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Why and How to Transplant Tomatoes (a Second Time)

Why and how to transplant tomatoes (a second time)

I’m at it again… transplanting tomatoes. The seeds were started indoors in newspaper pots. The healthiest seedlings were repotted into 4-inch pots once their true leaves appeared.

Now, those seedlings (teenagers in tomato years) are being transplanted into 1-gallon containers.

We’re more than a month into growing tomatoes, and while they can technically graduate to the garden by now, I prefer to transplant them into larger pots one more time.

Related: Days to Maturity: What It Really Means for Your Plants

What’s the point? you might be asking. Why wouldn’t I just start my tomatoes in large pots, and let the roots grow unbound until they’re ready to go in the ground?

Because every time you transplant your tomato, you sink the lower portion of its stem deeper into the soil.

It’s really worth the extra effort, and I’ll tell you why.

Tomato stem primordia (tiny bumps on the stem that are the earliest stage of root development)

How and why burying tomato stems gives you more roots

Tomatoes have a special trick up their sleeve: the ability to grow new roots (adventitious roots) along any part of their stem.

Given enough moisture and light, these roots emerge from tiny bumps (also called root initials or tomato stem primordia, the earliest stage of root development) and can actually grow without soil.

If you live in an area with high humidity or you’re prone to overwatering your tomato plants, you may have seen the bumps turn white and become more prominent.

This tendency of tomato stem primordia to appear so easily can be used to your advantage.

By partially burying the tomato stem when you transplant a second time, you’re anchoring the plant more firmly in the soil and encouraging even more roots to form. Having a deeper, greater mass of roots helps your tomato plant be more resilient against wind, drought, pests, and diseases.

Tomato seedlings ready to be transplanted

How many times should you transplant tomatoes?

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.

While tomatoes may suffer a small amount of transplant shock, they recover quickly and transplanting ultimately stimulates their growth.

Tomato transplants in 4-inch pots in the sun

How big should a tomato plant be to transplant?

Generally, the right time to transplant is when your tomato plant reaches three times the height of its container. So if you’re moving from a 4-inch pot to the next size up, wait until your plant is 12 inches tall so there’s enough stem length to bury.

The progression of pots should go like this:

  • Seed starting pots (or soil blocks)
  • 4-inch pots
  • 1-gallon pots
  • Final container or garden planting

If you’re growing tomatoes in pots, the final container size should be 10 gallons (for determinate types) or 20 gallons (for indeterminate types).

If you’re growing tomatoes in the ground, plant them at least 18 to 24 inches apart (more space is always better for proper air circulation).

Young tomato plant with yellow blossoms

Can you transplant tomato plants with fruit?

Technically speaking, yes, you can transplant tomato plants with fruit or flowers. As long as the plants aren’t severely root bound in their pots, they’re quite hardy and should recover easily from any transplant shock (whether in a pot or in the ground).

If your young plants are already loaded with blossoms, however, they stand a better chance of surviving a transplant if you remove all the flowers and fruit first.

This may sound counterintuitive, but a young plant that’s already flowering and fruiting is responding to stress. It’s putting all of its energy into producing seed so it can spawn the next generation of tomato plants. This means it focuses more on producing tomatoes and less on growing new branches and leaves.

Letting a young plant flower and fruit in this early stage could stunt its growth or delay production of more fruits. By pinching off the flowers before you transplant, you help it focus on vegetative growth so it can photosynthesize and grow strong and tall before it starts to flower abundantly.

Transplant tomatoes for more vigorous growth
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How to transplant tomatoes in pots (a second time)

Step 1: Start with clean pots and fresh potting soil.

For the second round of transplanting, step up to 1-gallon pots. They don’t have to be disinfected first (in fact, I advocate for not washing plant pots), but they should be clean and free of disease.

(I used black plastic pots because I had a lot of them around the yard, but if you can get your hands on 1- or 2-gallon fabric pots, my current suggestion is to use those instead. Fabric pots air prune the roots and make them even stronger.)

Have plenty of well-draining, well-amended potting soil on hand. I recommend mixing your potting soil with compost, or stirring in a granular tomato fertilizer before you plant (following the package instructions).

If you have a lot of transplants to pot up, it’s often more cost-effective to make your own potting soil at home.

Tomato plants in 4-inch pots, along with 1-gallon pots

Step 2: Pinch off the lowest sets of leaves.

With your fingers or a pair of garden scissors, pinch off the lowest two or three branches of leaves, especially if they’re wilting or yellowing. You will end up with a tall skinny stem with only a few branches on top.

Pinch off the lowest branches on the tomato plant

Step 3: Loosen the root ball and place the tomato plant in an empty pot.

Carefully loosen the root ball and place the transplant in an empty pot. The rim should be just below or even with the branches.

While it’s true that the roots are sensitive, they are not the most vital part of a tomato plant โ€” 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 the stem, which should be treated with care during transplant. Handle the plant gently by its leaves or root ball, but avoid manhandling the stem.

Gently loosen the root ball of the tomato plant
Tomato plant placed in the bottom of an empty pot

Step 4: Fill the pot with potting soil.

Fill the pot with potting soil, all the way up to its lowest branches. Give the pot a good final shake and add more soil as needed to stabilize the stem.

Resist tamping down on the soil with your hands or trowel (watering will do the work of settling everything in).

Fill the pot with high-quality potting soil
Give the pot a good shake and fill with more potting soil as needed

Step 5: Water the tomato plant deeply.

Your newly transplanted tomato should have several inches of stem sunk below the surface. Water deeply down to the lowest roots and only water again when the first 2 inches of soil feels dry.

With a deep-rooted plant like tomatoes, the key is to water less frequently, but more thoroughly. Tomato plants like to be slightly dry in between watering and they will not tolerate being overwatered, so try to keep the moisture level consistent.

Water the tomato plant deeply

Over the next few weeks, feed your tomato plants with an organic slow-release fertilizer as needed.

When your plants have grown two to three times the size of their pots, you can transplant them in the garden, again pinching off the lowest branches and sinking the stems deeper into the soil.

They’ll be pretty tall so a transplanting trick to save your back (from digging all day!) is to transplant your tomatoes in a trench (or trough).

By repotting my plants a second time, I’ve found that my tomatoes have a head start on the season and flower much sooner… bringing me that much closer to a summer full of juicy, ripe tomatoes (along with fermented salsa, fresh tomato sauce, and oven-dried tomatoes!).

Why and How to Transplant Tomatoes (a Second Time)

Why and how to transplant tomatoes (a second time)

You might be ready to graduate your tomato plants to the garden, but transplanting tomato seedlings a second time only makes them stronger. That's because burying tomato stems (again) encourages them to grow even more roots... and more roots mean bigger, healthier plants that are better able to withstand pests and diseases.

Prep Time 5 minutes
Active Time 10 minutes
Total Time 15 minutes
Difficulty Easy

Materials

  • 1-gallon container
  • High-quality potting soil
  • Young tomato plant
  • Organic slow-release fertilizer

Tools

  • Soil scoop or trowel
  • Watering can

Instructions

  1. Start with clean pots and fresh potting soil. For the second round of transplanting, step up to 1-gallon pots. Have plenty of well-draining, well-amended potting soil on hand. I recommend mixing your potting soil with compost, or stirring in a granular tomato fertilizer before you plant (following the package instructions).

    If you have a lot of transplants to pot up, it's often more cost-effective to make your own potting soil at home.
  2. Pinch off the lowest sets of leaves. With your fingers or a pair of garden scissors, pinch off the lowest two or three branches of leaves, especially if they're wilting or yellowing. You will end up with a tall skinny stem with only a few branches on top.
  3. Loosen the root ball and place the tomato plant in an empty pot. Carefully loosen the root ball and place the transplant in an empty pot. The rim should be just below or even with the branches.

    Handle the plant gently by its leaves or root ball, but avoid manhandling the stem.
  4. Fill the pot with potting soil. Fill the pot with potting soil, all the way up to its lowest branches. Give the pot a good final shake and add more soil as needed to stabilize the stem.

    Resist tamping down on the soil with your hands or trowel (watering will do the work of settling everything in).
  5. Water the tomato plant deeply. Your newly transplanted tomato should have several inches of stem sunk below the surface. Water deeply down to the lowest roots and only water again when the first 2 inches of soil feels dry.

Notes

With a deep-rooted plant like tomatoes, the key is to water less frequently, but more thoroughly. Tomato plants like to be slightly dry in between watering and they will not tolerate being overwatered, so try to keep the moisture level consistent.

Over the next few weeks, feed your tomato plants with an organic slow-release fertilizer as needed.

When your plants have grown two to three times the size of their pots, you can transplant them in the garden, again pinching off the lowest branches and sinking the stems deeper into the soil.

Did you make this project?

Please leave a comment on the blog or share a photo on Instagram

Tomato Transplanting Sources

Why and How to Transplant Tomatoes (a Second Time) 2
Vivosun 5-Pack Heavy Duty Thickened Non-Woven Fabric Pots | Gardzen 20-Pack 1-Gallon Non-Woven Grow Bags | Smart Pot 5-Pack 2-Gallon Fabric Pot | Fox Farm Ocean Forest Garden Potting Soil | Dr. Earth All Purpose Compost | Dr. Earth Premium Tomato, Vegetable & Herb Fertilizer | Barebones for Terrain Potting Scoop | Barebones for Terrain Trowel

Growing Tomatoes From Start to Finish

This post updated from an article that originally appeared on June 2, 2011.

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 โ€” all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is... Read more ยป

35 Comments

  • Avatar
    Swathi Vijay
    December 22, 2020 at 6:31 pm

    Hi. I have started growing the tomato plants from seeds and am a newbie to gardening. My seedlings have just sprouted and they are in small 4 inch pots, I live in apartment and I cannot pot them finally on the ground. How big a container should i pot them finally? I am yet to purchase pots and would really love some suggestions from you. Thank you

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Linda from Garden Betty
      December 22, 2020 at 6:43 pm

      For indeterminate varieties, I recommend a minimum 10-gallon pot, but bigger is better as tomatoes are large plants with very deep roots.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    HPetterson
    December 22, 2020 at 6:12 pm

    I forgot to pick off the lower leaves when I transplanted… Am I going to lose my plants? What is the reason for doing it?

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Linda from Garden Betty
      December 22, 2020 at 6:15 pm

      The reason to pick off the lower leaves is so you can expose more of the stem in order to transplant it deeper in the soil. No, you will not lose your plants. The stems just won’t benefit from the extra root growth that happens when they’re buried in the soil.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Kristi burghdurf
    December 19, 2017 at 12:27 am

    I have a gorgeous tomato plant in a pot. It is 40+ inches tall and has A LOT of tomatoes on it, but they aren’t getting very big (maybe a little bigger than a golf ball but not as big as a baseball). My pot is about 10″ high and 11 1/2″ circumference. Should I repot to a bigger container, and if so, how big? I’d like to get some bigger tomatoes. The one I ate the other day with quite literally the best and sweetest tomato that I have ever had. If I do it, I figured I’d just add a layer of rocks to the bottom of the pot and more soil, then try to get the plant, as is, in the new pot with all surrounding soil so I don’t shock it anymore than necessary. I talk to her, so I’ll apologize profusely!!! ๐Ÿ˜‰ I’d appreciate any help that you can give me.

    Thanks,
    Kristi

    P.S. I live in Florida so I can keep this plant going year round (if it is the right type, which I have no idea what it is because my mom bought it back in May).

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Linda from Garden Betty
      December 22, 2020 at 6:31 pm

      For indeterminate tomato plants, I always recommend going with a minimum 10-gallon pot to give the roots room to spread. As you know, the plants can get very large and you’ll have a more productive harvest if you give them more space.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Linda Kaiser King
    June 24, 2017 at 8:58 pm

    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

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Linda from Garden Betty
      June 30, 2017 at 4:58 am

      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.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Cherry Xhuang
    March 15, 2017 at 8:07 pm

    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 ๐Ÿ™‚

    Kind regards,

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Linda from Garden Betty
      March 21, 2017 at 10:19 pm

      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.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Neil Berger
    April 19, 2016 at 6:01 am

    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?

    Reply
    • Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      April 26, 2016 at 10:35 pm

      I recommend an all-purpose outdoor potting mix with compost (or diluted fertilizer).

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Debbie Bryant
    April 3, 2016 at 12:36 pm

    what is the earliest after germination can I transplants tomatoes

    Reply
    • Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      April 27, 2016 at 9:22 pm

      Once they grow a couple sets of true leaves.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Hannah Bethman
    March 1, 2016 at 4:58 pm

    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?

    Reply
    • Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      March 7, 2016 at 2:38 pm

      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.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Stuart
    February 28, 2015 at 7:26 am

    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?

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      Linda Ly
      February 28, 2015 at 6:46 pm

      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.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Carl
    February 2, 2015 at 12:41 pm

    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?

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      Linda Ly
      February 2, 2015 at 6:29 pm

      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.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Sarala
    September 18, 2014 at 1:57 am

    I love your blog! Especially, your post on seeding and potting mix has saved my life!! ๐Ÿ™‚

    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! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      Linda Ly
      September 18, 2014 at 11:26 pm

      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.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Surbhi
    June 20, 2013 at 10:06 pm

    i looooooove your blog …. i discovered the link from apartment therapy, and have been hooked since … ๐Ÿ™‚ you are amazing .. thanks for spreading the wealth of knowledge … sending love all the way from India ๐Ÿ™‚ .. please dont stop writing ….

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      Linda Ly
      June 21, 2013 at 4:02 am

      Thank you!! And I’ll keep writing as long as you keep reading. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Aparna
    April 23, 2013 at 11:08 am

    Extremely helpful! Thanks

    Reply
  • Avatar
    JuliaTopaz
    March 29, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    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?

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      Linda Ly
      March 30, 2013 at 9:52 pm

      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.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Raymondo
    March 24, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    I like , good info.thanks

    Reply
  • Avatar
    IsleWalker
    September 8, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    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.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      IsleWalker
      September 8, 2012 at 4:13 pm

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

      Reply
    • Linda Ly
      Linda Ly
      September 9, 2012 at 6:19 pm

      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.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    A Kauth
    April 10, 2012 at 3:42 pm

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

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      Linda Ly
      April 10, 2012 at 5:47 pm

      You’re welcome; good luck with it!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Pegandsis63
    January 19, 2012 at 8:14 pm

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

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      Linda Ly
      January 21, 2012 at 3:20 am

      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.

      Reply

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