Ready, Set, Tomato! (Part 2)

San Marzano tomatoes make the best sauce. And noses, apparently. 

San Marzano tomatoes make the best sauce. And noses, apparently. 

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! 

Allegra the farm dog running through rows of tomatoes staked with cattle panel.

Allegra the farm dog running through rows of tomatoes staked with cattle panel.

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!

My Red Pearl tomatoes from Johnny's Selected Seeds went bonkers after implementing Steve Fulwood's fertilizing plan. 

My Red Pearl tomatoes from Johnny's Selected Seeds went bonkers after implementing Steve Fulwood's fertilizing plan. 

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. 

Tomato plants that have succumbed to southern blight.

Tomato plants that have succumbed to southern blight.

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. 

Mary Riddle tomato eyes

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. 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

Supersweet 100 tomatoes from Johnny's Selected Seeds

Supersweet 100 tomatoes from Johnny's Selected Seeds

Ready, Set, Tomato! (Part 1)

It's the time of year when I start really craving tomatoes. It's been months since I had a flavorful, juicy tomato, and the mealy pink things in the grocery stores right now just won't cut it. The good news is that we can start prepping now for a season of plenty.

Like all good growing, the most important thing to focus on is soil. You won't have good crops unless you have good soil. Wherever you're growing, it's a good idea to add fresh compost to your tomato beds each year. My favorite kind of compost to use is cotton burr compost. We have it in abundance here in Memphis, and I get the best results from it.

I also highly recommend double-digging your beds. (You can find my instructions for double-digging here.) Tomatoes need ample space for root growth, at least 12-18 inches. Don't think you have that kind of top soil? Double-digging helps create it! The photo below shows one of my raised beds. The foreground has been left alone, but the background has been double-dug. You can see from where my hand is that I've added four or five inches of soil space just by double-digging. Mixing in your compost amendments and loosening the lower layers of soil help the plant's root zone access essential nutrients that don't move around through the soil, like phosphorus. Aerating your soil helps water flow through your soil instead of puddling on top, which helps prevents the spread of disease.

Double-digging builds soil, as seen here. 

Double-digging builds soil, as seen here. 

After you've got your soil plan in place, it's important to figure out what kinds of tomatoes you want to grow. If you aren't interested in starting tomatoes from seeds, please consider shopping for your tomato starts at your local farmers market. Plants that you purchase at big box stores are often chemical-laden and stressed. I've seen plants at those stores with hiding aphids and early signs of disease. Buy your tomato starts from the farmer whose tomatoes you like the best. That way, your starts will probably also come with some good, region-appropriate advice. 

Here's what you should know about before selecting your tomato plants:

  • Do you want an heirloom or hybrid? Heirloom tomatoes are often beautiful, but they are much more susceptible to disease. Hybrids are often grown to be resistant to certain diseases. If your tomato patch has suffered from disease pressure in the past, I recommend going the hybrid route. 
  • You should also decide if you want indeterminate or determinate tomatoes. Determinate tomatoes flower all at once and are more compact than indeterminates. They usually bear fruit over two or three weeks, then begin to die. Indeterminate tomatoes will keep growing vines and flowering and thus require more staking, pruning, and support. 
  • Most importantly, what kind of tomatoes do you want to eat? There are cherry, beefsteak, sauce, plum, and grape tomatoes, and each one of them has their own culinary personality.

I start all of my tomatoes from seed. Personally, my three favorite varieties to grow are from Johnny's Selected Seeds, and they are Celebrity, Tiren, and Red Pearl. They're all hybrids. I like to grow hybrids, because we have heavy pressure from fungal infections in our muggy climate. I plant my seeds in 50 cell 1020 trays filled with Pro-Mix and put them under grow lights. I plant my seeds four to five weeks before I plan on planting them outdoors. I water them lightly every single day. They can germinate beautifully in trays without the use of fertilizer, but they need feeding about three weeks after germination. At that point, I soak each cell with a diluted fish emulsion mixture.

You should only start your tomatoes from seed if you can commit to lightly watering them every day. Consistent moisture is crucial while they are in trays.

 

This should be enough to get you started! I'll follow up tomorrow with information about how to transplant, fertilize, stake, and harvest. 

Tell me about your favorite tomato varieties! You can leave a comment here, or tell me all about them on one of my social media pages

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle