Why and How to Transplant Tomatoes… Again

I’m at it again… transplanting tomatoes. They began their lives in seed starting newspaper rolls, outgrew their 4-inch pots, and are now moving into gallon-size containers. I could have graduated them to the garden by now, but I prefer to transplant into larger pots one more time — it’s really worth the extra effort.

If you started your tomatoes early from seed and have some time before they go in the ground, it’s a good idea to repot them two or three times as they develop. Doing so builds up a bigger and stronger root system, as their vigorous taproots can grow up to 1 inch per day.

So why wouldn’t you simply start your tomatoes in large pots, and let the roots grow unbound? Because every time you transplant your tomato, you sink the lower portion of its stem deeper into the soil — thus allowing more roots to form along the newly buried stem.

While tomatoes do suffer a little transplant shock, they recover quickly and transplanting ultimately stimulates root growth.

Generally, the right time to transplant is when your tomato reaches three times the height of its pot. I use gallon pots as the final containers before planting my tomatoes in the garden.

Transplant tomatoes into larger pots

Start with clean pots. Mix together a well-draining potting medium of soil and compost. Choose your healthiest plants to transplant.

Pinch off bottom stems

Pinch off the lowest two or three branches of leaves, especially if they are wilting or yellowing. You will end up with a tall skinny stem with only a few branches on top.

Loosen root ball

Gently loosen the root ball and place the transplant in an empty pot.

While it’s true that the roots are sensitive, they are not the most vital part of a tomato plant — the stem is. New branches, leaves and roots continue to grow throughout its lifespan, but a tomato plant usually only has one main stem. The plant cannot sustain damage to its stem, which should be treated with care during transplant. Handle the plant by its leaves or root ball only — never by its stem.

Fill pot with potting mix

Fill the pot with well-amended potting mix, all the way up to its lowest branches.

Give the pot a good shake to settle everything down

I like to give the pot a good final shake to settle everything in.

Tomato plant should be buried up to its lowest set of leaves

Your newly transplanted tomato should have several inches of its stem sunk below the surface. Water deeply down to the lowest roots and only water again when the first inch or two of the soil feels dry. With a deep-rooted plant, the key is to water less frequently, but more thoroughly.

Finished tomato transplants

Over the next few weeks, your tomatoes will develop new roots along the buried stems. Feed your hungry plants with an organic fertilizer as needed.

When your plants have grown a considerable size, you can transplant them into the garden, again pinching off the lowest branches and sinking the stems deeper into the soil.

By repotting a second time, I’ve found that I’ve given my tomatoes a head start on the season and they flower much sooner… bringing me that much closer to those scrumptious summer globes!

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June 2 2011      19 comments     Linda Ly
Jardín   Verduras

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  • Sarala

    I love your blog! Especially, your post on seeding and potting mix has saved my life!! :)

    I need to transplant my tomato sapling and I was wondering about the mention of soil + compost here, as opposed to the peat + compost + perlite + vermiculite. Can you please tell me which medium would be suitable.

    Thank you for what you do! :)

    • http://www.gardenbetty.com/ Linda Ly

      Thank you for the kind comment!

      I use amended potting soil for my tomato transplants as it’s richer in nutrients, and I want to encourage root and leaf growth in the early stages. You can, however, make your own potting mix (the recipe’s on the bottom of this page http://www.gardenbetty.com/2011/03/how-to-make-your-own-seed-starting-and-potting-mix/ ). Just remember to fertilize regularly, as tomatoes are heavy feeders.

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  • Surbhi

    i looooooove your blog …. i discovered the link from apartment therapy, and have been hooked since … :) you are amazing .. thanks for spreading the wealth of knowledge … sending love all the way from India :) .. please dont stop writing ….

    • http://www.gardenbetty.com/ Linda Ly

      Thank you!! And I’ll keep writing as long as you keep reading. :-)

  • Aparna

    Extremely helpful! Thanks

  • JuliaTopaz

    This is extremely helpful, and I wish I had read it 2 days ago , before I made the first transplant for my container tomatoes!

    Everywhere I read said to use huge 5 gallon containers, so I made sure my pots were big (I’m using 2.5 gallon containers). But reading this post makes me wish I had stuck with smaller pots for my first repot. I’d hate to go ahead and repot them in smaller containers per your suggestion, because I don’t want to cause further unnecessary shock.

    Would a solution be, when they’ve grown a bit more, just changing out the soil and replanting them deeper in the pot?

    • http://www.gardenbetty.com/ Linda Ly

      If they’re already in 2.5 gallon pots, I would just let them grow there for another month or so (depending on how large your plants are right now) and then transplant directly (and deeper) into the ground.

      Since you already repotted them into larger pots, the roots will expand to fill up all that space, so it would be difficult to repot back into the same pot without possibly damaging some of the roots.

  • Raymondo

    I like , good info.thanks

  • IsleWalker

    But what happens is you get branches very close to the soil, susceptible to fungus and other soil-borne stuff. I don’t like to bury them that deep, especially the last time. This didn’t work for mine and I grew 150 from fresh tomatoes.

    • IsleWalker

      Also when the plants fruit, the tomatoes are hanging in the dirt too. I think this is conventional wisdom that may not be true.

    • http://www.gardenbetty.com/ Linda Ly

      It’s assumed that when you transplant the tomatoes, you’re using clean pots and fresh potting soil.

      If you apply mulch in the garden, you should not have a problem with fruits or branches hanging in the dirt, or water splashing dirt up onto the leaves. All my beds are mulched with several inches of straw, so I rarely have a problem with rot or disease.

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  • A Kauth

    Your directions and pictures are so detailed and clear — thank you!

    • http://www.gardenbetty.com/ Linda Ly

      You’re welcome; good luck with it!

  • Pegandsis63

    Can I repot my plants back into seed starting mix or do they need a different soil mix?

    • http://www.gardenbetty.com Linda Ly

      Seed starting mix contains no nutrients, so if you repot back into the same mix, you should fertilize your plants as they grow. Or, use a potting soil that has been amended with nutrients or compost.

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