Tomato Garden Maintenance

Kathy Henderson

Garden Columnist

“I’m only going to plant a few tomatoes this year. Last year I planted about 20 and they got ahead of me. I did not get many tomatoes, but I worked so hard looking after them.” Does that statement sound familiar? Unless you plan to spend a lot of time in the garden, planting a few plants is a good idea. A few well-tended plants will yield more fruit than a lot of “hit and miss” plants. How do you maintain tomato plants?

Mulch with a porous ground cover material, cover with about 9 pages of newspaper topped with straw or mulch. This will keep the root system evenly moist, allow you to fertilize properly, and keep weeds out (or at least, make them easier to pull). It also keeps the lower leaves from getting soil splash back when you water. Lower leaves touching the soil tends to produce diseases.

A well-tended tomato plant in Kathy’s garden. Special photo

Don’t be afraid to remove some of the side shoots (suckers) that arise from the leaf joints (nodes). Remove these with your fingernail when they are tiny or with a sharp knife if they have gotten larger. Removing some of these will allow air to flow easily through the plant and also will make it easier to stake or support the limbs that are bearing fruit. The tomatoes will also be larger if there are fewer limbs.

If you want large fruit, you might want to remove some of the green ones that are in a cluster. This thinning allows the energy to go into developing the fruit that is remaining.

Don’t over fertilize. Use a vegetable fertilizer, but one that has a slow-release nitrogen or a low amount of nitrogen. Nitrogen tends to make a lot of leafy growth, which is good at the first, but you want the growth to slow down and the blossoms to begin to form as the plant grows larger. Make no mistake, you want a lot of large leaves - they feed the plant and shade the fruit from the hot sun which can scald your tomatoes. Unless you are growing a very large garden, fertilize with soluble fertilize that you mix with water and this will be taken into the plant much faster than granular fertilizer. Follow the directions on the container.

Watch your plants carefully so that you can treat for diseases and insects as soon as they appear. Use as little treatment as possible. Even the organic sprays can burn your plants when the temperature is too high. Read all directions on insecticides and fungicides carefully.

Water in early morning and keep the water off the leaves as much as possible. Watering late in the afternoon and evening means that the leaves will be covered with water when darkness comes and that could mean disease. Slugs are a problem when there is a lot of moisture present in the dark.

Planting sunflowers nearby will attract the leaf-footed bug (a large stink bug) which can really suck all the delicious juices out of the fruit. When I do see them, I put on rubber gloves and enjoy squishing them. Oh, well, just one of the pleasures of gardening.

Picking bugs, cleaning up any litter the plant may produce, removing suckers, watering carefully, fertilizing properly will produce some fine tomatoes. Don’t allow them to completely ripen on the vine. They should be full color, but not soft. Bring them into your kitchen and allow them to finish ripening for a day or two. This brings out the flavor. Some heirlooms will become mushy very quickly if left on the vine too long.

If you have blossom end darkening (rot), you might need to add some calcium to your soil or spray it on the leaves. Blossom end rot also occurs when the plant does not get even water and therefore, the plant does not bring the calcium up to the fruit. Drenching rains followed by days of drought can be a problem.

A tablespoon of Epsom Salt in a gallon of water provides Magnesium which is an important nutrient for tomatoes. This should only be added several times during the growing season.

That’s about all I know about growing tomatoes, unless I have forgotten something.

Check out Kathy’s Plants on Facebook and feel free to post questions. I will get them answered as soon as I can, but know I am in the garden, so I might not get to you fast enough right now. Visit my farm in Locust Grove and I will try to guide you to good gardening success.