We left off yesterday talking about planting tomatoes from seeds. Let's pick right back up with what you do after you've got your seedlings! Fast forward four or five weeks from your planting date. You've kept consistent moisture levels on your seedlings. You've fertilized once with fish emulsion. Now what?
Memphis is in agricultural Zone 7b. That means our last frost date usually falls in the second week of April. Tomatoes are cold sensitive, so you don't want to plant them out if there is a risk of temperatures falling below freezing. You can plant them out a little earlier if you've got low tunnels built, or some other form of frost protection. (I have rudimentary instructions on building low tunnels here.)
If the risk of frost has passed in your area, you've prepped your soil, and your seedlings are looking healthy and strong, then you just have one more step before you plant them out. You've got to decide how you want to stake your plants. Tomatoes need a little bit of help to stand up and be productive. Keep in mind, you don't absolutely have to stake your plants. You could just let them flop over. However, the more they're in contact with moist soil, the more susceptible they are to disease, and the closer your tomatoes are to the ground, the more likely they are to be eaten by rodents. So I highly recommend staking!
If you've got a long row of tomatoes, the best way to stake them is to construct a wall out of T-posts and cattle panels. You can use a handy little device called a duratool to affix your tomato plants to the panel. The duratool is one of my favorite farm tools ever. If you've got a lot of tomatoes, this drastically reduces the time it takes to stake. The down side of cattle panel staking is that it's pricey, so I would only recommend this option if you've got more than 30 or so row feet of tomatoes planted. Otherwise, metal tomato cages or wooden stakes work well. Whichever way you plan to stake your tomatoes, make sure your stakes are in the ground before you put your plants in.
How far apart should you place your stakes? Many northern farmers swear by close tomato spacing for maximum production. I've seen recommendations as close as 18" spacing for tomato plants. If you grow below the Mason-Dixon, I find that this recommendation is a recipe for disaster. Southern climates are humid, and if you're in the Delta like I am, the soils are dense and full of clay. This is perfect breeding ground for blight and other fungal diseases. The best way to prevent the spread of those diseases is by spacing your tomato plants at least three feet apart, and make sure you have plenty of room for air flow between your tomato rows.
Okay, so we've got our stakes in to our beautifully double-dug soil. Now what? I know some growers swear by this, but I recommend against ripping stems off to plant tomatoes deeper in the soil. First of all, open wounds on the plants are entry points for disease. Secondly, those leaves are little solar panels, making energy for your plants to grow. I dig a hole 2-3 times the size of the tomato root ball, fill it with compost, then plant the tomato starts about an inch higher than the root ball's soil line.
Here in Memphis, my favorite tomato grower is Steve Fulwood of Cold Comfort Farm. He can grow beautiful, tender heirlooms long past the time my hybrids have succumbed to blight. His Brandywine tomatoes are my favorite. They're sweet, smooth, and the perfect slicing texture. My husband asked him last year what his secret was, and he shared his fertilizing plan. He saturates the soil under his tomato plants with Grow Big fertilizer from Fox Farm once a week until the plants start to bud, then he switches to Tiger Bloom. That plan has worked well for us, thought I have to admit... even with his fertilizer secret, I've still never been able to grow an heirloom tomato as perfect as his!
As your tomato plants become established, scout your plants twice a week for pest pressure. Look for holes or chunks taken out of leaves or fruit, as that may be a sign of tomato hornworm or fruitworm. Look for signs of wilt, as you may have aphids or stink bugs. Colorado potato beetles like to chew on tomato leaves until they turn to lace. The good news is that many of the pests that plague tomatoes are big enough for you to easily see and squish on-site. (Or brush it into a bucket of soapy water if that makes you squeamish.)
I also scout the soil line two to three times a week for signs of blight. If you see a fuzzy, dotted fungus along the soil line and base stem of your tomato plant, there's a good chance you've got Southern blight. Southern blight is horrible. It is a soil-borne disease, and once it's in the soil, there's a good chance it's going to plague you year after year. If I see southern blight in my tomatoes, I dig up the infected plant, including all of the soil around the root area, and I put it all in a plastic bag and put it in a dumpster. I even cover my boots with plastic bags and wash my shovel with a 10% bleach solution after using it so I am sure that I'm not transmitting it. If I have handled a plant that I've suspected of blight, I don't handle any other plants until I've washed up and changed clothes. I take out the stake and soak it in a 10% bleach solution.
To reduce your susceptibility to blight, or to any other disease or infection, it's important to water at the beginning of the day and close to the root zone. Using soaker hoses or drip tape is ideal, because it reduces the amount of water that splashes from plant to plant, potentially carrying disease with it. Also, keep your tomatoes as weed-free as possible. Weeds can carry pathogens and provide good hiding places for pests. I like to keep my tomatoes covered with a leaf mulch in order to keep weed pressure down.
If you've fended off pest and disease, you've made it to the best part of growing tomatoes: harvesting! I recommend that you harvest your tomatoes in the morning, before the sun is high in the sky. For the best flavor, keep your tomatoes at room temperature until they are used. I harvest into wide crates or buckets, in just one or two layers, to avoid bruising. I also make sure that I wash my buckets in between harvests, so I'm not accidentally spreading diseases. (Have I mentioned that I'm a little neurotic about pests and disease?)
That's it! You've made it through Tomatoes 101. Do you have any tomato questions or grower advice that you'd like to share? Drop it in the comments, or on one of my social media pages.