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How to Plant Tomatoes in a Trench: A Gardener’s Trick for Tall Plants

How to plant tomatoes in a trench: a gardener's trick for tall plants

At this stage in your tomato growing game, you’ve probably started your seeds indoors, repotted your tomato seedlings, and transplanted those tomatoes a second time into a larger container to build up the root system.

Now your well-developed tomato plant is ready to go in the ground, but if your plant looks anything like mine, digging a 2-foot-deep hole to bury the stem more deeply is a bit out of the question.

If you want to save your back and speed up this last step in transplanting tomatoes, here’s a simple technique that many seasoned gardeners have in their bag of tricks: planting tomatoes in a trench.

The ultimate tomato planting hack

Planting tomatoes in a trench (or trough) is exactly how it sounds: digging a shallow trench, placing your plant sideways in the hole, and backfilling the hole just enough to cover the bottom portion of the stem.

The rest of the plant (with all the branches and leaves) simply rests on the soil. (But don’t worry, it won’t stay that way.)

If your tomato starts have gotten too tall by the time you’re ready to transplant them, this type of shallow planting not only saves time, it saves your back from all the digging you would’ve had to do to transplant a tomato properly.

A tomato planted horizontally in a trench

Why should you plant tomatoes horizontally?

The trenching method takes advantage of a tomato plant’s ability to grow roots along its stem. When part of the stem is buried, it stimulates new root growth wherever the stem is in contact with moisture and soil.

As mentioned in my previous post on repotting tomatoes, the bigger the root mass, the stronger and more resilient the tomato plant will be against pests and diseases in the garden.

But if your twice-transplanted tomato plant is 3 feet tall at this point, it doesn’t make sense to dig waaaay down there (especially if you have a lot of clay, rocks, or dirt clods in your soil).

Planting your tomatoes horizontally in a shallow trough allows you to dig much less, while also putting your plant in the upper layer of soil. This is where the richest nutrients are found, and the warmer soil helps accelerate plant growth.

Since most of the root mass will be near the surface, water and fertilizer will also be able to reach the roots more evenly. If you have less-than-perfect soil (not as well-draining as you thought it was, or as loamy as you’d like), the trenching technique actually works in your favor in many ways!

How to plant tomatoes in a trench

Step 1: Dig your trench in well-amended soil.

(If you’re stuck on how to amend your soil properly for transplanting tomatoes, follow these tomato growing tips first.)

Begin by digging a long trench (trough) about 4 to 6 inches deep, with a slightly deeper pocket on one end for the root ball.

Dig a trench about 4 to 6 inches deep, with one end a bit deeper to hold the root ball

Step 2: Place your tomato plant sideways in the trench.

Lay the tomato plant on its side in the trench, taking care not to damage the stem. Pinch or snip off the lowest two to three sets of branches.

You should end up with just a top cluster of healthy leaves and several inches of bare stem.

Lay the tomato plant on its side in the trench

Step 3: Fill the trench with soil.

Cover the root ball and newly exposed stem with soil, up to the lowest branch. Fill in the areas around the rest of the plant with more soil, so that the trench is completely filled in and the soil is level.

The plant will be oriented horizontally with its leaves and stem on the ground. Don’t worry, this is what it’s supposed to look like for now.

Fill the trench with soil, covering the root ball and the bottom of the stem but leaving the branches and leaves exposed

Step 4: Water the tomato plant.

Water your plant thoroughly, keeping in mind the roots are off to the side.

Within the next sunny day or two, the plant will start to reposition itself upright and continue to grow vertically like normal. It’s kind of like magic!

If you anticipate a period of cloudy weather following the transplant, you can set a rock under the stem to help get it started in the right direction.

A tomato starting to turn itself upright after being transplanted in a trench
Tomato plants transplanted in trenches (troughs)

Once all your tomato plants have turned themselves upright, try to stake, cage, or trellis them as soon as possible. If you have a few tomato plants growing in a row, try the Florida Weave trellising method — my favorite way to prop everything up easily!

How to Plant Tomatoes in a Trench

How to Plant Tomatoes in a Trench

Have your tomato starts gotten too tall before you can transplant them? Here's a technique that many seasoned gardeners have in their bag of tricks: Plant them sideways in a trench (or trough) to save your back from digging!

Active Time 20 minutes
Total Time 20 minutes
Difficulty Easy

Materials

  • Tomato plant

Tools

  • Shovel

Instructions

  1. Dig your trench in well-amended soil. Begin by digging a long trench (trough) about 4 to 6 inches deep, with a slightly deeper pocket on one end for the root ball.
  2. Place your tomato plant sideways in the trench. Lay the tomato plant on its side in the trench, taking care not to damage the stem. Pinch or snip off the lowest two to three sets of branches.

    You should end up with just a top cluster of healthy leaves and several inches of bare stem.
  3. Fill the trench with soil. Cover the root ball and newly exposed stem with soil, up to the lowest branch. Fill in the areas around the rest of the plant with more soil, so that the trench is completely filled in and the soil is level.

    The plant will be oriented horizontally with its leaves and stem on the ground. Don’t worry, this is what it’s supposed to look like for now.
  4. Water the tomato plant. Water your plant thoroughly, keeping in mind the roots are off to the side.

    Within the next sunny day or two, the plant will start to reposition itself upright and continue to grow vertically like normal. It's kind of like magic!

Notes

If you anticipate a period of cloudy weather following the transplant, you can set a rock under the stem to help get it started growing upright.

This post updated from an article that originally appeared on June 24, 2011.

Growing Tomatoes From Start to Finish

Linda Ly About Author

I'm a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring — all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is... Read more »