Shopping for Tomato & Pepper Seedlings


Don’t Buy That Tomato Plant!

Brace yourself: I’m gonna rant at’cha today.

I saw you at our local nursery last Sunday.  I was there looking for cheap pavers,  rosemary seedlings, and for a new packet of Cardinal Climbing Vine seed because my son poured the ones I’d left soaking in a bowl of water on the kitchen counter down the  sink when he washed the dishes.  God Bless His Helpful Soul.

It was the first sunny day after two weeks of cold torrential rain, and the greenhouse was packed with eager, buoyantly happy shoppers.  We were, all of us, visibly thrilled  to be out and about, purchasing our vegetables, our perennials, our hanging baskets of brightly colored annuals. Picking over the rosemary plants (and telling myself “you KNOW you don’t have room for any lemon verbena!”) I heard you  in the tomato aisle enthusing to your companion,  “Look!  Grab that one! It’s already got flowers!” and  “Oh!  This one already has tomatoes, see?  We’ll have tomatoes early this year!”

The ideal seedling, with top growth approximately equal in length to the root mass.  This 4" plant is around 2" above the soil line and 2" below the soil line.

The ideal seedling, with top growth approximately equal in length to the root mass. This 4″ plant is around 2″ tall at the soil line and around 2″ long below the soil line.

I did a kind of double-take, thinking that the nursery had failed to stock what I consider to be the righteous and proper tomato seedling: the little 3 – 4 inchers sold by the bundle.  But you had wheeled straight past the inexpensive little darlings.  It’s as if you didn’t even see them.

Friend, I all but bit out my tongue stopping myself from yoo-hooing you across the greenhouse.  I wanted to tell you, “there are even better ones over here!  Look at these!  And check out the prices!”  Grandma Juanita would be rpm-ing in her grave to hear me giving unsolicited advice to a complete stranger.  And truth to tell, unsolicited advice isn’t exactly something I tolerate with any particular grace, my own self.

But I wanted to tell you something, gardener-to-gardener, that I felt was important.  I wanted to tell you not as a mouthy, rude interrupter of your shopping pleasure, but as a Master Gardener who yearns to see every gardener enjoy success on top of success on top of success:  tomato and pepper plants in flower — or God Forbid, in fruit — are precisely the ones well-informed (or observant and experienced gardeners) leave laid out lonely on the nursery shelf UNLESS and UNTIL the price has fallen to a dollar/plant or less.  And I wouldn’t pay .50 darned cents for a tomato growing in a quart pot.   That’s a fact you can take to the bank.  For what it’s worth.

Cutting to the Sho’ Nuff Chase:

You’ll probably want to know what gives me the gall to call you out on your shopping choices.  I will explain myself, but the explanation is liable to be long.  I’d better summarize the main points, first.   Afterward, I will break the rant down into a coherent argument.

The crux of what I’m saying is arithmetically simple:

Let a = the height of a tomato plant’s green top-growth

Let b = the depth of a tomato plant’s root mass

If  “Desirable Tomato Plant” = a/b where a ≤ b (always and only)

And  “Undesirable Tomato Plant” = a/b where a > b, then the following recommendations make good sense:

1) Don’t be fooled by big, bushy, or leggy plants decorated with flowers and/or fruits.  The height of the plant and the depth of its root mass (represented by the height of the pot in which it is planted) should at. most. be. equal.

2) Ignore any tomato or pepper plant that is taller than 5 inches.  Take the cute 4-5 inch tall “toddler” tomatoes and peppers home with you.  These are the least expensive, most adaptable seedlings in the nursery.

I bought this 12" tomato plant, already flowering, for $1.25, just to photograph for this blog.  Better examples of mature seedlings were too costly.  I am cheap.  Sue me.

I bought this 12″ tomato plant, already flowering, for $1.25, just to photograph for this blog. Bigger, healthier plants had not yet been marked down, and were just too costly. Never mind: this is exactly the kind of “picked over plant” you can sometimes purchase for a song, and then rehabilitate.  Read on to learn how.

3) Purchase 5 – 12 inches tall “precocious adolescent” plants IF or WHEN they have been marked down for clearance to the same basic price as the four-pack 4 – 5 inch seedlings, and then, only if they are pest and disease free.

4) If you have purchased a precocious, flowering adolescent plant, prune off all side branches, flowers and/or fruit clusters.  Plant the entire stem under ground, leaving only the top 3 – 4 leaves above the soil.  You can skip to the “But I Already Bought a ‘Bad’ Plant! What Do I Do?” section near the end of the post if you would like slightly more detailed step-by-step directions and photos.

Top-Growth is So-o-o-o Sexy!


So, back to the question under consideration: where in the world do I get the gall to criticize your choice of big, beautiful tomato and pepper plants (yes, I do mean you, and I do mean the plants you purchased last Sunday.  Don’t deny it.  I was in the check-out line behind you, sucking my teeth and biting my tongue).  Aren’t flowers simply a sign of a plant’s overall vigor?

I can’t think of a more polite way to tell you, so I’m just going to let it all hang out:  no.  That big beautiful tomato plant in the quart-sized pot?  The one with the  15 dollar price tag (yes, I saw that too).  That plant has got a really fat head.

But it’s got. no. heart.

Nursery Folks know that we Homo sapiens are attracted to bright flowers and the promise of fruits.  Fruits and flowers draw our eyes, awaken our taste buds; they speak to the deep brain structures passed down to us by our stone-age gatherer-hunter ancestors.  Nursery Folks also know good-and-gosh-darned well that we home-gardeners want to see what we pay for before we fork over our hard-earned dough.  Toward that end, horticulturalists have gone to a whole lotta trouble to figure out the exact science of making a plant commercially attractive to consumers.

What did they figure out?  Plants produce green growth, flower, and set fruit at different wavelengths of light.  So by sequencing plant exposure to light at different wavelengths, nurserymen “force” plants to achieve the stages of sexual maturity that make them visually appealing to us, never you mind how well they actually perform once we take them home.

I’m saying exactly what you hear me saying: the same science used to force-bloom Easter Lilies, African Violets, Wave Petunias, Holiday Poinsettias and nasty hydroponically grown grocery store tomatoes is used to force bloom your mass produced, over-sized, sexually reproductive but physiologically immature tomato and pepper “seedlings.”

Get Back to Your Roots

Why is this a problem?

A plant’s health and long-term productivity come from its root system, not (O Surprise) from its reproductive system (it’s flowers and fruits). Your plant’s root mass is not yet large enough to support a dense, sexually reproductive top-growth, not without artificial greenhouse conditions that simply don’t exist in your backyard. Those conditions include closely controlled ambient air temperature, sterile planting medium, closely controlled soil and water temperature, precisely balanced fertilizers applied according to regular schedule, and so on.

Roots are wonderfully responsive, reactive even, to surrounding environmental conditions.  They seek out and grow toward soil with nutrients, minerals, beneficial fungi, and water.  They pass by, around (or hurry up to get through) soil that won’t help them support the top-growth.  This is why roots are tangled, stringy, convoluted and ever-so-slightly nightmarish in form.  This is also why a tree is like an iceberg: the part of the magnificent creature that lives above the soil line is – at most – half of what lies below it.  In some cases, it is even less.

Now, I am not a gardener with much knowledge of best tomato/pepper cultivation practice in climates where the growing season is short, and where temperatures are consistently cool (New England and America’s Pacific Northwest are two examples).  These are growing conditions that are particularly tricky for tomato and pepper cultivation.  My knowledge-base and experiences are solidly grounded in the American mid-west; my comments are particularly critical to tomato and pepper cultivation in climates with long, hot growing seasons where soil temperatures can soar from pleasantly cool in the morning to “scorched-my-bare-feet-hot” by noon.  They are critical to tomato and pepper cultivation in climates where soil moisture in the top five inches can swing from adequate to dessicated and back again from one dawn to the next… and where the unrelenting heat is invariably broken by violent thunderstorms and torrential rainfall.  Tomato and pepper plants with the stamina to stay healthy for the entire growing season must have root systems that extend deep into the earth, well below the volatile, unpredictable conditions near the soil surface.

A seedling that has not yet reached sexual maturity will allocate energy (sugars produced in the leaves) to building a properly balanced ratio between top-growth and root system.  Once a plant reaches reproductive maturity, it will reallocate energy to the critical task of making fruit and seed.  It will spend comparatively less energy on expanding its root system.  For this reason, young immature plants are far more adaptable.  The time seedlings spend putting roots deep into your soil will pay for itself in fewer pest and disease interventions, and in better, higher quality fruit.

That is why I carry the equation I introduced at the beginning of the post in the back of my mind when I purchase seedlings, of whatever variety.

Let a = the height of a tomato plant’s green top-growth

Let b = the depth of a tomato plant’s root mass

A “Desirable Tomato Plant” = a/b where a ≤ b (always and only) and an “Undesirable Tomato Plant” = a/b where a > b.

I even carry this equation in the back of my mind with plants I start from seed: I religiously sacrifice beautiful green top-growth to root development in young plants by ruthlessly  pinching them back, and by feeding them low-nitrogen fertilizers very rarely, and in some cases, never.  What I sacrifice in early, lush green growth (which always makes gardeners feel good about themselves) I make up in  minimally shorter plants with fat, powerful stems that hold up under heavier (albeit somewhat later) fruit loads.

Tomato plants with too much top growth and too little root growth are susceptible to the most terrible garden scourges: bacterial wilts, fungal blights, viral leaf curls, anthracnose, flea beetle, aphid and white-fly infestations, and blossom-end rot.  Toward that end, seed companies market “disease resistant” cultivars, selected not for flavor but for their ability to “tolerate” what amounts to commercial horticultural practice.  Don’t get me started on that sorry business.  That’s a topic worthy of its own post.  I’ll save it for another rant.

If you purchase tomatoes and peppers from a nursery, choose small plants, no more than 4 – 5 inches in height, where the green growth is approximately equal to the depth of the pot in which it’s planted.  You don’t need a big plant in the early spring.  It won’t get you more tomatoes.  It may very well get you a bratty plant that is in constant need of high-cost and environmentally disruptive intervention.

But I Already Bought a “Bad” Plant!  What Do I DO?

There is a really good reasons to buy “bad” plants…  nurseries sometimes mark big older plants down to young smaller plant prices when they start to grow “crooked,” take some handling damage or start to get that “picked over look.” I’m not thrifty, I’m cheap.  Cheap and affordable are very good reasons to buy over-sized plants.

Tomatoes and peppers are nifty critters, you know.  They are part of the Nightshade family of perennial plants, and like their kissing-cousin the potato, they have roots that can act like stems, and stems that can act like roots.

Each little hair and nodule on this tomato stem is ready and willing to produce root hairs the moment it is deprived of sunlight.

Each little hair and eye on this tomato stem is raring to remake itself into a root the moment the stem is deprived of sunlight.  Ever see the eyes on a potato sprout?  Just so!

This means that with a few snips of the pruning shears, you can turn a long, leggy, pencil-necked, over-grown, promiscuous brat of a (marked-down) tomato plant into a big-ole healthy Fat Bottomed Girl.  Do it!  Snip snip!  Snip snip!

Breaking it down:

1) pinch or clip off all flower or fruit clusters.  Leave nary a one.

Remove flowers, leaves, and branches, leaving a single central leader topped by no more than 3 or 4 leaves

Remove flowers, leaves, and branches, leaving a single central leader topped by  3 or 4 healthy leaves

2) clip off all leaves, leaf clusters or secondary branches until the plant has one “central leader” ONLY.

3) Plant the entire plant, root mass plus the newly naked stem, in the ground, leaving only the terminal leaves above the soil.  Voila: you have turned a plant that began with too much top growth into a plant with too much root growth.  It’s almost as good as pushing a restart button.

4) If your tomato plant began particularly tall, the way this 12″ one did, you can plant the whole thing on its side, with the “stem” running horizontally in the ground.  This is less work than digging a hole in the ground that matches the exact height of the plant.  Within a few days, the terminal leaves sticking out of the ground will turn their faces toward the sun and begin to grow vertically.  Your friends will never guess that your plant started out lying sideways under the ground.


This 12″ seedling has been reduced to 10″ of root and 2″ of stem. The stem was buried horizontally in the soil, and in this photo, the leaves are lying flat against the earth. After a few days, they will have reoriented themselves vertically toward the sun.

Or you can amaze them over cold drinks and barbecue by telling them all about it.


12 thoughts on “Shopping for Tomato & Pepper Seedlings

  1. Erika says:

    This was really really helpful. In the midst of our crazy New England winter this year, we’ve FINALLY got sun. And my schedule got so that I didn’t get to start my seedlings. Far too late now, I fear, especially since they’re bound for containers. Does the pruning and replanting work for other veggies too? Or really just tomatoes?

  2. Sho'Nuff says:

    There are other plants with interchangeable stem/roots, but I can’t think of *vegetables* that have the characteristic outside of those in the nightshade family. That includes potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and okra. I have used the technique successfully with all of these plants except okra, which I never grow.

    You can still “refresh” prematurely reproductive plants that aren’t in the nightshade family by pruning out the blooms, and by pinching back the top growth hard. But you can’t plant the stem into the earth.

    Let me know if I can clarify any of this; and I hope it helps. Happy Gardening!

  3. Erika says:

    It definitely helps. Even though I’ve jumped into this with both feet, I’ve really only got one season under my belt. And that was two summers ago now (last year interrupted by moving, and this year by bad planning).

    • Sho'Nuff says:

      Good for you! Jumping in with both feet is the only way to garden. Every year’s garden reflects the Real Life that the gardener is living. And I sort of think it *ought* to… even in those years when my garden “gets away from me” and is a “mess” because other things take precedence. But gardens that don’t reflect Real Life (many of them in magazines) seem a little McMansions-esque to me? Your garden should look like you. So behind, ahead, messy or in order, Garden On!

  4. Dan veilleux says:

    Planting in cold soil ( to get earlier fruit) will only stunt the plant and result in later plantings surpassing the early ones.
    The investment in an inexpensive digital thermometer with a probe.
    I got one for less than $10 is a much better indication of planting time. One can also use a metal liquid column thermometer to take the soil temp at 3 inches.
    Peas, lettuce and Cruciforms > 45, potatoes > 50, beets spinach, chard >55, standard sweet corn > 60, supersweet corn type corn tomatoes , squash, cukes > 65, peppers, eggplant and melons>70.
    If you grow your own tomatoes you can rub your hand ( kind of like petting)over the tops once a day and this will make the plants react by growing shorter stockier plants.
    It will also make your hands smell wonderfully tomato like.

    • Sho'Nuff says:

      Dan, you are right on the money re: soil temperature. I think people buy “older” plants and plant them way to early in an effort to get tomatoes sooner. But … it’s a *tropical* plant for goodness’ sake! All it does when you stick it in the soil too soon is sit there and catch diseases. Ask me how I know. Wait. Don’t.

      Petting your tomatoes to make them grow stockier is new to me. I’ll begin petting immediately, of course! Thanks for sharing.

  5. davidschweer says:

    haha….keepin it real with “im cheap”
    that makes two of us! im always trying to get more bang for my buck if possible.

  6. OK, now I know what I’m doing today with those coupla tomato plants I bought last week (no flower buds, I swear, but a bit on the tall side). Happy to report that I bought the bitsy pepper plants without even realizing I was doing the right thing. Of course, you should know that I am capable of destroying a little tomato plant just as handily as a big one but let’s not get all pessimistic so early in the day…

  7. […] How Not to Grow Tomatoes Incompetence Syndrome by one of my blog followers.  Perusing the timely post of a fellow organic gardener, I learned that purchasing tomato plants is more of an art than […]

  8. […] Special thanks again to fellow organic gardener/blogger Christienne Leigh Hinz for her timely tips! […]

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