Growing tasty tomatoes in your garden

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By Dennis Morgeson

Before I write about tomato growing, I want to remind everyone that the Tuesday, May 11, Wheelbarrow Class on growing great annuals from seed still has a few openings for anyone that would like to attend.  Call the Washington County Extension Office at 859-336-7741.  If you haven’t attended any classes, the cost is $10, if you have already attended some classes the cost is $5.   Each person attending will receive at least 15 packages of flower seeds.

The Washington County Garden Club is meeting at 6 p.m. on Thursday May 6, at Mama’s Touch Nursery in Fredericksburg.  For anyone that would like to join the club the cost is $10 for the season and payment can be made at the Washington County Extension Office.  Also, Country Place Greenhouse is giving a free hanging basket impatiens to any new member joining the garden club, you will need to join and stop by the  extension office to get your coupon for the free basket.

Now, on to the topic at hand how to grow great tomatoes!  The first step is variety and transplant selection.  When selecting tomatoes if you aren’t partial to heirlooms or particular varieties, choose based on disease resistance.  The labels or seed packets will have letters on it such as VFFNT, honestly the more letters the better because it simply means that variety is resistant to more diseases.  The University of Kentucky has a list of recommended varieties for Kentucky that includes determinates Early Girl, Big Early, Celebrity, Roma VF, and Mountain Fresh among others.  The indeterminates include Big Beef, Better Boy, Pink Girl, Brandywine, Kentucky Beefstake, Bucks County Hybrid, and Sungold.  This doesn’t mean these are the only varieties that do well in Kentucky but it is the varieties that have been tested throughout the state and have performed the best.  My personal favorites (all indeterminates) are Big Beef, Better Boy, Brandywine, and Kentucky Beefstake (this one is yellowish orange).

Another issue when determining which tomatoes to grow is whether you want determinate or indeterminate varieties.  Determinate varieties are good if you want to can and only want to do it once.  These plants will set a lot of fruit at one time, quit growing, allow the fruit to ripen and die.  Indeterminate varieties will grow and produce fruit until something such as drought, frost, or disease kills them.

Tomatoes require full sun (at least 6 hours) and grow best with good air flow.  Tomatoes are self fertile and are pollinated by wind and to some extent bees.  Usually tomatoes pollinate themselves before pollen from other plants gets to the blooms.  This is actually good because this makes saving seeds from heirloom varieties possible.  You can reliably and consistently get the same varieties back year after year.  You can’t do this with hybrids.  If you save seeds of hybrids, you will not reliably get the same variety back year after year from saved seeds.

If you want to grow your own tomatoes next year start the seeds 4-6 weeks before the last spring frost which is around May 10. Generally seeds started by April 1 are adequate size for the garden by May 10 if well taken care of.  You may need to use grow lights or start them in a cold frame or greenhouse to give them adequate light.

When planting your tomatoes it is best to get a soil test done prior to planting, however if you can’t, apply 2 pounds of actually nitrogen per 1,000 sq. ft. or 20 pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer per 1,000 sq. ft.   Don’t over fertilize tomatoes.  If you do you will have a beautiful large dark green tomato plant with few fruit.

When planting tomatoes space them 18-24 inches apart in rows 3-4 feet apart.  Remember to leave room for harvesting, staking, and spraying.   Tomatoes need night temperatures to be at least 60 degrees to set fruit and will often abort flowers if temperatures drop below 50.

After planting tomatoes apply mulch.  This mulch can be organic or inorganic.  Good mulches for tomatoes include straw, newspaper, leaf mold, hardwood, cedar, cypress, or even plastic or rubber.  If you decide to use plastic place a soaker hose or drip irrigation under the plastic for watering during extended dry periods.  Remember tomatoes need at least 1 inch of water per week to grow properly.

Be sure to maintain even moisture in your tomatoes.  Blossom end rot is a very common tomato disorder that is actually caused by inconsistent moisture or low soil calcium.  When moisture is low the tomato plant has trouble taking up calcium which holds cell structures together in plants.  When calcium is low the skin on the tomato doesn’t develop properly and thus the tomato rots.  Lime can add calcium to your garden but don’t apply unless your pH is below 6.

When your tomatoes start to grow they need to be staked at an early age, a single gust of wind can lean and even break your tomato plants.  Staking can be done easily with a tomato cage either purchased or homemade with fencing, or by driving stakes in the ground, or even with a rope tide tight to an overhead structure like in a greenhouse.  Personally the easiest way to stake is to get extra long stakes 8 feet or so and simple make a tee pee like you are staking beans.  This will cut down on labor.  No matter what you use or how you stake your tomatoes remember taller is better and it must be done to get the best tomatoes possible.

The best tasting tomato is going to be one that is left on the vine until it is completely ripe.  These won’t store long but then again vine ripened tomatoes can also be canned, frozen, or dehydrated.   

There are several disease problems that are particularly fierce in Kentucky.  These are verticillium and fusarium wilt, early blight, septoria leaf spot, and late blight.  Most of them can be somewhat controlled by using a good mulch which will slow or stop splashing of soil unto the leaves and by maintaining a spray program of mancozeb, maneb, or daconil.  Remember when spraying fungicides always cover both sides of the leaves and the stems and follow label instructions.  Verticillium and Fusarium wilt can only be controlled by selecting disease resistant varieties and crop rotation.

There aren’t many insect problems on tomatoes.  The most common however is flea beetle, aphids, tomato horn worm or tobacco worm, Colorado potato beetle, and spider mites.  Sevin will control flea beetles relatively easily and the few tomato and tobacco horn worms can be hand picked.  If Colorado potato beetle becomes a problem, simply use the Colorado Potato Beetle Beater Spray on your tomatoes.  A good brisk spray with the water hose on the tops and bottoms of the leaves or a spray of insecticidal soap will help slow the damage of spider mites and aphids.  Remember spider mites become immune to insecticides and miticides relatively quickly so use them sparingly for mite control.  If you want an organic approach, you can also purchase predatory mites online which will eat the bad ones.  For information or a list of vegetable cultivars contact me at the Washington County Extension Office at 859-336-7741.