Prepare for Tomato Growing Season - 27 East

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Prepare for Tomato Growing Season

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Determinate tomatoes also being grown near the ocean on Meadow Lane will flower, set fruit and then be done for the summer. It’s the determinates that result in the infamous August tomato glut. ANDREW MESSINGER

Determinate tomatoes also being grown near the ocean on Meadow Lane will flower, set fruit and then be done for the summer. It’s the determinates that result in the infamous August tomato glut. ANDREW MESSINGER

Of the many ways to tie a tomato plant, these three stand out. The foam-covered wire on the left can be cut to size and easily manipulated as needed. The same is true of the Flexitube tie  (center) but it’s thinner and can result in broken stems in heavy wind. On the right is a roll of thin vinyl tape that can be easily tied and wrapped without damaging branches and stems.  Half-inch-wide tape is shown here, and there is a 1-inch wide tape as well. Pieces of all three can and should be collected at the end of the season as all are reusable for several seasons.  ANDREW MESSINGER

Of the many ways to tie a tomato plant, these three stand out. The foam-covered wire on the left can be cut to size and easily manipulated as needed. The same is true of the Flexitube tie (center) but it’s thinner and can result in broken stems in heavy wind. On the right is a roll of thin vinyl tape that can be easily tied and wrapped without damaging branches and stems. Half-inch-wide tape is shown here, and there is a 1-inch wide tape as well. Pieces of all three can and should be collected at the end of the season as all are reusable for several seasons. ANDREW MESSINGER

These are the three tomato varieties in my trials this summer. Each is touted for its uniqueness. Please stay tuned.  ANDREW MESSINGER

These are the three tomato varieties in my trials this summer. Each is touted for its uniqueness. Please stay tuned. ANDREW MESSINGER

This Meadow Lane indeterminate grape tomato will grow and be productive well into the fall. Grown just feet from the ocean, it always has a light salt taste from the salt spray. Pruning will distort it but won’t stop its growth. Picture from September 20. ANDREW MESSINGER

This Meadow Lane indeterminate grape tomato will grow and be productive well into the fall. Grown just feet from the ocean, it always has a light salt taste from the salt spray. Pruning will distort it but won’t stop its growth. Picture from September 20. ANDREW MESSINGER

Autor

Hampton Gardener®

  • Publication: Residence
  • Published on: Feb 29, 2024
  • Columnist: Andrew Messinger

This week I need to finish up on the Tomato series. Some hints of garden wisdom, some tips based on your experiences and mine, and hopefully, a few gems that you hadn’t thought of or never knew. So onward in our quest for the best tomatoes you’ve ever grown. Maybe.

Other than my father’s huge beefsteaks of the late 1950s, my fondest tomato memories are of a variety named Sweet 100. Several summers ago I bought some seeds of this cherry tomato that I have childhood memories of. This was my attempt to see if more than a half century later it had the same taste or was it just a “memory” taste. I started the plants indoors then took the best of the group and planted one in my trial garden and caged it. I made a big, big mistake though.

I’d forgotten that this was an indeterminate variety, and it grew and grew then grew some more until the vine was 20 feet long and had to be coaxed from the cage to the garden perimeter fencing 5 feet away where I was able to tease and train the vine along the wire fence. My lesson relearned, it was time for the taste test. Well, at least for this one plant my taste memory was much more pleasant than the harvested reality. Maybe you actually do live and learn?

So, lesson No. 1 is to know for sure if the tomato you’re planting or starting seed for is a determinate or indeterminate type. It will say so on the plant tag or in the catalog and if it doesn’t don’t buy or plant it. If you don’t know which of the two groups your tomato belongs to it will just be the beginning of your surprises, which may not turn out well. Having this knowledge will also aid you in planning since you’ll know if you need to cage your plant or train it to grow on a wire or trellis.

Next, will your tomato be at home in a pot (container) or in the ground? Determinates are best suited for pot growing, but the pot still needs to be large enough for staking or caging so an 18-inch-wide and 18-inch-deep pot would be the minimum. If planting in the ground, you should be using a plastic mulch around the plants. The mulch eliminates any weed problems (weeds attract insects), keeps the soil evenly warm and retains soil moisture. Sorry, but in the case of tomatoes, plastic mulches seem to work much better than others.

It’s also been noted that a red plastic mulch can result in 20 percent higher fruit yields. You can use squares of plastic mulch, bury the edges and make an ‘X’ slit in the center about four inches wide for your planting hole. But make sure your soil has been amended properly before you apply the mulch.

Another reason for using a plastic mulch is to eliminate splashing water from the bare soil up onto the foliage. This bare soil can be a major source of certain disease transmission and while the splashing may still take place from the plastic the disease organisms remain dry, quiescent and under the mulch.

All tomatoes have vigorous root systems with indeterminates being deeper and wider. Prior to planting, prepare a planting hole for each plant that’s at least a foot square and deep but preferably larger. Amend the soil as necessary so you’re planting in a soil that’s rich in organics, including composted manures.

Before planting, determine how you’ll continue to feed your plants. They are heavy feeders but too much nitrogen will result in glorious foliage with few fruits. One strategy is to use a time-release fertilizer such as Osmocote and add that into the planting hole. This will feed your tomatoes for the entire summer but you may choose to add doses of liquid organics based on the color of the foliage, fruit set and if it’s been excessively rainy. Granular organics can also be used as they are naturally time released, but you’ll need to keep on adding fertilizer every few weeks during the growing season. I don’t suggest the use of chemical-based fertilizers especially as the summer gets warmer.

Make sure your staking, caging and wires are in place at planting time because once the plants get growing it can be tricky to catch up. Indeterminate tomatoes will need pruning as the season progresses, and determinates to a much lesser extent if at all. You can find instructions and pictures of how to do this pruning here: tinyurl.com/2yfyun55. Keep your pruner clean using alcohol or milk to prevent spreading diseases.

When using cages and stakes, try to find the better made and sturdier ones as they last for years and can handle the weight of a productive season. Try to use the green vinyl tying material or foam-covered wire as both of these protect the stems from the bites and subbing you can get from wire or twine.

Don’t rush your plants. There are all kinds of gadgets and gizmos like towers and caps that you can put over your young plants allegedly to get your plants growing quicker. For the most part though, they don’t work since it still takes a set number of days at a given temperature to get your plants to flower and fruit. If you do insist on early planting, say before April 26, a covering with a single sheet of newspaper or Reemay will protect against frost damage but not against cold soil, which these plants hate. Paper or waxed paper hot caps are used when moving transplants into the garden. They prevent sun scald during the transition and maintain some soil warmth at night, but not much.

For the better part of May and June your tomato plants will grow lots of foliage along with a dense root system. Flowers will appear when the plant is mature enough and when the air temperature is consistently in the mid 70s to mid 80s. In early July, flowers will begin to show up and the pollinators will get busy doing their work. But here’s where things can go wrong: If it gets too hot, over 85 degrees, you’ll find that flowering slows down and may even stop. Hot summers can result in lower yields. Hot and wet summers can result in pitiful yields. Remember, it’s not your fault if this is the case.

And yes, you can harvest a tomato in its green “ripe” stage and allow it to ripen indoors. You’ll get it to color up this way but the taste, as opposed to vine ripening, will be disappointing. This trick is best saved for your end-of-the-season harvesting. Remember that your determinate types may be touted as early-, mid- or late-season ripening, but the time from the earliest early to the latest late may be only three weeks, four at best. Thus, the infamous tomato glut that we have all experienced. You can really lengthen your harvesting season with a good combination of determinate and indeterminate types.

Watering your plants can be a nightmare or pretty easy. If you only have a few plants use a watering can and keep the leaves and stems dry. Always remember that wet tomato stems and leaves are the precursor to several tomato diseases that can only exist in the presence of water, not humidity, but liquid water that remains on the plant for hours. Water the soil, NOT the plants.

And from the time of planting until your last harvest make sure you control the insects that want a taste as well. They mostly want to suck or chew on the leaves and not the fruits. The largest and easiest to detect is the tomato hornworm, which is a brightly colored caterpillar. It’s a voracious eater but all you need to do is pick it off and move it somewhere else on the property.

Always be on the lookout for aphids. They are small, six-legged creatures with an hourglass figure and green. They are social insects that always appear in groups and generally on the flowers or the growing tips of the stems and vines. In addition to them feeding on the plant juices they can also transmit some diseases. Found early and scouted for all seasons, they are easily managed with organic insecticides (as spot treatments only) such as Pyrethrin. There are also oils and soaps that can be used, but use these with great caution when it’s hot and/or very sunny. Whitefly is a similar issue but often harder to spot as they usually show up on the underside of the foliage. Scout for them and do all you can to wipe them out very early in the season because as it gets warmer their population can explode.

Then the two- and four-legged creatures. Most of these will know the exact moment your tomatoes have reached peak flavor and beat you to it. These critters include mice, chipmunks, squirrels and racoons. And the birds, especially crows, have a special set of ripe tomato radars. Plastic owls on post with bobbing heads are somewhat effective as is flash tape. Scarecrows? Maybe, but maybe not. Unless they move about.

Last and by no means least is the end of the season clean up. Always remove all the vines, foliage, and fruits at the end of the season to help assure any diseases present on the plant parts don’t over winter. Better yet, plant a cover crop once things are cleaned up. This will result in great soil conditions for the next season.

Start your seeds (at least two sowings two weeks apart) indoors no sooner than March 15 and you can safely plant outdoors once the soil temperature reaches and stays around 60 degrees. Also remember that “leggy” tomato plants should be planted deep. Don’t worry, the stem won’t rot. And if your plant gets super leggy simply lie it horizontally for a few days. This will cause the tip to grow upright and the whole plant can then be planted on the horizontal as the top will remain vertical.

Well, good luck. And yes, it does take some luck to get great tomatoes since we have little control over the weather and that is indeed the great variable. Let me know how you do and if you have questions. As the season progresses, I’ll let you know how my four varieties are doing and I hope your tomatoes are greater than ever. Keep growing.

Correction: In my previous column I noted that the variety from Johnny‘s Seeds called Strawberry Fields was “7-to-10 inches.“ That should have been “7-to-10 ounces.” Sorry for the error.

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