By Jimmy Deaton aka Farmer D
This month I want to focus on what is without a doubt the most popular veggie grown in most gardens, and that is tomatoes. They are probably the most widely used and versatile vegetable around. From sandwiches to salads, pasta sauce or tomato juice, the pickled green tomatoes found in cupboards, and of course my all-time favorite……fried green tomatoes.
So why talk about tomatoes in April? To give everyone the heads up on how to grow the best plants they can resulting in an abundant harvest. Whether growing from seed or purchasing the plants from a garden center or other retail destination, there are some tricks to the trade.
The site should have a light fertile soil that is rich in organic matter but not too much nitrogen. So, be careful adding heaps of rotted manure or organic fertilizer rich in nitrogen. You’ll get big leafy plants but very little in the way of fruits. Lobster compost or Bumper Crop added to the soil will give your plants what they need. Espoma’s Tomato Tone sprinkled around the drip line or a compost tea made from worm castings sprayed directly on the plants will do wonders. They also love full sun and we have ours situated on the south side of the house. With it being bricked and throwing off the heat at night, we have harvested tomatoes up untill December some years.
Sowing seeds is easy, but make sure you use a good quality potting mix-preferably one that is a seed starting mix. Sow the seeds about 6 weeks before you plan to transplant into the mix. About 1/4″ depth is ideal. Keep the mix moist but definitely not soggy. A heat mat is great for germination. Once they germinate, place them under some fluorescent lights if possible or a south facing window. The lights are well worth the investment. Just go to the local big box store and get a T-5 fixture with cool bulbs that are in the range of 5000k-6500K and keep them about 2-3 inches above the seedlings to minimize stretching of the plants which makes them very spindly.
Once you have about 2 sets of true leaves, transplant them into 4 inch containers. Dixie cups with some holes punched in the bottom will be ok or get some peat pots from your local garden center and use those. I give my seedlings about 16-18 hours of light per day and this gives me some very robust plants when it’s time to put them into the ground.
If you’re buying plants, buy them early and when they are young in 4 inch pots. You want plants that are stocky, bright green and have that healthy look to them. Above all, avoid tall, leggy plants or those with open flowers or fruits. Also, stay away from plants that have a purplish hue to them – especially the underside of the leaves.
Harden off your plants over a 10 day period if possible. Each day, put the plants outside starting with about 2 hours a day and increase it by an hour each day. Make sure you protect them from the wind as well. A protected spot will save you a lot of heartache in the end.
Transplant after the last threat of frost – which is about April 15th for those of us in the Metro area. When you do put them in the ground, bury as much as you can of the stem leaving about 4 inches above soil line. Trust me on this, that plant will put out roots all along that buried stem giving you a bigger root system. I also cut the bottom off a 1 gallon nursery pot and place that around the plant with about 2 inches of it buried into the ground, so when I water, I just fill up the pot and all the water goes down to the root system instead of running all over the place before it decides to head south.
Tomatoes need plenty of nutrients so a good water with some fish emulsion or, better yet, a good foliar feeding of a compost tea made from worm castings and kelp/seaweed will give the plants all it needs. The compost tea foliar feed is the best route as it also helps inhibit certain foliage diseases.
A good mulch around the base of the plants will help retain moisture and inhibit disease pathogens being splashed up from the soil. Grass clippings, straw or even leaves make a good mulch.
Although some folks like to use individual trellis’, they are actually detrimental to producing a good crop. I have an 8 foot tall trellis that is also 8 feet wide. I use a piece of nylon twine and tie it to the top of the trellis. I then wrap it a couple times around the root ball when I transplant the plant and as the plant grows I wind it around the twine. Remove the suckers as the plant grows and you have a nice tidy plant that will be loaded down with fruit.
After all that hard work, let those fruits vine ripen and you’ll have the best ‘maters in the neighborhood. I guarantee.