Many gardeners are perplexed when they go to various nurseries, box stores, and other places where garden plants are sold. They see everything from sickly root-bound plants, to stocky and sturdy plants, to giant plants with flowers and even fruit set on them sometimes. Gardening budgets are limited and one must choose carefully to buy the best plants for the bucks.
The impatient gardener with a large budget may be tempted to buy that tomato plant in the 2 gallon pot with lots of flowers and tiny fruits already forming on the branches. They have visions of getting the jump on their neighbors and having that first BLT before the end of June. Those giant plants tend to cost much more than the smaller ones and will eat up your budget quickly. The truth is that they are not worth the money! You may get an early ripe fruit or two, but your harvest will be very limited as this plant has been tricked into producing fruits early solely for the sake of earliness. It has likely led a sheltered life in a hot house and been fed a steady dose of chemicals to get it to grow quickly and produce fruit to attract the impatient gardener. Don’t buy these plants!!!
Another type of transplant you’ll see is the spindly little plants in 4 and 6 packs sold at many nurseries and big box stores. These are a much better value for the budget conscious gardener and are not a bad choice if you’re patient and don’t mind some plant loss. These small plants are often grown in hot houses and mass produced by large greenhouses. They may have very attractive, bright green foliage which is a sign that they have been heavily fertilized with nitrogen to make them look good to the gardener’s eye…this isn’t the healthiest thing for the plant though. They have also likely been treated with fungicides because they are grown in such close proximity to other plants that air flow is minimal and fungal diseases can run rampant. They will have small root systems and may go into transplant shock when you pop them out of their cramped containers and into your garden soil. If you are careful and patient, they can grow into great tomato plants. Buy these plants if you want to save a few bucks and have plenty of patience and are willing to accept a few plant losses along the way.
The third type of plant you’ll see at high quality nurseries and from independent growers (like me!!) is the individually planted, stocky, sturdy, transplant with a deep green and possibly even purple tinged color to the stem and leaves. These plants will have very strong root systems, but will not be rootbound in their containers. The deep green and purple colors show that they have not been given excessive fertilizers and have been exposed to cooler temperatures as they grew. They will be anywhere from 6-10 inches tall and have thick and hairy stems. The plants will cost a bit more per plant than those in the 6 packs, but these plants have been fully hardened off and exposed to the elements of wind, weather, and rain. If they are still going strong after this treatment, they will have no problem adapting to your garden. The strong root system will not go into transplant shock when you plant them and they will immediately begin growing new roots into your soil and grow steadily taller within days of planting them. They will produce fruit fairly early and will yield the heaviest possible load of fruit as they have grown a good balance of roots to their top growth and flower production. You will often find these plants in a much larger variety than the other 6 pack types so you can grow more interesting and delicious tomatoes.
As you prepare and plan for your summer tomato garden and get ready to venture out to buy your precious plants, take the above advice into consideration and you’ll end up with a much healthier, happier, and productive tomato plant. Happy gardening!!!