Tomatoes are the most popular vegetable grown by the home gardener. Producing an abundant crop of tomatoes is such a reward – and a challenge. It is worth it, however, to harvest our own delicious, organic, non-genetically-modified tomatoes right off the vine. The following recommendations should help. These same recommendations will help peppers too, and other warm season vegetables.
Tomatoes need full sun. That means at least 6 hours of direct, unimpeded sunlight each day.
Creating the richest soil possible is the key to success. Whether your soil is sandy, clayey, or somewhere in between, add a good quality compost. Mix in enough Lady Bug Revitalizer™, All-American Turkey Compost™, or Farm Style™ Compost so that your garden is approximately half compost and half soil. At the same time, mix in a good fruit-promoting organic fertilizer such as Lady Bug Flower Power™. Every 4 – 6 weeks add more fertilizer. Tomatoes are hungry!
Plants in the same family often share the same diseases and pests, and these problems build up if these plants are not rotated from year to year. Therefore, avoid planting tomatoes (or anything in that family – potatoes, peppers, and eggplant) in the same spot two years in a row.
The Natural Gardener only carries tomato varieties that are well adapted here. It is important to grow varieties that are fairly quick to mature. Skip Richter, Travis County director of Texas AgriLife Extension Service recommends choosing a variety that ripens in 73 days or less. Also, some varieties have been bred to be resistant to common diseases; there are code letters on their label that indicate their resistance. Here is the guide to disease resistance codes: A=Alternaria; F=Fusarium; N=Nematodes; T=Tobacco mosaic virus; V=Verticillium. Especially if your tomatoes have suffered in the past, choose varieties with the most resistance.
Tomatoes do not like temperatures below 40-45 degrees Farenheit and most will not set fruit above 90 degrees, so timing is crucial. Spring tomatoes can be planted in the ground after the danger of frost has passed. The average last frost date in Austin is March 3. However it may freeze after that date, and the nights may get too cool, so tomatoes may need extra protection early in the season. Specially designed Row Cover is ideal for protection, or a sheet or blanket can safeguard our tender investment, too. (If you want to use plastic, be sure the plastic does not touch the plant, or that part will freeze). Be sure to cover the plant completely, bringing the fabric (or plastic) all the way to the ground. Often gardeners will buy their tomato plants long before it is warm enough to plant them in the ground to get a head start on the season. They can be planted in a container first and brought indoors when cool temperatures threaten. For containers, be sure to use one of the abovementioned fertilizers mixed into a good potting soil, such as Lady Bug Vortex™.
In July, if spring-planted tomatoes still look good, cut off 1/3 of the plant and they will be rejuvenated for the fall season. If not, acquire fresh tomato starts and plant again for a fall crop of tomatoes, using the same planting methods described above.
Especially if the tomato stem is long and leggy, you can bury the tomato rootball and stem, leaving 4 – 6″ of the plant above ground. Because the tomato is a vine, it can grow roots out of the stem. Be sure to give the tomato the correct spacing, depending on the variety. Apply mulch, such as Lady Bug Sylvan Formula™ about 3″ deep. Mulch holds in moisture, keeps out weeds, moderates soil temperature, keeps soil softer, and – especially with tomatoes – helps prevent diseases. Water the plant thoroughly right away. Consider watering in with Lady Bug John’s Recipe™ liquid fertilizer, too. This is a great stimulator for new transplants. Most varieties, except ‘‘Patio,’ will need a tomato cage or plant stakes.
Keep the soil deeply and evenly moist throughout the growing season. Avoid drought or overwatering stress, which can lead to fruit cracking or Blossom End Rot. Apply about 3″ of mulch to hold in moisture and prevent diseases. Spray Maxicrop Seaweed or Lady Bug John’s Recipe™ (which contains seaweed) on tomato foliage once or twice a month to really boost tomato growth and production. Regular foliar feeding strengthens the plant, builds its resistance to diseases and pests, and provides essential trace minerals. It also contains growth stimulants that can help boost all plant functions, including flowering and fruiting. Only foliar feed early morning or late evening. Also, avoid pruning tomatoes, since an abundance of leaf cover protects tomato fruits from sunburn. In late summer, 40% shade cloth suspended over tomatoes can also help.
Tomatoes are susceptible to a host of insect and disease pests, but don’t let that discourage you. Follow the recommendations listed above and stress is minimized, reducing your tomatoes’ vulnerability to such problems. Also learn to recognize beneficial insects, too, so you can enjoy their help in the garden.
If problems begin to occur, get an accurate diagnosis as soon as possible. You may research on your own using reliable sources online or in books. Some suggested resources are as follows:
The Vegetable Book by Sam Cotner
A Field Guide to Common Texas Insects by Bastiaan Drees and John Jackman
Identifying Diseases of Vegetables by MacNab, Sherf, and Springer, published by The Penn. State University
Texas Bug Book by M. Beck and J. H. Garrett.
If you would like for our horticultural staff to diagnose the problem, put a sample of the problem plant (and any insect found, if applicable) in a sealed bag or jar. For best results get a sample that is just beginning to show symptoms – not a dead plant piece. Call us first to make sure we have a diagnostician available and if so, bring us your sample.
Many soil-borne diseases, such as Fusarium and Phytophthora, can be prevented by mixing in Actino-Iron at planting time. This is especially crucial if tomatoes must be planted in the same place as last year. If these diseases – and even air-borne diseases – show up on plants after planting, a water-soluble version of this product – Actinovate – can be used as a curative. Serenade is another all-purpose fungicide and disease control product that is effective.
A condition known as Blossom-End Rot is not caused by a disease or an insect. This dry, brown/black lesion on the bottom of the fruit is triggered by uneven watering – too much or too little, or planting in cool soil, or excessive nitrogen fertilizer. Future Blossom-End Rot can be prevented by watering regularly, mulching, and only using a fertilizer with approximately a 1-2-1 ratio, such as Lady Bug Flower Power™ (4-6-4).
If tomato plants get Spider Mites, they need to be treated right away. Spider Mites are tiny critters that live on the bottom surface of the leaves, sucking juices and leaving yellow or pale freckles on the upper surface of the leaves. In advanced stages, they will develop webbing under the leaves and along the stem. To treat them, spray Organicide or All Seasons Spray Oil, according to package directions, two or three weeks in a row. Aphids are small, soft-bodied, sucking insects that cluster on leaves and stems. They may be black, white, green, yellow, or red. For a large infestation of Aphids, spray plants with Safer’s Insecticidal Soap every 3 – 5 days until controlled. If leaves seem to disappear overnight, it may be the Tomato Hornworm or another caterpillar. Spray leaves in the evening only with B.t. (Bacillus thuringensis) and that should take care of them. Likewise, if there are neat holes in the fruit, it may be a fruit-attacking caterpillar, and B.t. will help prevent further damage. As the season progresses, two more problems may crop up – Birds and Stink Bugs. Both are very difficult to thwart. Leaf-footed Bugs and other Stink Bugs do not have many natural enemies or natural products that can control them rapidly. If you research online or ask us what the eggs and nymphs of these pests look like, then you can prevent many from reaching their full destructive potential. Otherwise, adult Stink Bugs may be picked off by hand and dropped into a bucket of soapy water. You may also use a shop vacuum to suck them up. You may want to dust Diatomaceous Earth over the whole plant – this may help reduce numbers. If tomato fruits have messy, rough holes in them, it is probably Bird damage. Many people hang red Christmas ornaments to fool and frustrate birds. Or, you may hang shiny objects, such as old CDs, Holographic Scare Tape, or the Guard’n Eyes Bird-Scaring Balloon. Finally, a netting over tomatoes or the whole garden, such as Bird-X, can be an effective barrier against birds.
Homegrown tomatoes have such a legacy, there is even a song named after them written by Texan Guy Clark. Join in this tradition and grow your own today!
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