More Tomato Transplanting Tips (Tomatillos, too!)


I did start the process of transplanting that flat of a couple hundred tomatoes last night.  I am being pretty selective and tossing/composting all inferior, small, and extra plants.

For the most part, I’m potting twice as many of each variety as I plan to use in my own gardens so that I can make mixed packs for the farmers market and for friends.  Then, they can look at what varieties I have and pick how many of each they want for their personalized tomato patch.

I’ll just pop however many of each variety they want out of their cells and plop them into another 4-pack.  You want one cherry type, two pastes, and a slicer?  Done.  Three slicers (one black, one striped, one red), plus a pear/drying type?  Done.  The only thing I don’t do is make extra labels.

Tomatoes from the germinator flat

I transplant my little tomato plants (with at least one set of true leaves) into the standard 4-pack (48 cells to a flat) black plastic containers because that’s what I have. I wouldn’t have room for all the plants if I put them in anything bigger, and the tomatoes wouldn’t have enough room to grow in anything smaller.

If you’re fairly gentle with these plastic containers, they can be reused for a number of years. Many of the ones I have were salvaged from a local greenhouse and garden center that went out of business.

Anyhow, back to the transplanting process. Both tomatoes and tomatillos grow roots along their stems. That means you can bury a large portion of the stem each time you transplant (when you “pot on,” or transplant to a bigger pot, and when you plant in the field). This feature of tomatoes and tomatillos is especially helpful if your seedlings are a little leggy, or spindly.

I make a label for each four-pack, and I sprinkle a little soil in the bottom–covering the drainage hole. Then, I gently pull apart the tomato seedlings by their root balls, trying to damage the roots as little as possible.

If the seedlings are leggy, I set the seedling in the pot in a sort of “J”–that is, I curve the stem so that the first seedling leaves are just a little above the top of the pot. This means the root ball is a little above the bottom curve of the stem, and that’s OK. I don’t try to get the plant right in the middle of the cell–too many transplants to worry about perfection.

Transplanting into 4-Packs

I set two plants in the 4-pack on one side, then fill the cells with potting mix and press lightly to firm (gently–don’t break the stem!). Then I set the other plants in on the other side and fill those in.

I stick the label in the 4-pack, put them on the light shelf, and I use a little watering can with a fine rose and water them in (water the soil, not the plants, if you can help it). I use a light dose of fish emulsion in the water.

The transplants might look a little stricken and/or floppy at first (don’t so this outside on a windy day), but they’ll usually recover overnight. Roots will grow from the buried part of the stem to fill up the container, giving you a nice strong root system for when the plants go out to the field.

A shelf full of Tomato & Tomatillo transplants

If you put the plants outside, make sure it’s at least in the upper sixties to lower seventies, and give them a few days in the shade before getting them used to direct sun and wind. This process is called hardening off, and gets the plant accustomed to the rigors of outdoor living, so it’s not such a shock when they go in the ground. Bring the plants in at night while the temperatures are still chilly.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jillian on May 2, 2010 at 11:02 am

    Hello! Could you please tell me where to get the 4-pack black plastic containers for transplanting? I really need to find some! Many thanks!

  2. Posted by flyingtomato on May 3, 2010 at 7:58 am

    Typically they are sold in wholesale greenhouse supply places. If you are in my area, I’d be happy to give you some to re-use!

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