Tomato expert offers tips on growing plants

The tomato is the No. 1 vegetable in Las Vegas, but it comes with hang-ups. You can overcome these by following a few simple tips suggested by Sylvain Wittwer, who will be at the Springs Preserve, 333 S. Valley View Blvd., at 8:30 a.m. Saturday.

Wittwer is known the world over for his knowledge of tomatoes. He practices what he preaches in his garden in Logandale. His entire landscape is vegetables and fruit trees. Reserve your seat at this special presentation.

A tomato in reality is a fruit and a perennial. However, we grow it as an annual because of our winters.

Health and disease preventive features have been ascribed to tomatoes. They are high in vitamin C and are an excellent source of lycopene, specifically reducing the risks of prostate cancer in some studies.

You can grow tomatoes just about any way. Let them spread, grow in containers, stake, cage or put them on a trellis, it all depends on you.

Wittwer says to purchase "starts" from your nursery now. He selects plants as wide as they are tall and without fruit on them. Early fruiting causes dwarfing and won't produce much later.

Once home, spread them out in a sunny location while it is still cool to expand even more for a week. This creates earlier fruiting when planted. Keep the plants on the dry side, occasionally applying a soluble fertilizer, high in phosphorus to stimulate roots and flowers, and some nitrogen to generate more foliage.

Wittwer wants his tomatoes in the ground before the last expected frost, which is March 15. If we experience a later frost, cover them with a blanket.

Tomatoes thrive best in a rich, well-drained soil, so use compost to open it up. If you have a hard soil, build raised beds or grow them in containers.

When transplanting tomatoes, place them an inch or two below the soil level for wind protection and late frosts.

Wittwer plants them a foot apart; closer plantings increase humidity that improves fruit set. Follow with another fertilizer application after planting.

Wittwer trellises his tomatoes. He gets good set when planting them in north-south rows on the east or northeast side of a house. He uses clothesline stretched between iron stakes spaced 10 feet apart for support. As tomatoes grow, he adds additional lines and intertwines vines up his trellis. Gardeners also can use wire cages to support their plants. Get them at nurseries. You can reuse them later.

When tomatoes or any other fruit or vegetable begin setting fruit, increase waterings. Wittwer places a drip-system with inline emitters at the base of each plant to apply the added water.

There is no magic formula to follow when it comes to watering and fertilizing. It depends on your observations. When fruit sets, increase watering frequency. Keep soil moist, but not waterlogged. If tomatoes stress for water, expect blossom-end rot and cracking. Wittwer feeds tomatoes with a soluble fertilizer through his irrigation system during fruit setting.

There are literally hundreds of varieties of tomatoes to choose from, so select your favorite or ask someone in the know. Some gardeners like large and/or small cherry, pear or grape types. Some want red, green, pink, orange or yellow. Some prefer bush (determinate), others pole type (indeterminate) or halfway between.

Wittwer grows determinate or semi-determinate, red large tomatoes. His preferences are Celebrity, Champion and Early Girl. All are round, have small green cores with a minimum of cracking, and are free from blossom end rot.

Fruit setting and ripening is very important, said Wittwer. Bees have nothing to do with pollination. Tomatoes are wind pollinated when climate conditions are right. There is a narrow window of time when night temperatures range between 60 and 70 degrees, which is about mid-April to mid-May and again from mid-September to mid-October.

When nighttime temperatures exceed 70 degrees, do not expect fruit to set on, though you'll find an abundance of flowers. This means tomato harvest will terminate about mid-July. It takes about 45 days for fruit to ripen after it sets.

"To have early tomatoes, it is not so much selecting an early variety planted early, but it is to have a variety at the proper stage of development and vigor to take full advantage of the first night temperatures approaching 60 degrees in early spring, so fruit sets on," Wittwer said. "By following the above guidelines, expect your first pickings in early May."

Linn Mills writes a gardening column each Sunday. You can reach him at or call him at 822-7754.