Homegrown TomatoesApr 5th, 2013 | By Cecilia | Category: blog, gardening tips, Grow Something, spring, summer
When was the last time you devoured a large, succulent, vine-ripened tomato whole, allowing its luscious, sweet and earthy juices to dance on your tongue, or to run between your fingers and down your hands and arms, unselfconsciously permitting bits of its seed-imbued gelatinous pulp to cling to the corners of your mouth and slowly slide down your chin and onto the front of your shirt where it collected in a viscous pool of pale red?
As tomatoes available in the market today are usually pink and crunchy, the answer to that question is: Probably not in this century.
If you are a fan of the most popular of home food garden crops, then you ought to grow them—at least once—so you will know firsthand the joy of an honest, fresh, ripe tomato.
Whether you’re growing tomatoes in the backyard or on a balcony, to grow healthy plants and healthy fruits, their needs are essentially the same.
Here are the bare bones basics: Tomatoes need deep, rich, slightly acidic soil (5.5 to 7.0) that drains well, six to eight hours of sunlight a day, consistent hydration, monthly fertilization, and vigilance when it comes to pest control. That’s it, really. Just think of yourself as the valet, or concierge when it comes to tomatoes or any of your garden plants. You simply provide for their needs and they do the rest.
Here are a few more slightly filled out basics…
Get a soil test to find out if your soil has the right stuff for tomatoes, if not, they will provide recommendations for amending the soil to bring it up to snuff. If you want to skip the test, then just make sure that you–at the very least–dig a two to four inch layer of compost into the top six to eight inches of soil. You cannot have a healthy, productive food garden without healthy soil, and compost is king when it comes to amendments. To increase acidity and add a little nitrogen to the mix–coffee grounds worked into the soil do the trick.
Determinate or Indeterminate
Tomato plants can get huge and out of control pretty quickly. So decide ahead of time if you want determinate tomato plants, which grow to a certain height and then stop, or indeterminate that don’t. The typical tomato cage is usually adequate for the determinate varieties like Roma tomatoes. You’ll need to make something out of hog wire for the indeterminate varieties–which can grow to six feet tall.
If you have the time and the space to do so, go ahead and start tomatoes eight to 12 weeks before you plan to put plants into the garden. If you have a greenhouse, that’s an ideal place to get the party started. If you have those pressed paper egg cartons laying around recycle and re-purpose them as seed starting trays. Punch some holes in the bottom, fill each indentation with moistened soil free potting mix, add one or two seeds. cover with more mix, moisten again, set on a lipped tray, place them in a warm place (the top of your fridge, hot water heater or on a heating mat), and wait for them to germinate. Once they’ve developed a second set of leaves, cut apart the egg carton sections and plant them, paper and all, into a larger pot until they’re ready for the garden. The paper will decompose.
Now that your seedlings have leaves, put them in a room with very bright natural light; barring that–use a grow light that you keep about two to three inches above the plants to prevent them from getting leggy. Don’t let the soil dry, and give them a weak solution of seaweed and fish emulsion weekly until they’re ready for the garden.
In Central Texas, the middle of March is when a lot of folks set out tomato plants. Be warned that our last frost date is March 21. If you live outside of Central Texas, consult your local Agriculture Extension office for the best planting dates. To plant, just pinch off the bottom leaves, and plant these little guys deep…maybe all the way up to the next set of leaves. Doing this will help them develop a very extensive root system, and make them less susceptible to drought conditions.
Water your plants every two to three days–more often if it’s windy and very hot–for as long as it takes to moisten the soil to a minimum depth of six inches. Drip irrigation or soaker hoses are a good choice because you can target the water at the root zone and minimize waste. Sprinklers waste water, and also can cause water and soil to splash onto the bottom leaves of the plant, making them more susceptible to soil borne pathogens. If you water by hand, water close to the soil level and do not use a hard spray.
You can also use the Texas Pot Method, developed by Texas A & M horticulturist, Dr. Sam Cotner. It involves burying one gallon black nursery pots with drainage holes, up to their lip, between every two tomatoes. When you want to water, just fill the pots and they will deposit the wet stuff through their drainage holes, deep to the tomato plant’s roots. Fill them about three times to provide the proper hydration. Once the tomatoes start to set fruit, you can also add fertilizer, such as fish emulsion and seaweed extract, to the buckets and water that into the soil as well, again filling the buckets three times and letting them drain. Repeat this fertilization every 10 days through the growing season
A lot of people think tomatoes are difficult because of the various ailments that can befall them–many of which can be mitigated when you spend time in the garden and catch these things before they get out of control.
You aren’t the only critter that likes tomatoes. Bugs, birds and various mammals enjoy the fruits as well and aren’t afraid to show it.Keep in mind that any of the organic products you use, while better for the environment and your garden, are still indiscriminate killers and will knock off the beneficial insects as well as the bad bugs. So always use judiciously.
- Beneficial Insects are your first line of defense: Lady bugs, praying mantids, green lacewings, trichogramma wasps, mealybug destroyers, beneficial nematodes and a host of other good guys are only too glad to help you maintain peace in the garden. You can find them at local retail nurseries that specialize in organics. If they don’t have them on hand, they can usually order them for you. And if you’re going to order them anyway, you can find sources online. Follow package directions for releasing them, and give them time to do their work. Keep in mind, too, that to keep benefial insects in the garden, you have to have something for them to eat. So, while you may still have some pest insects even with beneficials in the garden, they will not decimate your crops, as the good bugs will keep them in check.
- Bacillus thuringiensis, (Bt) is a powder that works its deadly magic on caterpillars and worms. Because it is broad spectrum, it can also whack butterfly larvae, too. So you would not want to use this in a butterfly garden, for example. Apply it where you see damage and after a day or two, you will see less damage as the soft bodied critters ingest the poison. It breaks down quickly and needs to be reapplied after watering or rainfall.
- Insecticidal Soap sprays help to reduce aphid and whitefly problems. Just remember to use it in the morning when it is cooler and the sun isn’t beating down on the garden, as it may burn the plants otherwise. Remember, too, to spray it under the leaves, which is where aphids congregate most.
- Neem Oil sprayed on leaves can interrupt the hormonal balance in in a variety of pest insects that are having their way with your plants; a little goes a long way. It can be a skin and eye irritant to you and your pets as well, so be mindful about targeting the spray.
- Pyrethrin Powder works fast on insects and breaks down in a day, but don’t use it when bees are active, as it is deadly to our little helpers.
Nothing can make a gardener feel more helpless than watching their once gorgeous tomato plants and fruits fail before their eyes from a disease, despite the gardener’s best efforts. Sometimes, if the problem is really bad, the best t hing you can do is pull up the plants and solarize the soil and start again.
- Cultural Controls are the first and easiest ways to reduce problems that may arise. Keep the garden free of plant debris, do not water late in the evening as the water is less likely to evaporate and that can invite fungal issues, rotate your crops, provide proper plant spacing, and avoid planting plants that are in the same family (tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, for example) together, because when one goes down, they may all go down.
- Blossom End Rot causes a lot of heart break among tomato lovers. Your tomato appears big and gorgeous, but when you pick it from the vine, the bottom is black and indented. What?! That’s blossom end rot. What causes this most annoying trait? Several things: cold temperatures or excessive heat during blossom set, and fluctuations in water supply. And when you have the perfect storm of these conditions, calcium becomes unavailable to the plant and you see blossom end rot in your fruits. So fertilize and water properly and avoid setting out transplants too early.
- Early Blight, which is a fungus that causes yellowing and spotting of leaves, presents most often in hotter months. The fungus overwinters in leaf debris, so garden sanitation goes a long way in preventing the problem. You’ll recognize the disease by the brown and black spots on older leaves, which may turn yellow and drop from the plant. Good air circulation and rotating crops from year to year will help. Using organic sulphur ont eh newer leaves may help prevent continued outbreaks.
- Fusarium Wilt is a big problem for those of us in Central Texas. Foliage looks droopy and turns yellow and eventually brown. This fungus lives in the vascular system of the plant and once it sets in, your tomatoes are a gonner. Again, be mindful of your watering and sanitation practices. If you have an affected plant, you have to remove it and do not put it in the compost–kick it to the curb. Also avoid planting other tomatoes, peppers and eggplant in that area for three years. Or, in the heat of summer, use the sun to solarize the soil and kill the fungus that lives among us.
There are other issues that can strike tomatoes, but I don’t want you to feel apprehensive about growing this most popular of garden edibles. Because there’s nothing like a homegrown tomato.