How to Plant Tomatoes DEEP for a Bountiful Harvest

Let’s talk about how deep to plant tomatoes for sturdy, productive plants. Planting them deeply — or even sideways — encourages superb root growth. 

Learn more about growing Roma tomatoes, a variety that’s ideal for cooking and canning. 

cluster of red ripe tomatoes growing on a vine

Tomatoes are a staple for most gardeners and for the most part, they’re pretty easy to grow. They just don’t take a lot of extra work in most regions of the United States.

But you can really boost the sturdiness and root system of your tomato plants with this gardening trick.


 

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How to plant tomato seedlings

Whether you plant tomato seeds yourself or purchase seedlings from a garden center, those baby tomato plants will need to be transplanted into soil or into a large growing container. Read more on growing tomatoes in containers here.

That little tomato plant can grow quite large. Establishing a sturdy root system will help the plant pull necessary nutrients from the soil and gives it a solid base. (Even so, most tomato varieties will need to be staked or caged to prevent them from falling over.)

The deep hole method

If you’ve ever grown tomatoes, you know that their stems are very fleshy. Those stems will send out roots if they touch moist soil, or even above ground if the weather is rainy and wet.

You can see it happening on the seedling below. But even if there are no root buds visible, the fleshy stem of a tomato plant will send out roots if given the chance. 

tomato seedling on its side, showing root ball and plant

The white rootlets visible on the stem will become roots if buried in soil.

Your job is to give it that chance! If you were to bury those stems, the plant will send roots into the soil.

This deep hole method of planting tomatoes gives them a solid start, making for a sturdier and stronger plant. A plant with a strong root system is much more able to withstand dry periods and prolonged drought, too

With most other plants, you want to set the plant in the earth so that the soil level of the potted plant is at the same level as your garden soil. Tomato plants, however, like to be planted deeper than that.

How deep to plant tomatoes

How deep to dig the hole will depend on the height of the tomato plant, but you should plant tomatoes deep in the soil. Dig a planting hole deep enough to allow the main stem to be buried at least up to the first set of leaves.

Planting tomatoes sideways

A really tall and lanky tomato seedling can require a really deep hole to accommodate the entire stem. Or it could mean letting the tomato lay on its side in the hole.

tomato seedling in a deep hole

This is sometimes called the trench method, and calls for placing the tomato plant horizontally in the ground with just the top set of leaves above soil level.

tomato plant in soil

If you opt for laying it sideways, the portion of the tomato plant that is above ground will start growing straight up in just a few days’ time.

tomato seedling in a pot.

A tall tomato seedling from the nursery.

Preparing tomato seedlings for planting deeply

This deep planting method is a great way to salvage tall, gangly seedlings, but all tomato seedlings will benefit.

Start by snipping off the lower leaves, leaving just the top set (or two) of leaves.

tomato seedlings with lower leaves removed.

This tomato seedling is ready to be planted deeply.

Gently break up the root ball and bury the tomato seedling in the soil all the way up to the leaves.

Here I’ve planted the tomato plant you see above in a large growing container. Looking at it, you’d think it was only a few inches tall, but that long stem is buried deep below soil level.

tomato plant in a black container.

Once planted, water thoroughly. Tomatoes do well with a good deep watering followed by days of no water at all. This encourages the roots to work even more deeply into the soil, seeking out moisture.

tomatoes growing on a plant

This scientific study may be of interest, but note that it is an automatic download:

https://journals.ashs.org/downloadpdf/journals/hortsci/31/2/article-p190.pdf

This post was originally published in May, 2011 and has been updated. 

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About the author: Kris Bordessa founded Attainable Sustainable as a resource for revitalizing vintage skills. Her book, Attainable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Self-Reliant Living (National Geographic) offers a collection of projects and recipes to help readers who are working their way to a more fulfilling DIY lifestyle. She’s a certified Master Food Preserver and longtime gardener who loves to turn the harvest into pantry staples.

22 comments… add one
  • DAVID M SILVA May 6, 2021 @ 8:24

    I wish you would have told me a week ago. LOL

  • TheFifty9 Jul 21, 2020 @ 17:26

    So helpful. Glad we found your how-to through Pinterest. We cannot wait to get our hands dirty and start growing our first tomatoes.

  • Jamie Brown Sep 18, 2019 @ 6:37

    My tomatoes are falling over eben in the cage. What is the reasoning for this?

    • Kris Bordessa Sep 20, 2019 @ 12:44

      Tomatoes (the indeterminate kind) tend to get quite leggy!

  • Jane Jun 15, 2019 @ 13:14

    Don’t forget some compost in rural areas may have a herbicide residue. Many are broad leaf. We’ve had trouble with one brand wainting in 5 year old manure. Will take a tomato down in days. Hope its not the case.

  • Seminte de Rosii Mar 13, 2018 @ 22:55

    Yes, you need to prune tomatoes, but only indeterminate types. Regarding determinate tomatoes, you should avoid pruning, with the exception of those 1-2 leaves that reach the ground.

  • upendra kumar Sharma Dec 12, 2017 @ 16:05

    Very good information. Thanks.

  • Helga Newsom Jul 20, 2017 @ 5:21

    Thank you for your info. I did not plant the tomatoes the way you do, but I will do it next year. There are so many suggestions on “how to” for tomatoes, I picked out the suckers, I have green tomatoes, getting ready to turn red. Question: I found 2 “tomatoe worms” one day, 2 more next, I picked them up and killed them, they did the job on 3 plants! We live in Ohio, what do you recommend?

    • Kris Bordessa Aug 4, 2017 @ 8:18

      All I’ve ever done is handpick. They usually appear about midsummer, so I keep my eyes open for their droppings and find them before they do too much damage.

      • SUZANNE Feb 26, 2020 @ 18:35

        By the way, if you have chickens, they LOVE the worms. When my kids were small they helped me in the garden. Their main job was to handpick the worms from the tomatoes, drop them into a can and then empty the can into the chicken’s yard. They always made a B-line to the dump spot!

    • Elaine Susan Anderson Jul 2, 2019 @ 17:23

      Plant marigolds with your tomatoes and you’ll never see another tomato worm. It’s amazing!

  • Saroja devi vijayan Jul 12, 2017 @ 18:53

    My tomato saplings are decaying from the root and it will die within two or three days,what’s the reason for this.

    • Kris Bordessa Aug 4, 2017 @ 8:23

      Too wet, maybe?

  • Melanie Salikin Jun 17, 2017 @ 12:35

    I love the suggestion to lay them horizontal then bury them.. Often times we have gangly tomatoes.. this will be wonderful to try.. thank you so much xo

  • Marlene Purdue May 25, 2017 @ 12:44

    I have heard it is good to put a tablespoon of epsoms salt in the hole before putting in the plant. Is this correct? What does it do for the plant?

    • Kris Bordessa May 27, 2017 @ 15:09

      It adds magnesium to the soil.

  • Christine Alatorre Apr 23, 2017 @ 12:07

    love gardening help 🙂

  • sarah henry May 26, 2011 @ 4:36

    Good to know, might explain why my starts this year, well, stopped. Will try again.

  • Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart May 25, 2011 @ 8:16

    We’re still monitoring overnight temperatures in the greenhouse. So, no seeds yet, no plants yet. :o(

  • Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi May 24, 2011 @ 16:45

    Watch it there Dolby, you are blinding me with science!

    • Kris Bordessa May 24, 2011 @ 19:18

      Did you like that? Almost like a Power Point presentation, there with graphics and everything. 😉

      • Jamie Brown Sep 18, 2019 @ 6:33

        Ya I never knew I could do that even with a small back yard

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