If you're like most overanxious gardeners, you probably started your
tomato seeds too early. When tomatoes and other transplants are grown
under the relatively low light conditions experienced in most homes, they
tend to get long and leggy as they stretch in search of light. Even many
store-bought transplants get leggy if we buy them too soon before we can
plant them out, or they may be too leggy to begin with. Warm temperatures
also aggravate the already-spindly growth.
Most gardeners get around this problem by setting their tomato transplants
deeper when they plant them out. Fortunately, we can usually get away
with this on our tomatoes, since they will root along the stem. Other
crops do not root quite so readily and should not be planted deeper.
If you must plant your tomatoes deeper, try to plant them at an angle
so that the roots aren't planted too deeply. The deeper you place the
roots, the cooler the soil will be, and tomato roots like a warm soil.
There will also be less oxygen available to deeply planted roots, and
oxygen is essential for good root development.
Dig a trench large enough to accommodate the section of stem you want
to bury. Remove any leaves that would otherwise be below the soil. Place
the tomato plant at an angle so that the foliage is at least at a bit
angled away from the soil surface. As the plant continues to grow, the
stem will bend toward the direction of the sun, and, in a few weeks or
so, the top of the plant will be relatively upright.
But the best solution is to start out with good-sized plants. The smaller
transplants adjust to the shock of transplanting much easier, since they
have much less foliage to keep supplied with water.
If you're shopping for transplants, avoid the plants that have already
begun to flower or even set fruit. You want your plants to grow vigorous
roots, stems and leaves before they have to contend with supporting needy
flowers and fruits. The leaves manufacture the food for the plant to produce
a bumper crop, so you want the plant to make good foliar growth before
it begins fruiting. Look for short, stocky plants with a thick stem.
If your homegrown transplants turned out too leggy this year, make yourself
a note to give them as much light as possible, keep them on the cool side
and start your seeds a little later next year.