Spring is in full swing here in Stephens County with that comes gardening season. With that being said, today want to talk a little bit about one of the most popular vegetable plants grown here in Georgia. Tomatoes are considered by many to be the most prized vegetable by most avid gardeners. This is for a good reason, tomatoes are a major dietary source of the antioxidant lycopene, which has been linked to many health benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease and cancer. They are also a great source of vitamin C, potassium, folate, and vitamin K. There are many things that come into play to grow a quality crop of tomatoes in your garden.
When selecting a site to plant tomatoes ensure the area gets at least 8 hours of sunlight a day for optimum growth. Tomatoes prefer soil that is well-drained with a pH in the range of 6.0 to 6.8 for optimal growth. Taking a soil test of your garden area and submitting it to us here at the extension office is the only way to assess the soil pH and nutrient levels of your soil. If you need instructions on how to take a sample feel free to call me. If the soils pH is too low typically lime is applied to raise the pH however applying it now would not be overly beneficial for this growing season. Lime typically takes several months to work into the soil profile and raise the pH so it is best applied in the fall or winter for a spring planted garden. That’s not to say the plants will not grow in a low pH soil but it is important to understand you will not get optimal growth or fruit production. If the soil is extremely acidic or has a pH of less than 5.2 or so I would recommend finding another area to plant the tomatoes for this year or simply plant them in a raised bed or pots. Our soil sample results will also give you a detailed fertilization schedule for you to follow so you provide the plant with the optimal amount of fertilizer at the right times to ensure quality growth and fruit production.
Because tomatoes are susceptible to diseases, viruses and insects, some varieties have been bred or hybridized to be resistant to certain pests. This is a very important thing to keep in mind when purchasing tomato plants and can make disease management easier. Verticillium Wilt, Fusarium Wilt, Tobacco Mosaic Virus, Early Blight, and Tomato Spotted Wilt are all common diseases of tomatoes. Resistance to these pests is usually listed on the plant label. I definitely recommend purchasing resistant varieties if possible.
When selecting a tomato variety it is also important to understand its growth habit. Determinate tomato varieties grow in a more compact bush form and produce most of their crop at one time. You can harvest all of the fruit in two to five pickings and then pull up the plants. Determinate varieties often produce an early crop, so you will want to plant successive plantings in order to harvest tomatoes over an extended period of time with this type of tomato. Determinate plants are often the choice of the gardener who wants a large supply of ripe fruit at once for canning. Indeterminate varieties set fruit clusters along a vine stem that continues to grow all season. They will continue to produce fruit, if harvested, throughout the season until first frost. Bush varieties do best when staked or grown in cages, but vine types must be given support.
If plants are to be staked or trellised, space them 24 inches apart in rows 4 to 6 feet apart. Although it requires more work initially, staking makes caring for tomatoes easier and keeps the plant’s leaves from contacting the ground and decreases chances of disease. Staking can be done using commercially available cages or by using 6-foot tall, 1-inch square wooden stakes. Drive wooden stakes into the ground about 1 foot deep and 4 to 6 inches from the transplants. Heavy twine or strips of cloth can be used to tie the plants to the stake about every 10 inches vertically as the plants grow.
Tomatoes will benefit from 2-3 inches of mulch placed around their stems. Mulching should be done soon after transplanting. A material such as weed-free straw, chopped leaves, or wood chips can make an excellent mulch and will help conserve moisture, reduce weed growth, and lower the chances of disease.
Tomatoes need about 1 to 2 inches of water per week depending on the type of soil they are growing in. If rainfall does not provide this quantity, water plants thoroughly once or twice per week. Consider using drip irrigation or soaker hoses around your plants. These methods will help conserve moisture and avoid getting the foliage wet which can cause disease problems.
Keep these tips in mind as you purchase, plant, and care for your tomatoes this gardening season and your bushes will be full of delicious fruit.