Growing Concerns: Time to get tomatoes growing
Native to the South American Andes, the tomato is the No. 1 home garden crop. The Spanish introduced the tomato to the American colonies with mixed reviews. Many feared eating the tomato because it belongs to the deadly black nightshade family.
It takes six to eight weeks to grow tomato transplants from seed, so it is too late this year to try that method. Luckily, tomato transplants are available from numerous garden retailers.
Transplants should be placed in the garden after the threat of frost has passed. Space plants 30 to 48 inches apart within the row and 48 inches between rows. Protect plants from disease by adding a mulch. Mulch has several additional benefits — preventing weeds, retaining moisture, moderating soil temperature and providing some nutrients as it decomposes.
Tomato plants tolerate being planted 4 to 6 inches deeper in the garden than they grew in the pots. Tomato stems root readily, providing a deep root system.
Provide plants with even watering to prevent blossom end-rot. Water thoroughly but infrequently. Water early in the day so that foliage is dry going into the evening hours to prevent disease problems.
Tomatoes are heavy feeders when setting fruit. Too much fertilizer early in the season will grow a large plant with fewer tomatoes. Use a slow release fertilizer early in the planting season. Organic fertilizers are slow release.
Whether or not to remove the suckers is dependent on the support system. Gardeners using stakes should remove side shoots. Removing side shoots will produce earlier and larger fruit but production will be smaller. When tomato cages are used, sides should be left on. It is a good idea to remove all growth from the bottom 6 to 10 inches to improve air circulation and reduce the spread of diseases like blight.
Early blight is a major fungal disease caused by Alternaria solani. The blight starts with a few yellow spots on the lower leaves, followed by the leaves turning completely yellow. The disease progresses up the plant, infecting leaves, stems and fruit. Remove infected leaves as soon as spots appear and dispose of them.
Once the plant is infected it is hard to control so prevention is important. Sanitation is the best prevention. Remove all plant debris from the garden in the fall. Many tomato blight organisms overwinter on dried plant tissue. Rotate crops, never plant tomatoes and related vegetables in the same area as last year. Plants need plenty of space to maximize airflow.
Fungicide applications should be started early and applied to the underside of foliage. Fungicide options include copper and sulfur or try a baking soda spray.
Fruit can be harvested when it begins to show color as it will continue to ripen. However, vine-ripened fruit has the best flavor.
Tomatoes are nutritious and the lycopene in tomatoes is good for maintaining heart health. With so many varieties and cultivars available there is a tomato for everyone.