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Seminar will teach ins and outs of growing tomatoes

You’ll find a tomato in just about every garden in Las Vegas. Why? It’s a high yielder, but it also comes with some challenges.

I’m giving an in-depth seminar on tomatoes at 8:30 a.m. Saturday at the Springs Preserve, 333 S. Valley View Blvd., to show you how to conquer those challenges. Last year’s tomato seminar was a sellout, so call 822-7786 to ensure a seat.

Tomatoes are a pet vegetable of mine. It was part of my master’s project and continued with me while working in the tomato industry and growing them commercially while working with Nevada Cooperative Extension.

Here are some tips to help you have a successful crop.

Plant your tomatoes before April 1. We only have a short window of night temperatures above 60 and below 70 degrees to set fruit before it gets out of their temperature range. Last year, we had roughly 30 days to set fruit from mid-April to mid-May. This is why it is so important to get vegetative growth, so they set fruit when these temperatures arrive. Last year, blossoms covered my bushes at that time and resulted in oodles of fruit.

Purchase "starts" from your nursery now. Select plants as wide as they are tall without fruit on them. At home, spread them out in a sunny location for a few days before planting. I want them planted before the last expected frost, which is around March 15.

When selecting plants, choose varieties with VFN following their names, such as Champion VFN. Varieties such as Celebrity VFFN indicate it’s resistant to another fungus strain. These symbols indicate resistance to these diseases, which are in our soils.

Plant more than one variety to increase your chances of success. I hear good reports about Celebrity, Heat Wave, Hawaiian Tropic, Heartland, Champion, Early Girl, Patio, Better Boy and cherry tomatoes.

Tomatoes cherish open, well-drained soils, so roots can easily mine for essential nutrients. Mix in lots of organic matter to open your soil up. If you have hard soil, build raised beds or grow them in containers. Nurseries sell organic materials such as planting mixes and compost.

Watering is the hardest practice to talk about, and yet so critical. It depends on your observations. When fruit sets, increase watering frequency. Keep soil moist, but not waterlogged. It’s amazing how long tomatoes can go between waterings when deeply irrigated. If tomatoes show signs of wilt, irrigate. I place drippers by each plant and if I see stress, the drippers get water there fast.

Tomatoes demand a lot of fertilizer with emphasis on phosphorous. It produces roots, flowers and fruit, something we really want. Use a balanced fertilizer with phosphorous in it when preparing soil to get plants going.

When plants start blooming, use a water-soluble plant food containing some nitrogen and large amounts of phosphorous such as Super Bloom. Dissolve it in a sprinkling can of water and apply it directly to plants for immediate intake. Repeat feedings every 10 to 14 days.

Shade plants or plant sweet corn on the west side of your tomatoes. The added shade increases humidity to enhance fruit set and stops sun scalding.

People ask if it’s wise to stake tomatoes or let them sprawl. It depends on you. If you have space, let them sprawl, otherwise stake them.

I plant tomatoes in a north/south direction 15 inches apart and 3 feet between rows. I want wind passing through my vines to enhance fruit set.

I trellis my tomatoes. I use baling twine stretched between PVC stakes spaced 10 feet apart for support. As plants grow, I serpentine twine through them to hold them upright. It makes harvesting so much easier.

Mulch your tomatoes. I recall visiting the late Milton Earl’s tomato patch. He placed 4-inch-thick flakes of alfalfa under his tomatoes. Because of this mulch, he seldom watered, never weeded and rarely had split or sunburned tomatoes. Under the mulch, were millions of pill bugs and other microorganisms foraging on the hay. By fall, they’ve finished composting the hay and his garden was ready for planting next spring.

VEGETABLE SEED STARTING WORKSHOP

Come and start your vegetable seeds the right way. Leslie Doyle will furnish lots of great vegetable varieties for your garden. It’s at noon today at the Sweet Tomato Test Garden at 5910 Sheila Ave., off Jones Boulevard, south of Cheyenne Avenue. A $20 fee covers cost of seeds, containers and other necessities. Phone 658-7585 for more information.

Linn Mills writes a garden column each Sunday. You can reach him at linn.mills@ springspreserve.org or call him at 822-7754.

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