In the Garden:
Lower South
March, 2012
Regional Report

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Spring in the vegetable garden means that once again the pursuit is on for a bountiful harvest of tasty tomatoes like this 'Bush Early Girl' tomato trio.

In Pursuit of the Perfect Tomato

No vegetable can match the tomato when it comes to sheer "rock star" status in the minds and hearts of vegetable gardeners. In fact you might say that for many gardeners tomatoes epitomize what gardening is all about. There is little doubt that the tomato, known botanically as Lycopersicon esculentum ("the edible wolf peach"), is king of the vegetable garden.

In addition to the sheer adoration of gardeners across the country our venerated tomato has even been the center of a Supreme Court case as to whether it was a fruit or a vegetable. (By the way the fact is that those luscious round red objects of our culinary affections are botanically berries (fruit) but the Supremes declared it a vegetable to avoid an attempt to sneak it through a tax loophole.

Like laundry detergent that somehow is always "new and improved" each year we gardeners are greeted with yet another new group of cultivars that promise tomato perfection. When you think about the fact that hundreds of cultivars have been named over the years, many achieving widespread fame, choosing the best varieties for your garden is no simple task!

I have grown dozens of different tomato cultivars, adding many to my favorites list as the years go by. Still my quest for the perfect tomato is never over. There are always more that I just MUST try out each year. Alas, my garden is too small for my tomato ambitions!

It doesn't help that along with the newest All-America Selection or other new super tomato varieties, there are specialty catalogs offering seeds of a hundred plus tomatoes in every shape, size, color and plant growth habit! Grape, cherry, plum, paste, slicer, and stuffer; crimson red, burgundy, yellow, orange, and various striped colors; indeterminate, determinate, bush, patio -- it's no wonder we tomato lovers get dizzy over all the possibilities!

There was a time when gardeners were content to plant their tomatoes in the ground, like any normal garden vegetable. A few folks planted some in containers when space was limited. Now we hear about hydroponic growing systems, self watering planters, and for Pete's sake growing them upside down out of the bottom of a bucket hanging in the air! Surely the squash and kohlrabi in my garden feel quite neglected and unappreciated!

With so many cultivars and growing systems there is little agreement on how to achieve the holy grail of gardeners, the perfect tomato. A quick web search will return a multitude of techniques with a wide variety of special fertilizer regimens, cultivars, staking/caging techniques, etc.

All this notwithstanding, there are some basics that most tomato growers will agree are key to a successful harvest. Here are a few things that I've learned over the years that will get you on your way to growing some great tomatoes.

Choose a site with a lot of sun, preferably 6-8 hours or more. You can grow tomato plants in much less light than this but production and quality will suffer. Choose a site that drains well or build up raised beds to ensure that the plants don't sit in soggy conditions for extended periods after a rain. Prepare your soil by adding compost. This loosens clay soils and helps sandy soil hold moisture and nutrients.

If sunny, well drained spots are not to be found, try growing your tomato in a container. Choose a container that holds at least 5 gallons and has drainage holes in the bottom. Fill it with a quality potting soil and set it in a sunny spot.

Choose cultivars that will do well in your area. Contact your local Extension office for suggestions and ask other veteran gardeners. Our southern summers arrive very early, shutting down most of the fruit set on tomato plants. So it is important to select a variety with 50-75 days to harvest if possible. Look for letters after the variety name such as V, F, N, and T. These indicate that the variety has natural resistance to specific diseases. Choosing disease-resistant varieties helps lessen the potential problems your tomatoes might face.

This brings us to planting time. The earlier you can plant the better so that the plants will be able to produce for a longer time before the heat arrives. Of course early plantings are a gamble against frost, but you can take steps to hedge your bet by covering the plants overnight and even providing a source of heat beneath the cover.

When you set the transplants out into the garden or container, water them in with a soluble fertilizer. Then continue to keep the soil moderately moist. Even brief droughty spells will result in more problems with blossom end rot on the young developing fruits. Continue to feed the plants moderately and after the first fruit sets, increase fertilizer applications to ensure good vigor and production. Many of the new cultivars do best with a lot of extra nutrition while some of the older types may grow more vines at the expense of fruit if over fertilized.

Finally, watch for pests. Early detection means you have more control options and often less toxic options. It also means that the pests can be stopped before they decrease plant health and production. Common tomato pests are aphids, mites, various foliage and fruit feeding caterpillars, and stink bugs. Birds can also be a problem, as can some other varmints that seem to think they have a right to taste your tomatoes before you do! Fungal and bacterial diseases are best identified and controlled early on before they do major damage.

These simple tips can help you get off to a good start on your pursuit of the perfect tomato. One other thing I might add is to hedge your bet by planting more than one variety and even more than one type. I like to try a few large slicer types and also some small cherry and grape cultivars. These small fruited tomatoes tend to set better in the heat, so in addition to their other attributes they keep the harvest going a little longer.

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