Gardening Tip of the Week – How to Grow Tomatoes
Producing Juicy, Delicious Tomatoes
If you’ve ever eaten a grocery store tomato, and we bet you likely have eaten your fair share, you know how bland and tasteless they can be. This is because grocery store tomatoes have been genetically altered over the years to do things such as produce more fruit per plant, ripen more uniformly, and stand up well to being shipped long distances. But taste has been compromised in the process.
Freshly harvested homegrown vegetables just taste better than those in the grocery store. We’ll give you the help you need to grow tasty tomatoes and tips on how to do it organically.
When to Plant
When to plant is the greatest challenge for Texas tomato growers. Set them out too early and they may freeze. Set them out too late and your plants won’t have time to produce fruit before temperatures get too hot.
Most gardeners recommend waiting until the last chance of frost has past, which in North Texas is typically March 16. (The optimum growing temperature range is between 55 degrees F and 76 degrees F. In the spring, blossoms will drop off if nighttime temperatures drop below 55 degrees F.) However, although there is some variation between varieties, tomatoes will go dormant and stop producing fruit when nighttime temperatures get above approximately 76 degrees F, which can happen almost anytime during the growing season. Also, the intense summer heat can cause tomatoes still on the vine to split.
To maximize your growing season, you might consider planting earlier than March 16 and then be prepared to cover your plants if a frost occurs. If you need to protect your plants through a light frost, you can cover the tomato cage at night with a blanket, a frost cloth, or a piece of thick plastic that drapes all the way to the ground. Remove it in the morning once temperatures are over 55 degrees F.
Varieties suitable for North Texas
Fruit size is also a major factor in determining how many tomatoes your plants produce. Larger fruits such as the Beefsteak take 96 days to ripen while the small Supersweet 100’s take only 65 days. Since plants stop producing when temperature rise, plants that produce smaller fruits will tend to produce a larger number of tomatoes than plants that produce large fruits.
The “Texas SuperStar” Tycoon takes approximately 80 to 90 days, The Tycoon produces an exceptional large round tomato variety. It is a determinate hybrid variety known for its heat tolerance, as well as its resistance to tomato yellow leaf curl virus.
Other large varieties popular in North Texas include the Better Boy and the Big Boy. Popular medium-sized tomatoes include the Celebrity, the Early Girl, Carnival, and the Porter. There are nearly two dozen cherry-sized tomatoes that can be easily grown as well. Some organic gardeners like to plant heirlooms, varieties that have been passed down through the generations. Unlike the hybrids mentioned above, they come true from seed, which makes them easier to pass down.
How to Plant
Before you plant, you should give your tomato plants about three to five days to acclimate to the outdoors by placing them in a protected area such as under a porch awning where they will be away from strong winds and protected from drying out but where they have a chance to get acclimated to the outdoors. Some gardeners call this “hardening off.” This is especially important if you started your own plants indoors from seed. Remember to water them as needed during this time.
Tomatoes grow best in soil that has lots of organic matter. Amend your soil with fresh compost and work it into the top four to six inches of your garden. Depending on the health and structure of your soil, you may want to add mineral-rich Texas Greensand, which includes essential elements such as calcium and iron. Adding expanded shale or lava sand will help with moisture retention and loosening heavy soil.
Dig a hole about 2 to 4 inches deep for each plant. When transplanting, always move plants from wet soil to wet soil to prevent transplant shock. We recommend that you use our Marshall Grain Planting Recipe, which blends soft rock phosphate and earthworm castings into your planting hole, followed by watering in with a solution of Maxicrop Liquid Seaweed. This combination of organic root stimulating ingredients will help jump start your plants.
Place your tomato plants 36 to 48 inches apart and plant them slightly deeper than they had been growing in the pot. This will help stabilize the plant and keep it from falling over, breaking a weak stem or growing sideways.
Place a tomato cage around each plant. Push it as deeply into the soil as you can to keep it stabilized and able to hold the plant’s weight as it grows to maturity.
Care and Maintenance
You’ll want to water your plants slowly and deeply to help them develop a strong root system. Don’t let them wilt, but don’t over water either. To keep the plants from drying out quickly, place about three inches of mulch around the plants once they get established. This will keep the weeds down while also maintaining the soil’s moisture.
Be careful to water the soil, not the leaves of a plant, and try to prevent splashing. Wet leaves can promote fungus, and soil splashed onto leaves can spread soil-born diseases. Wetting the leaves will also often turn them yellow and cause them to fall off the plant.
Pests and Diseases
Tomatoes are subject to certain pests – primarily the tomato horn worm and spider mites. The horn worm is the larval stage of the Hawk moth and can devastate a plant seemingly overnight. Spider mites usually show up later in the season. Barely visible to the naked eye, the mites create easier-to-see webs around the tips of the leaves. Both can be treated with Neem oil. (Use care not to spray the bees!) Horn worms can also be prevented by applying Thuricide (Bacillus thuringiensis, or simply “Bt”).
Tomatoes can also suffer from early blight, which is a soil-dwelling fungus that usually only occurs when the weather is humid, or after heavy rains. Affected plants under-produce. Leaves may drop, leaving fruit open to sunscald.
Blossom end rot is another common but fixable tomato problem. The most obvious symptom is a dark area at the blossom end (bottom) of the tomato, resulting from a lack of calcium in the fruit. The main cause is drought stress followed by excessive moisture; this fluctuation reduces the plant’s uptake of calcium. Avoid blossom end rot by fertilizing regularly with a premium tomato and pepper food, or by applying a calcium supplement. If blossom end rot does appear, you can treat it by spraying the flowers with a calcium supplement.
The best way to prevent diseases is to follow good crop management practices:
- Rotate your crops. Early blight remains active for a year. Spores can be dormant in the soil for several years.
- Plant disease-resistant hybrids to strengthen your plant’s chances of being blight-free
- Plant tomatoes in a raised bed to improve drainage and prevent diseases from spreading
- Give tomato plants extra space (more than 24 inches) to let air to move among leaves and keep them dry
- Water the soil – not the plants – to prevent splashing. Avoid overhead watering
- Stake tomato plants for better circulation
- Remove and destroy affected plants at the end of the season
Read the information on each transplant to determine the days to harvest. Harvest times for tomatoes range from widely from about 50 days for a few varieties to about 96 days, with many maturing around 70 days.
Some gardeners prefer to wait to pick their tomatoes at full color but if pests are a problem, such as grasshoppers, birds or other insects that you find are biting holes into the fruit, you can pick the tomatoes when they just barely start to turn color and allow them to fully ripen on an indoor sunny window ledge away from pests that would bite into them. Do not put them into the fridge until they are at full color or you may compromise the flavor.
Recipes and Storage
You can store your tomatoes at room temperature or put them in the fridge once they are fully ripened. There are so many ways to eat tomatoes. Of course, the BLT is a favorite as is the caprese salad. Or just slice them up to eat them as a side vegetable or on your hamburgers. Share your excess harvest with friends and family. Want more recipe ideas? Check out this link from Allrecipes.
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