chips, whatever is handy for you, but mulch.

8. Stand back and admire that tiny little sprig of life that will produce so much flavor and enjoyment for your table!


tomato snug in it’s new home!


Other considerations and tips:

  • Plant your seedlings out with plenty of room.  They seem so small, and the space so extravagant, but they grow to be mammoth plants and the more room you provide for a root system, the better they will produce for you and the more resistant to pests and diseases they will be.   Quinn at Reformation Acres has a great article on the benefits of proper spacing to help you decide.  I used to do 18 inches apart in rows 3 ft apart, but this year I changed up and spaced my tomatoes 2 ft apart in rows that are 5 ft apart, because of her observations of experience.
  • Plan for trellising your tomatoes.  Tomatoes can grow to more than 6 ft tall, easily, and they are big and bushy.  Those little tiny cages you see at feed stores aren’t going to cut it!  My Grandfather made cages out of concrete reinforcement wire that have a 20″ diameter and are about 5′ tall.  These are the best things I have ever used.  I have 5 of them and eventually would like to make enough to use them exclusively.  They can’t be beaten.  My second pick is cattle panel, this year we secured the cattle panel about 18′ above the ground, using 6 ft T-Posts because my biggest complaint of the cattle panel is that they are too short.   The other disadvantage is that of having to tie the plant to the panel.  It takes quite a bit of time, the plants don’t seem to like it very well, and if you miss the window of opportunity, can end up with a bunch of branches lumped together, making picking the tomatoes more difficult.  You can let them sprawl on the ground, of course, but it makes them a lot harder to harvest.  It also increases the chance of them getting too wet, and rotting.  If you choose not to trellis, make sure you put plenty of straw or other mulch around them.
  • If you have grown your own Tomatoes from Seed  you will more than likely need to Plant up your seedlings before they are ready to go in the ground. This makes them much stronger and stockier. Kristi, from Stone Family Farmstead, tells us how!
  • For good, solid tips on growing tomatoes well, read Thing No One TellsYou About Growing Tomatoes! It is simple and easy, but full of good solid tips…. some of which you have read here! … she knows what she’s talking about;)


Chelsea Green Publishing - the leading publisher of sustainable living books since 1985.

  • Heirloom tomatoes are much fuller in flavor, no more expensive, and no harder to grow than hybrids.

heirloom tomato harvest

  • Tomatoes need full sun.  They take anywhere from 75-100 days to produce, on average.  They are considered heavy feeders and require a lot of water.  Mulching helps tremendously.
  • Pick off the “suckers”.  These drain energy and resources the plant could use to produce fruit.  They are the little stems that spring up from any Y in the other branches. . .

prune your tomatoes

Bonus: It helps if you wear pretty gloves,  like these:

(Affiliate links follow) 

And don’t forget a gorgeous basket to gather your bounty!

What are some of your favorite tomato growing tips and stories?


transplanting tomatoes and learning life lessons from gardening



  1. Oh, Joy, thanks for sharing Grandpa with us! (We recently lost my FIL who was also suffering from dementia.) I have recently started planting my tomatoes ‘sideways’ and find it works quite well!

  2. Pingback: How To Start Seeds Indoors For The Best Tomatoes Ever - bean post farmstead

  3. It was good to remember grandpa. He didn’t try to be great at everything but he was great at what he did. He was as gentle with those he loved as he was with his precious plants. Love that man! Thanks for the memories.

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