Happy Tomato Plants

May 8, 2006

If you’re growing tomato plants indoors under lights and want to keep them happy and healthy until they are ready to be transplanted into the garden, then now’s the time to start tickling those tomato seedlings.

Growing Sturdier Tomato Transplants

With frost warnings forecast for the area as recently as this past weekend, it will be at least another week or two before I’m comfortable setting tomato plants out into the garden beds. In the meantime there’s a simple trick that you can use to help prepare your tomato seedlings for the harsher conditions that they’ll encounter outdoors.

A gardener once sent an email describing what she referred to as tickling her tomato plants to toughen them up. I thought that was a perfect visual image of her process for “stimulating stronger plant growth,” which involved lightly running her fingers across the tops of the young tomato seedlings.

Weight Training for Tomato Seedlings

The purpose of tickling the tomato plants after they have developed a few true leaves is to stimulate the tomato plants to develop stronger and thicker stems that can hold up when exposed to breezes, wind, and other weather conditions that the tomato seedlings will experience when placed outdoors.

Gently roughing up the plants in this manner will provide a signal to the young tomato seedlings that things will not continue to be as easy as life on a grow cart in a still room. In response they will grow stockier and sturdier to withstand your daily jostling.

Without this toughening up the tomato transplants are likely to droop and flop over with even a brief exposure to outdoor conditions. Start the treatments at least a couple of weeks before you begin setting the plants outdoors as part of the hardening off process. It only takes a few seconds a couple of times each day to strengthen and stimulate those tomato plants.

Alternatives for Mature Tomato Growers

If you feel a tad bit silly about tickling your tomato plants here are a couple of alternatives that will accomplish the same objective. Lightly and gently run a stick across the tops of the tomato seedlings a couple of times each day.

Or set up a fan in the room where you grow your transplants to circulate mild air currents in the room. Just don’t aim the fan directly at the plants for extended periods of time and make sure that the air currents circulating throughout the room are gentle.

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  • I’ve never heard this before but love the idea! I admit it’s been a few years since I started my own tomato seeds. I’ve been lazy and buying plants at the local nursery. I need to get a jumpstart in January/February (out on the west coast) for seedlings and I’m just not mentally prepared!

  • Lauren

    I was happy to see this information on your site. My mother came to visit me in March when my seedlings were about 2 inches tall (zone 7) and she told me I should “pat” the tops everyday. I thought she was a bit nuts, but I did it and it worked. Thanks for validating my mother’s wisdom.

  • Lisa

    You’ve got a method for hardening tomato plants but that is just too much work for me! All plants grown indoors HAVE TO BE hardened-off for their life outdoors otherwise they may be permanently stunted in their growth, therefore they are not going to produce what they are capable of producing. You have to climatize your plants by letting them get used to the outside slowly. One hour a day, then two, then three then so on. They should be climatized to the outdoors in two weeks. It is worth the time and effort, especially if you took the time to grow your plants by seed.

  • Lisa

    If you planted your seeds as you were directed, and the plants still seems to be growing poorly, it has no ‘vigor’, then what is advised is to “brush” your plants. According to RODALE’S ‘Garden Problem Solver’, “Research has shown that some form of mechanically induced stress caused by lightly brushing or rubbing the seedlings for a minute or so every day will produce stockier, strong plants more resistant to transplant shock. Smaller seedlings can be brushed with a piece of paper folded over. Gently brush the plants so they bend over almost to horizontal, then let them spring back. As the plants get larger, simply brushing them lightly with you hand achieves the same result.” That quote was on page 493. I never had a chance to try this method, it is certainly a hopeful method to bring your ailing plants back to health, but certainly I would try to take care of the plants so they do not need to be coaxed back to health.

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  • Becky

    All this time I’ve been “tickling” my tomato starts and didn’t even know it! lol! I had started some Heirloom tomato plants in Feb. and thined some out to seperate pots, but I left some of them in the bucket that I had started them in. For some reason I kept running my hand over the ever growing bush of plants in the bucket(they felt soft and it was nice to touch some green after a long winter) and today I noticed that the plants that are in the pots are not as thick and hardy looking as the the bucket of the same plants. Aparently I was tickling them all this time, who knew.

  • Samantha

    I’ve been tickling my tomatoes and one other plant, my TickleMe Plant. TickleMe Plants are the only plants that close their leaves and lower their branches when tickled. My family, friends and students love coming over to visit our TickleMe Plants. We plant them indoors during the winter and outdoors during the summer. Add them to your tomato patch and watch the looks on your neighbor’s faces when you show them. You can see a video of the plant in action at http://www.ticklemeplant.com and get a kit to grow your own. We use the TickleMe Plant Party favors for our garden club party and fundraiser.

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