In the Garden:
Lower South
March, 2010
Regional Report

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Try a slanted trellis for your tomatoes this year. These trellises work well, are easy to set up and store in less space than tomato cages when the season is over.

Tips for Success With Tomatoes

The pursuit of the perfect tomato is both a hobby and an obsession. Each year I look forward to tomato season with the optimism and hope only a fellow gardener could understand.

While growing tomatoes is not all that difficult, there are few basics that I've learned over the years that help provide the best chances of a successful harvest of tasty tomatoes. Here are a few tips to help get your off to a great start this year.

Tomatoes worship the sun. Most things that bear fruit need lots of sunlight. Sun shines on the foliage enabling the plant to produce carbohydrates. These carbohydrates support growth and bloom production. They also support the development of large, tasty fruit. Limited sun means limited production, at best!

Your tomato plants need to receive at least 6 hours of sun a day; more is even better. If you can't find a place with a lot of sun exposure in the vegetable garden then look outside the box. Perhaps you can include some containers on a sunny patio or beside the driveway. Maybe a sunny "flower bed" could accommodate a tomato plant or two.

Your soil determines the limits of your success. Tomatoes have a deep and extensive root system, or at least they would like to. If your soil is sandy, it will tend to be poor in nutrients and will dry out more rapidly. Drought stress limits growth and production. If your soil is a heavy clay it will tend to stay too soggy wet after a heavy rain, which is also detrimental to the plants.

Composted organic matter can help sandy soil to hold moisture and helps improve the internal drainage of clay soils while building a loose, better aerated structure where the roots can thrive.

Not all tomato varieties are created equal. In seed catalog photos all tomatoes look wonderful, and in the descriptions they are all the most productive and the best tasting too! One of the most important factors in choosing a tomato variety here in the lower south is its "days-to-harvest interval".

In the southern U.S. we have two short tomato seasons, spring and fall, wedged in between the last spring frost or first fall frost and HOT weather. Tomatoes do not set well in cold weather or hot weather. Thus we need varieties that will get going and produce fast. That said, I should add that the small-fruited types such as cherry and grape tomatoes do set fairly well in hot weather, but the skin tends to get rather tough.

Timing is everything. Because our spring tomato production window is fairly brief we don't want to delay in getting the plants going out in the garden. While the general recommendation is to plant around the last average frost date, I like to hedge my bets a little.

I start my seeds about 2 1/2 months prior to my last average frost date and then move the transplants from their small seed-starting cell up into a 4 inch pot and then a gallon pot as the plant gets larger. By the time I plant them out in the garden they already are producing their first blooms.

If on the other hand you purchase your transplants, get them early. Some garden centers always put tomato plants out earlier than folks should be planting them. Go ahead and buy them and them grow them out as I mentioned above by keeping them indoors at night and moving them out in the sun on mild days. Feed them with a soluble plant food to keep them growing vigorously.

Proper care and feeding is important. Feed the plants weekly with a soluble nutrient solution for the first month. After the plants have begun to set their first fruits, sprinkle 1/4 cup of a turf-type fertilizer (3-1-2 or 4-1-2 ratio) throughout a one-foot circular area around each plant and work it into the surface inch of soil. Then water it in very well. Repeat this application a month later.

If you plant early wait to mulch the soil surface until a few weeks after your last average frost date. Mulch keeps the soil from warming up quickly and can really delay growth and development of your tomato plants.

There is much more that can be said when it comes to tomato growing "how-to's" than the space of this article will allow. But start with these basics and you'll be enjoying tasty home grown tomatoes by early summer!


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