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Boost Your Tomato Harvest: Mastering Sideways and Deep Planting

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Gardening is full of old wives’ tales and tips, but not all of them stand up in practice. However, one gardening technique that consistently proves effective is planting tomatoes either horizontally in a shallow trench or deeply in the soil.

You’ll see this advice frequently online, though often without much detail on the hows and whys, or guidance on which tomato types benefit from each method. Understanding these nuances is key to mastering this technique.

Tomatoes are a favorite among home gardeners due to their compact growth, suitability for containers, and prolific yields. They come in an array of sizes, shapes, and colors, encompassing both hybrid and heirloom varieties.

Keen gardeners aiming for an abundant harvest often scrutinize the timing and methods of tomato planting, finding that horizontal planting often yields the best fruit. But why is this method so effective?

Let’s uncover the secrets of tomato planting. We’ll explore why this technique benefits tomatoes but might not suit other plants. We’ll also outline the guidelines for choosing which tomato varieties to plant in this manner.

To successfully cultivate any plant, including tomatoes, it’s essential to mimic its natural habitat. Originally from South America, tomatoes have evolved significantly from their wild counterparts.

Known for their demanding nature in the garden, tomatoes are notorious for their heavy water and nutrient needs. Remember, though—keep the water off their leaves to avoid diseases. They also need staking to prevent toppling over and regular pruning to manage their growth.

Despite their high maintenance, it’s not entirely their fault. The characteristics we cherish in tomatoes—size, color, flavor, and yield—are all results of centuries of selective breeding.

Even the heirloom tomatoes we savor each summer are far removed from their rugged ancestors, which were naturally resilient to harsh climates and poor soil conditions.

These wild varieties were built to endure extreme environments, from arid deserts to chilly mountain peaks, and had innate disease and pest resistances that modern tomatoes often lack.

In short, the domesticated tomatoes in our gardens today are a far cry from their hardy, wild relatives, thanks to our interventions aimed at enhancing their taste and size.

Unique Planting Methods for Tomatoes

So, what’s the big deal with laying tomato plants sideways when planting them? Here’s the scoop. By planting tomatoes deep or sideways, we’re essentially replicating the natural conditions that wild tomatoes thrive under. Here’s a breakdown of how it works.

Adventitious Roots

In the wild, tomatoes leverage a special ability that all tomato varieties possess but is often underutilized in domestic gardening—adventitious roots.

Adventitious Roots
Credit: Garden Answers

Typically, when planting most garden vegetables, you should keep the soil level consistent with what it was in the pot to avoid stem rot and plant death.

Tomatoes, however, are the exception to this rule. Originating from diverse environments like the mountainous regions and rainforests of Peru and Ecuador, they have evolved to grow robustly regardless of where their seeds fall, thanks to parenchyma cells.

These inconspicuous cells lie just beneath the skin, along the stems, ready to transform to meet different needs. For example, in the dim underbrush of a rainforest, these cells can switch to performing photosynthesis.

One of the most fascinating adaptations of these parenchyma cells is their ability to develop into roots, known as adventitious roots. While many attribute this ability to the tiny hairs on the tomato stem, or trichomes, it’s actually all thanks to the parenchyma cells.

If you ever examine a tomato stem closely, you might see small bumps along the surface. These bumps are parenchyma cells starting to split and form what’s known as root primordia, preparing to grow into new roots.

When these roots start emerging, they might look odd, like tiny cream-colored worms sprouting from the stem. This could also indicate that the plant is stressed and might need more thorough watering.

Switching focus back to wild tomatoes, these are typically sprawling vines that travel across the ground and can stretch quite extensively. A single root system might not suffice for such growth.

Hence, wherever the stem makes contact with the soil, parenchyma cells kick into gear, growing adventitious roots that help stabilize and nourish the plant from multiple points along its length. This results in a robust network of roots that supports the entire plant.

The Benefits of Sideways Planting

When it comes to gardening, selecting the right soil for your tomato plants is crucial. Instead of the traditional vertical planting method, consider laying your tomato plants horizontally in a shallow trench.

Sideways Planting
Credit: Rural Sprout

With this technique, only the top part of the plant—the stem and leaves—remains above ground. The benefit? The topsoil layer, richer in nutrients and better at draining excess moisture, gives your seedlings a strong start, especially if the soil in your garden is not of the best quality.

Even in ideal soil conditions, tomatoes thrive in warm temperatures, so planting them deeper, where the soil is cooler, might hinder their growth. Planting them horizontally, therefore, is a strategic move to promote optimal growth.

As the season warms up, early-started seedlings might become tall and spindly, prone to flopping over or snapping.

Sideways planting addresses this issue by burying most of the stem, which not only prevents breakage but also encourages the growth of sturdy, vertical roots, enhancing the plant’s stability as it matures.

Crowding tomato plants can lead to various problems, including nutrient competition, excessive shading, and a higher risk of disease and pest infestations due to reduced air flow and sunlight exposure.

Planting them in a spaced-out, trench-style method ensures proper air circulation and sunlight exposure, which is vital for healthy growth and fruit production.

The trench planting method also means less digging, a real advantage if your soil is heavy with clay or rocks. While these plants will still require staking and pruning, they generally need less support and fewer cuts when grown horizontally.

Moreover, this method strengthens the tomato plants’ root systems, making them more resilient against pests and diseases.

It also improves their water and nutrient uptake, keeping them healthier overall. By spacing plants appropriately and removing lower plant debris, you reduce the risk of pests like cutworms moving from one plant to another.

Why plant tomatoes sideways? This technique leverages the plant’s ability to sprout roots along its buried stem, enhancing the overall root mass.

This not only bolsters the plant against pests and diseases but also improves drought resistance and nutrient absorption. This method is particularly beneficial in preventing conditions like blossom end rot by ensuring a robust uptake of calcium.

In summary, sideways planting in a trench maximizes nutrient access and accelerates growth, offering a practical and effective solution for gardeners seeking to optimize their tomato crop yields.

Deep Planting for Enhanced Root Development

We elevate our tomato plants off the ground to safeguard against diseases—our tomatoes, after all, are quite delicate and prone to various ailments.

This strategy ensures both the health of the plants and the quality of the fruit because, ultimately, what we’re after are luscious, sun-kissed tomatoes.

Deep Planting
Credit: Tomato Geek

In contrast, wild tomatoes aim to produce numerous small fruits, which eventually decompose to germinate new seeds directly in the soil

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. For them, lying low works best, thanks to their robust nature.

Our method of growing tomatoes vertically means they miss out on developing extra roots that would naturally form if they sprawled on the ground, leaving them reliant on a singular source for water and nutrients. This explains why our pampered tomatoes demand so much nourishment.

To encourage a rich network of roots, planting the tomato stem deeply or horizontally in your garden is key. This technique significantly expands the root system, enhancing the plant’s ability to absorb necessary nutrients and water, resulting in a plentiful harvest.

The Secret is in the Soil

Wild tomatoes have a secret weapon that our domesticated varieties lack—mushrooms. These microscopic fungi attach to the roots of wild tomatoes, expanding their root surface area by up to 50 times and breaking down soil nutrients for immediate plant absorption. This symbiotic relationship is common in 90% of plant species globally.

However, common gardening practices like tilling often disrupt these beneficial fungi in our gardens. Fortunately, you can add mycorrhizae when planting to reintroduce these helpful fungal allies. These fungi not only boost root health but also enhance overall plant vigor.

For those looking to maximize their soil’s microbiome and, consequently, their crop yield, consider adopting a no-till gardening approach. This method preserves the natural soil structure and fosters a healthier underground ecosystem.

Now, understanding why it’s beneficial to plant tomatoes in a trench, let’s cover the ‘how.’ Not all tomatoes are suited for this method, so it’s important to know whether you’re dealing with an indeterminate or determinate variety.

Indeterminate tomatoes resemble their wild ancestors, continuously producing fruit along their vines throughout the growing season.

These varieties, which include many heirlooms, require regular pruning to manage their vigorous growth and prevent breakage. They excel when trained to climb structures like strings or trellises, avoiding the need for traditional supports.

Determinate tomatoes, on the other hand, grow into a more compact bush form, making them ideal for container gardening.

They produce a concentrated burst of fruit and generally require less pruning. However, these plants are not suited for trench planting as their sturdier, shorter stems can break if forced to grow horizontally.

Ensuring a Successful Tomato Transplant

When you’re ready to transplant your tomatoes, choose an overcast or partly sunny day to minimize stress on the plants as they acclimatize to their new outdoor environment.

If you’ve gradually introduced your tomato seedlings to the outdoors, they’ll likely thrive without any issues.

It’s best to plant your tomatoes late in the afternoon or early evening. This timing allows them to settle during the cooler night hours before facing a sunny day.

Choose a tomato plant that stands at least 8-12 inches tall—the taller, the better. For those starting from seeds, aim to begin your seedlings about 12 weeks before you plan to move them outside.

This head start is crucial for developing strong, tall plants. Don’t forget to acclimatize your seedlings before transplanting.

If you’re buying plants, select the tallest and healthiest ones at the nursery. When planting, bury about two-thirds of the plant, including the main root ball. This deep planting encourages the plant to grow adventitious roots from the buried stem.

Dig a hole or trench depth based on the plant’s height to ensure the top of the plant with a few sets of leaves remains above the soil. This establishes a strong underground foundation for the plant to thrive.

Opinions differ on whether to trim off side stems to avoid overcrowding and focus the plant’s energy or bury them along with the main stem since they can also develop roots.

The risk of disease from cutting stems is minimal, and any cuts typically heal within a couple of days.

In my view, trimming the stems or not is up to you—both methods have merits. Focus on what’s easier and works best for your gardening style and conditions.

The Deep Hole Method

When planting using the deep hole method, dense soil can be a challenge. Ideally, bury most of the plant’s stem, leaving just the uppermost leaves exposed above the soil, submerging about two-thirds of the plant, including the primary root ball.

The Deep Hole Method
Credit: Pinterest

Before planting, gently separate the roots, set the plant into your prepared hole, and fill it until the soil reaches just below the top leaves.

Dig a hole deep enough to allow only the upper two or three layers of leaves to peek out. For tough, compacted soil, dig deeper to break it up, helping the roots extend downward more easily. Enhancing the soil with ample compost can also promote better growth.

Remove the plant from its container, carefully loosening the root ball. Place it in the hole and pack the soil around it, stopping just below the second or third layer of leaves.

The Deep Hole Method
Credit: Epic Gardening

If the soil is too hard, or if you’re working with a raised bed or container that limits depth, you don’t need to worry. Try to plant as deep as possible, then pile and compact soil around the stem above ground, forming a stable mound.

For situations where deep planting isn’t feasible, consider laying the plant sideways, particularly if it’s a determinate tomato type, to reduce the risk of it toppling over later. Planting at an angle may help in staking it upright more effectively.

Key Steps to Planting Tomatoes in Trenches

For the best start when transplanting tomatoes, here are some useful tips to prepare the soil. Start by creating a trench about 4 to 6 inches deep. Make a deeper section for the root ball at one end.

This trench needs to be long enough to comfortably fit the plant and ideally 6 to 8 inches deep. If you’re dealing with tough, compact soil, consider digging a bit deeper and mixing in some compost to soften the earth and enrich it with nutrients, aiding root growth.

The trench planting method is particularly beneficial if your soil is dense or if it’s challenging to dig a hole deep enough for two-thirds of your tomato plant. An advantage of this method is that the warmth from the soil along the plant’s stem promotes quicker growth.

Planting Tomatoes in Trenches
Credit: Garden Betty

For planting, make the trench around six inches deep and as long as two-thirds the height of your tomato plant. Place the plant sideways in the trench at a slight angle to ensure the top leaves remain exposed.

Then, cover the stem with soil along its length but leave the top two or three leaf sets above the ground. Initially, the plant may not stand upright; the stem will naturally reach for the sun and correct its position.

After positioning the plant, gently press down the soil around it and water thoroughly. To support upward growth, tie the base of the stem to a stake or use a tomato cage. Be cautious not to disturb the trench when installing any supports.

Finally, trim the lower two or three branches to keep only a cluster of healthy leaves and a stretch of bare stem exposed. This setup encourages a strong, healthy tomato plant.

Planting Tomatoes in Trenches
Credit: The Evergreen Acre

Initial Care After Planting

When planting your tomatoes, cover both the root ball and any newly exposed stem with soil, bringing the level up to the bottommost branch. Surround the rest of the plant with additional soil to ensure the trench is fully filled and the surface is flat.

At first, your plant will lay horizontally with its leaves and stems touching the ground, but that’s completely normal for the initial stage.

Right after planting, give it a good soak and apply a 2 to 3-inch layer of mulch. For the first week, water the plant daily or every other day to help the roots establish.

planting your tomatoes
Credit: tomatobible

Water the plant thoroughly, focusing on the areas beside the roots since that’s where you need the moisture the most.

A slow, deep watering session right after planting helps the roots grow stronger and deeper, setting the stage for a robust tomato plant. Continue this practice throughout the growing season to maintain a vigorous root system.

Avoid getting water on the leaves, as this can increase the risk of disease. Initially, the above-ground growth may slow down as the plant develops new roots. If you’ve used a special potting technique, you might see quicker root development.

Once the plant starts to grow above ground again, it’s a sign that it’s well-rooted. At this point, water less frequently but deeply to encourage the roots to extend deeper into the soil. It’s also the perfect time to begin fertilizing.

Laying the plant on its side might seem odd, but just like wild tomatoes in South America, nature has its methods finely tuned.

Expect the plant to start standing upright on its own after a day or two of sunshine. It’s fascinating to watch! If there’s a stretch of cloudy weather expected, placing a rock under the stem can help guide it upward.

As soon as your tomato plants are standing tall, secure them with stakes, cages, or trellises.

While deep planting might seem unconventional, it’s incredibly beneficial for tomatoes. This technique fosters an extensive root system, which not only supports the plant but also leads to a bountiful and tasty harvest by season’s end.

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