P. Allen Smith: Tomato Time

Plant a garden this spring and reap the benefits of a bountiful harvest all summer.

'Sweet Baby Girl' Cherry Tomatoes

photography by Hortus Ltd., Jane Colclasure, Mark Fonville and Kelly Quinn

Vine-ripened, juicy tomatoes, a long-time staple in Southern gardens, are perfect for sauces, in salads or alone with a dash of salt. From heirloom to small cherry varieties, tomatoes are one of the most versatile plants for home gardens. While you don’t need acres of land to grow a bumper crop of tomatoes, you will need to follow a few guidelines to ensure the best results. 


Start Small 


Whether you want to begin with miniature tomato plants or seedlings, you’ll stand a much better chance of ending up with a large, budding plant by starting with a potted plant purchased from your favorite garden center. When you plant them, remove the lower leaves on the stalk and bury deep so only 20 percent of the plant is above the soil.

If you plan to start with seeds or seedlings, follow the same procedure but start the process six weeks before you plan to move the plants outside. 


Consider the Conditions


Temperatures should be consistently above 50 degrees during the evening hours before you plant. When flowering and pollination occur at temperatures below this level, it opens the door for a condition known as catfacing, which results in malformed or poor-quality fruits. 

Also, tomatoes need full sun, about six hours daily, to thrive. If you plant them in the ground, make sure the soil is loose and well drained before you plant. You can also use a soil test kit to check the pH levels of the soil. Tomatoes flourish in slightly acidic soil with a pH between 6 and 7. 


Go Deep and Wide


When you transfer the tomato plant to fresh garden soil, the rule for submerging 80 percent of the plant in the soil applies. Remove the lower leaves from the stalk and plant your tomatoes as deeply as possible. This will encourage the plant to stretch out and develop an expansive root system.

Consider the type of tomato when you plant in garden rows. For example, dwarf varieties need about 12 inches of space. Larger, full-size tomato plants should be about 24 inches apart to allow for staking. If you have an indeterminate tomato variety — meaning you aren’t sure how far the vines will reach — plan to set them 36 to 48 inches apart.


P. Allen Smith with a basket of tomatoesProtect young transplants from cutworms with aluminum foil.


Stake Your Ground


Once you’ve got these soon-to-be-vine-ripened beauties in the ground, you’re just weeks away from tasting the goodness. Staking the vines will really help you make the most of the harvest. 

Stand wooden stakes or bamboo poles in the ground, and use twine to loosely tie the vine to the stakes. The second option is to purchase a tomato cage and place it over the budding plant, encouraging the vines to grow up the sides. This method is especially useful for dwarf and indeterminate varieties. 


Protect, Water and Fertilize


Finally, you’ll need to care for the maturing fruits. Cutworms can cripple healthy tomato plants and rob you of your harvest. To ward them off, wrap a 1-inch piece of aluminum foil around the base of your plant where the stalk meets the soil. This will discourage the worms when the plant is young.

Once you have the plants protected, it’s important to keep them watered and properly fed. Tomatoes don’t like fluctuating moisture levels, so you’ll want to water consistently, every four to seven days during normal temperatures and daily during a heat wave. Ground watering is the easiest way to maintain consistent moisture and the best way to avoid disease, which can occur from overly wetting the leaves and stems. Covering the base of the plant with two to three inches of mulch will help the soil retain water and prevent weeds. 

Once a month, feed your tomatoes with fertilizer that is high in phosphorous and low in nitrogen, such as a 5-10-5 ratio fertilizer. You can start fertilization when the fruits first begin to develop and stop as they reach maturity. 


Pick the Harvest


Don’t wait until your tomatoes are ready to eat to pick them. Watch for changing colors, and pick the tomatoes before they fully mature. Typically, they need six to eight weeks on the vine to develop. Picking them a little before they are ready to eat allows you a few days to bring them indoors and let them fully mature before enjoying them in your favorite dish.



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