For some reason, everyone wants to grow tomatoes here in Central Texas. Perhaps it is that unequaled taste a homegrown tomato has that can’t be duplicated by the grocery store. Perhaps it is because growing a great tomato is a challenge that gives the successful gardener bragging rights.
Whatever it is, each spring gardeners head for the nurseries to pick the greatest tomato seedlings with visions in their eyes of large, plump, delicious tomatoes to show off to their families and neighbors.
You may have noticed the word challenge in the first paragraph. There are many pitfalls and problems in growing tomatoes, as well as a host of insects and other creatures that would take advantage of your efforts and steal your tomatoes even before you have had a chance to enjoy them. Let’s go over the intricacies of tomato growing to help you overcome these obstacles.
First, you need to know how and when to grow tomatoes. There is some controversy about the when of planting tomatoes. The argument is that if you plant very early in the season, you can escape the heat and drought that are sure to come and harvest your crop early before the rigors of Texas summers steal the vitality from your plants.
If you are successful, you will indeed have more success come harvest time. However, you must be willing to risk late freezes that will destroy your seedlings. Then all your work is in vain and you will have to pull up the frozen tomatoes and replant. Do not try to save these plants once frost has harmed them. They will never recover. I have tried this and can testify it is the sad truth. You will have to replant.
This time of the year is very fickle where weather is concerned. One day the birds are singing and everything seems to be firmly into springtime. The next day a cold front blows in and we are plunged back into winter’s icy grip. Here are the things you can do to help your plants survive.
Plant seedlings in large containers so they have plenty of room to develop a good root system. Watch the weather forecast every day. When frost is predicted, put your plants in the garage or in your house. Move them back outside when the danger has passed. If this sounds like too much hassle, plant your tomatoes in the ground but use something to moderate the temperature.
Look in seed catalogs for floating row cover. Drape this over the plants and hold the row cover in place with stakes or bricks. If it blows away, it can’t help. Plants do not produce heat. When we are cold, we put on warm clothing that holds in our body heat so we stay warm. Remember that this won’t work for plants.
What you are trying to do is capture the heat in the ground around the plants and hold it close to the plants. For this reason, you can also make use of methods that use water to trap the heat of the sun and radiate it back to the plant. The oldest product I know for this is called a “wall o’ water.” It is a plastic contraption that fits around your tomato plants with channels that you fill with water. These capture the warmth of the sun and can radiate it back to the plants at night or when the temperatures drop. I have seen these used to good effect and believe they are worth a try.
It is also important how you plant tomato seedlings. Once you bring the seedling home, remove it from its little pot. Look at the roots. If they wind around and around the root ball, you must unwind them. This is also true for all other plants and even trees that you plant.
Spread out the roots carefully and plant the tomato into its hole. This should be a site in full sun, free of weeds, that has been amended with compost and sprinkled with nitrogen mixed into the soil. When you plant the seedling, put a 2-inch collar of cardboard around the stem to prevent cutworm damage. Toilet paper rolls are ideal for this.
For tomato, and only tomato seedlings, you can bury some of the stem in your soil. Roots will form along the buried stem. This is a particularly good practice if your tomato is too tall and weak-stemmed. Water the tomato well, making sure that the water reaches the root ball. You can also pour water into the hole before you plant, so as to be sure the plant gets water all the way to the roots.
Next, put a sturdy, large tomato cage over the plant. Then, if you are using floating row cover, wrap it around the cage and secure it so that the top is clamped together and there are no gaps. Every year I go to a thrift store and buy a package of girl’s hair clips to secure my row cover to the cage. They work really well.
Cover the ground with mulch. This is very important to the health of your plants and your soil.
Watch over your tomatoes for signs of pests or animal damage. You may need to put a small fence around your tomatoes if you suffer from the ravages of raccoons and possums. If you see signs of damage, go immediately to your nursery expert and bring a sample of a damaged leaf for his inspection.
He can prescribe something to treat your tomatoes with to minimize the damage. I cannot tell you whether you should use only organic controls or chemical measures. This is a decision you need to make by reading about it to make an informed decision.
I will say that you should at least try a gentle, natural method first before going to Defcon 3. Chemicals can be dangerous to you, your pets and the environment, so learn about them. Your county AgriLife Extension Service can provide some answers. Give them a call. Master Gardeners man the phone lines all spring and summer to help you with your questions regarding your tomatoes and all your gardening questions. We are there to help.
As with all things, diligence and hard work can help you succeed. Follow these suggestions and then be prepared to enjoy a bounteous harvest from your garden this year.