Take tomato cuttings in the autumn for an early start on your spring vegetable garden
It’s always sad when autumn sets in for real and the summer veggies come to their end. But, as I’ve noted before, you don’t have to say goodbye to all of them.
Tomatoes, like peppers, are perennials in their native homes of South and Central America. They can be in cooler climates too — they just need some protection.
If you’re in USDA climate zones 10 and 11, you can keep them outdoors all year long with nothing more than a little floating row cover for protection from the coolest nights. But for zones 9 and below, you’ll need something a little more elaborate.
You could dig the tomatoes up, pot them and move them indoors for the winter, but that’s a lot of work. There’s actually an easier way to overwinter tomato plants and have them ready to go in the spring weeks, or even months, earlier than starting them from seed.
If you’ve grown tomatoes before, you’re probably aware they root quite easily from their stems. This is because tomatoes have hairlike structures called “trichomes” that will trigger the plant to grow roots from that location if it’s in contact with moisture (soil or water).
While all plants have trichomes, tomatoes, are unique in that their stem trichomes are very similar to the ones on their roots. These “root hairs” are responsible for a plant’s water uptake. (If you’ve ever noticed a plant wilting after being transplanted, that’s because those root hairs got stripped off the plant.)
The fact that tomatoes can absorb water and grow roots from their stems makes them very easy to propagate new plants from cuttings. This is much easier than digging them up and bringing indoors.
With a few tomato cuttings taken in the fall, you can have hardy, young tomato plants ready to go into the vegetable garden in early spring.
How to root tomato cuttings
Propagating tomatoes is as about as easy as it gets if you just take a couple precautions.
Make sure your taking cuttings from an indeterminate tomato variety (one that grows and fruits over the season rather than all at once). Determinate varieties have been bred to grow, fruit and die, so they don’t propagate well.
Additionally, you want to make sure the tomato you’re getting the cuttings from still has green growth on it. Green stems grow roots much more quickly and easily than older, brown ones.
The best cuttings come from the suckers that grow between the leaf node and the main branch, although you can take cuttings from a main branch as well.
Just make sure they’re 6 – 10-inches long and have 3 or 4 leaves growing on them.
Once you’ve got your future cutting selected, use a knife or sharp pair of scissors, to cut the stem off the plant at the base of the leaf node. Make sure not to crush the stem or rub off the hairs (trichomes) on it.
Get as many cuttings as you like. I usually get 8 to 10 cuttings, so I’ve got a few extras in case some don’t take, or I plan on trading them.
Preparing the tomato cuttings
Once you’ve got your cuttings, use your knife or scissors to trim off the leaves about 2/3rds the way up the stem. If there are any leftover flower stems on the cutting, remove them as well. This will reduce the cutting’s need for water while it’s growing new roots.
Again, take care not to crush the stem or rub off the hairs.
After the cuttings have been trimmed, place them in a container of water that comes up to the last leaf node you trimmed. Then stick the cutting container somewhere where it’s warm (60 degrees or higher) and gets several hours of dappled or indirect sunlight each day.
Care while rooting
The tomato cuttings don’t really need any care other than changing the water weekly to flush out any dead matter and refresh the minerals in the water.
In 2 to 4 weeks you’ll see the stems start to bud new roots. In 6 to 8 weeks the roots should be established enough that you can transplant the cuttings into small pots of soil (the ol’ red Solo cup is perfect for this).
Keep the soil on the moist side for the first couple of weeks after transplanting so the roots have a chance to adapt to their new environment. Once you see them starting to get new leaf growth, you can start exposing them to direct sun for longer periods to encourage the plant to grow more.
Tomatoes don’t mind cooler temperatures as long as their roots are warm (70° or above). So, if you have something to keep the soil warm like a cold frame, plastic mulch, etc., you can transplant them outdoors as soon as nighttime temps stop dipping into the 40s.
Before transplanting, make sure to harden them off for 5 to 7 days by taking them outside during the day and moving them back inside at night.
When you do finally transplant them into the garden, plant them slightly deeper than they were in their pots. This will encourage more root growth and help the plant get established faster.
Tomatoes from cuttings will start flowering much earlier than ones grown from seed, but the first round of flowers often doesn’t result in fruit (I think of them as sort of like test flowers). Subsequent flowers will produce fruit though.
Additionally, it’s not unusual for tomatoes from cuttings to produce larger fruit than first year plants from seed, so make sure your soil is well-fertilized so the plants have enough to eat to kick out those bigger tomatoes.
That’s about it. Using this method, you can keep growing your favorite tomatoes for years without the hassle of digging and moving them indoors. Enjoy!
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