For many, ripe tomatoes are a nostalgic summer treat. This fresh fruit (yes, they’re actually considered a fruit, not a vegetable!) can be eaten straight off the vine like an apple or enjoyed in a bevy of recipes, from soups and salads to sauces and sandwiches.
For many gardeners, growing the perfect aromatic, unblemished, sun-ripened tomatoes is the ultimate trophy. In the right climate, tomatoes are generally easy to grow, but choosing the proper varieties and keeping your plants healthy and productive requires both art and science. Then, once you reap your bounty, the question becomes what to do with the excess. From harvesting and preserving to buying and storing, maintaining the best tomato practices will assure you a fruitful summer and give you a leg up on next year’s crop.
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Gardeners aren’t the only ones who love tomatoes—pests and diseases can set in and infect your crop if you’re not careful. Most commonly, moldy residue found in last year’s soil can produce early blight in tomato plants that are constantly wet. To prevent this, make sure to clean away the fall debris from your garden before planting, and allow the soil to dry out between waterings. Similarly, late blight can devastate whole crops—it spreads fast, so remove any noticeably affected plants from your garden before the fungus sets in. Another disease, blossom end rot, produces hard, brown patches on tomatoes and can be caused by too much nitrogen in the soil or uneven watering.
Pests like aphids, cutworms, flea beetles, and hornworms can also affect your tomato crops. There are many natural ways to eradicate these critters, including essential oil preparations and diatomaceous earth. Worms are especially destructive, as they can eat an entire tomato plant in a matter of hours.
Red, ripe homegrown tomatoes are the crown jewel in many a vegetable garden. Let this be the year that you can say the same, with luscious fruit grown in your backyard garden, patio or balcony. Follow these tips for the best tomatoes ever.
Successfully Plant Tomatoes
To have the best chance at successfully planting and growing tomatoes, place tomato transplants in the garden after the last average frost date in your area. Although seeds can be directly sown in the garden and plants can be grown to maturity in warm areas, most successful tomato gardeners buy transplants or start seeds indoors six to eight weeks before their average last frost date. Plant small bush tomato varieties 24 inches apart and larger varieties, especially sprawling indeterminate plants, 36-48 inches apart in rows 36 inches apart.To give tomato transplants the most chance of success, plant them deep so that half the plant is underground. This planting depth is unique to tomato plants because unlike other vegetable plants, tomato plants can form roots along their stems. The extra roots help anchor the plant and provide more opportunity for water and nutrient uptake, which is especially helpful when starting with tall, leggy transplants.
To give tomato transplants a better chance for more successful growing, cut off the transplant’s bottom leaves and set the root ball in a planting hole deep enough so that only the top cluster of leaves is showing above ground. If the transplant is exceptionally tall and leggy, take a trowel and dig a 4- to 6-inch deep trench in the soil. Lay the plant sideways in the trench and turn the uppermost portion of the stem vertically so the top cluster of leaves pokes out of the soil. This helps to straighten the plant.
After planting, stake or cage all tomatoes with the exception of small bush or patio varieties, which can often support themselves. Waiting a few weeks after planting to install stakes or cages can injure the plant’s roots. Cages and stakes keep tomatoes off the ground, helping to encourage successful tomato growing and prevent fruit rot and numerous diseases.
Tomato cages are typically made of heavy-gauge wire and stand 5-6 feet tall. Firmly anchor the cages to the ground with stakes to keep the plants from blowing over and uprooting themselves during storms. They should have openings wide enough for your hand to reach inside to harvest.
Stakes are another way to help plants stand tall and help tomatoes successfully grow. They need to be at least 8 feet high and 1 inch wide. Pound the stake at least 12 inches into the ground and 4 inches from the plant. Attach the stem to the stake with garden twine, self-adhesive fabric, or strips of cloth.
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