Transplant tomatoes into larger pots
Garden of Eatin', How-To, Vegetables

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.

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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  • Linda Kaiser King

    I have a few tomatoes plants in a 4×4 planter box but I think they are too close together. Can I move a couple out even though they have started to flower? What is the best way to do this without harming them. Is morning the best time of day to do it? Any info you can provide is most appreciated. Thanks

    • It depends on how large the plants are, but generally, you don’t want to move them once they’re in the ground as you’ll disturb the roots. If you feel they’re too close together, and they’re indeterminate varieties, you can prune the plants by continually pinching off the suckers and keeping only the main stems.

  • Cherry Xhuang

    Thank you for sharing you knowledge with us! May I ask a few questions please?

    1. I live in a situation where I can’t plant directly into the ground. I’m at a point where the seedlings, now in a 1 gallon pot are ready to be transplanted. Ultimately, I hope to have them in a 15 gallon pot. I have a 3, 5, 7, and 10 gallon pot ready to be used. Which pots do you recommend I transplant to moving forward? For example, should I go from 1 to 5 to 15?

    2. Do you ever experience stem rot when pinching the leaves and adding soil to the pot during the transplanting?

    Please excuse any errors, Japanese is my native language 🙂

    Kind regards,

    • Hi there! To answer your questions:

      1. Yes, 1 to 5 to 15 sounds like a good transition for your tomatoes, as it’ll give you room to bury the stem each time and make the plant stronger.

      2. No, I’ve never experienced stem rot. Just be sure to keep any mulch a couple inches away from the plant, as mulch can hold moisture against the stem and cause rotting. Also, try to avoid getting moisture on the leaves when you water.

  • Neil Berger

    My wife and I are transplanting our tomato plants from their cells to solo cups, before we either transplant again or plant in the garden. What is the do you recommend for us to use as soil? Should we dig up soil from the ground and mix it with compost? Should we buy potting soil and mix that with compost? What is your stance on Epsom salt?

  • Debbie Bryant

    what is the earliest after germination can I transplants tomatoes

  • Hannah Bethman

    Hi, can I skip the transplanting process and just sow in a pot? i heard you can only fill the pot up about 3/4 and add more soil every few weeks so that the root system can get larger…. like transplanting. Would this really work? Also, can I keep the tomato plant (cherry) in a 3 gallon pot forever, or would it need a 5 gallon or more?

    • You can start with one large pot and keep filling it with soil, but you’d have to make sure it receives ample sun. In my experience, the plant always grew slower this way, which is why I prefer to transplant.

      I also recommend a minimum 5-gallon pot for a cherry tomato. It will still grow in the 3-gallon, but you’ll have a much smaller plant and way less yield. Tomatoes have deep, extensive roots. I’d go for at least 7 gallons if I was growing a container tomato.

  • Stuart

    I like your info and have learned but I would like to ask a couple of wee questions, if you don’t mind Betty.

    What would you say is the largest size pot I should first plant tomato seeds into?

    Is planting one seed in each pot the normal way to go, particularly when there is only 10 seeds in the packet?

    • There’s no maximum size pot, you can use whatever you have available. If you’re using seed starting plugs, sow 1 seed per plug. If you’re using 3-inch pots, sow 3 seeds per pot. Anything larger than that still works, but I usually find it too cumbersome to keep evenly moist while the seedlings are small. Also, keep in mind that not all of your seeds may germinate.

  • Carl

    When do I start feeding the plants? I planted the seeds 4 weeks ago and have done one transplant. They are growing well and reckon the final pot change will be in 3/4 weeks? Should I start then?

    • You can start feeding your plants with a diluted fertilizer once they’ve grown a few sets of true leaves – at that stage, they’ve already used up their stored nutrients so they’ll need more.

  • 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! 🙂

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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 ….

    • 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?

    • 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.

    • 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!

    • 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?

    • 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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