Follow these tips for tasty tomatoes

It’s time to plant tomatoes. No other plant is so eagerly desired as the tomato. It is our most popular vegetable, and for good reason.

The tomato (technically a fruit prepared as a vegetable) is a heavy producer, it’s good for you, and we consume more than 30 pounds of them in one form or another in a year.

I’ll be giving an in-depth seminar on tomatoes at 8:30 a.m. every Saturday during March at the Springs Preserve, 333 S. Valley View Blvd., to show you how to conquer its many challenges to be successful. In years past, these seminars filled up completely, so get there early. The class also takes place at 8:30 a.m. on Sundays.

Seed catalogs have hundreds of varieties of tomatoes for sale. You’ll find them in all shapes, sizes and colors. Most of them now have built-in disease resistance to make the gardener’s life easier.

But tomatoes pose some problems. Here are some tips for success.

Plant by the end of March, the earlier the better. Tomato plants have only a brief window to set their fruit before the heat stops them from setting.

Tomato flowers are fussy. They drop when night temperatures fall below 55 degrees. To overcome this problem, I spray my blossoms as soon as they appear with Tomato Set.

Tomato flowers won’t set once temperatures exceed 90 degrees. To overcome this problem, I direct strong jets of water at the blossoms early each morning. The moisture lowers the temperature, raises the humidity and the water shakes the blossoms, all essential for setting fruit. Once the temperatures top 100 degrees, spraying them is a waste of time, so enjoy what you have harvested until the plants produce again in the fall.

If you plant in direct sun, find ways to cover the plants. I cover mine with a 60 percent shade cloth. It protects them from the blistering sun and the annoying leafhoppers and whiteflies, which carry viruses. Or plant your tomatoes in pots to protect them from the sun’s summer rays.

Select proven varieties. Here are some examples: Celebrity VFFN, Champion VFN, Early Girl VFF, Patio F, Better Boy VFN, Heartland VFN, Super Fantastic VFN, Heat Wave, Heartland, Sweet 100s and Tiny Tim. Your nursery probably has its favorites, too. The letters VFN signal varieties that are resistant to verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt and nematodes, all hazards found in our soils.

Select dark green plants about 5 inches to 6 inches high and just as wide. Nurseries generally sell smaller plants in packs of six or eight; they are OK, too, but larger plants will produce sooner. Forget the leggy plants; they don’t have many roots and will struggle in your garden.

Prepare the soil correctly. Tomatoes need a highly organic soil for roots to freely search for nutrients. If you use native soil, expect fewer and smaller tomatoes.

There is no substitute for organic matter. It keeps soils open and friable, provides drainage to flush salts, encourages soil microorganisms, regulates soil temperature, holds moisture for future use, becomes a nutrient storehouse and buffers soils against fertilizer overdose. Nurseries sell several good products.

I grow my tomatoes in raised beds. I fill them with a commercially prepared organic soil. It gives me total control over all my growing conditions. And if that doesn’t convince you, I’m able to do my chores sitting down and to see potential problems.

Add nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur as you prepare the soil. Nitrogen generates leaf growth to produce sugars for more fruit. Phosphorus stimulates roots to search for nutrients to produce fruit, and sulfur improves the soil’s pH.

During the season, I spray a soluble fertilizer such as Super Bloom over my plants every two weeks.

Plant your tomatoes so the top cluster of leaves is just above the soil surface. This encourages extra root formation along their stems, which produces stronger plants. Once the plants are in the ground, avoid any hang-ups so you get the fruit sooner.

Your tomatoes love deep irrigation. This encourages roots to reach deeper, where they function more efficiently. These deep soakings build up a reserve of water for tomatoes to draw on.

Tomatoes hate light and frequent irrigations. They respond by growing all vines and the blossoms abort. Make them work for their drink.

You can stake your tomatoes or let them sprawl. It’s up to you.

Mulch your tomatoes. Mulching does wonders. It keeps water available to reduce fruit cracking, conserves water, suppresses weeds and encourages microorganism activity to release nutrients to the plants.

Linn Mills’ garden column appears on Sunday. He can be reached at linn.mills@ springspreserve.org or 822-7754

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