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WICHE: Tomatoes by the 4th of July

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My tomatoes look awesome. Here's what I did.

By Jeneen Wiche

Knock on wood, please, because I may jinx myself by declaring publicly that my tomatoes look awesome. It is the healthiest set of plants and fruit that I can ever remember, honestly.

The plants are remarkably free of any pest problem, brown or yellowing leaf or rotting fruit. Most are heirloom varieties; they were fertilized once at planting with fish emulsion and immediately mulched with newspaper and pine straw.

One irrigation occurred during a hot, dry spell but that is it…could the simple approach be the winning formula? Probably not but, but in combination with other good cultural practices maybe this year will be a bumper crop if the hot weather doesn’t ruin it!

We cannot control the weather, but we can control what our plants eat, so to speak. At planting time the soil was well-prepared with composted horse manure and a little organic fertilizer; and the plants were mulched in order to moderate soil moisture and preventing soil from splashing on the foliage which can spread soil-borne diseases from last year the first day out for this year’s crop.

This year drainage in the garden is crucial because of some significant rain events and pop-up storms. Tomatoes rather like being a bit on the dry side, so sitting in waterlogged soil can cause a problem.

Rapid fluctuations in soil moisture is the primary cause of the most common tomato condition known as blossom end rot (as well as being a contributor to blossom drop, leaf curl, and splitting fruit). When plants fluctuate between too wet and too dry, a calcium deficiency develops in the plant, which then causes the blossom end of the fruit to rot.

It’s quite disappointing when you grasp that first ripe tomato and discover it’s half rotten. You can avoid the onset of a calcium deficiency with good cultural practices. But if you do have a bout of it, there are products that you can spray on your plants formulated to restore the calcium level.

High heat can cause some problems for our tomatoes, as well. Daytime temperatures in the 90s typically cause plants to stop blooming. When temperatures drop back into the 80s, they will rebound.

But there are other problems to address:

§       Too much nitrogen can jeopardize bloom. Nitrogen encourages leafy growth at the expense of bloom. Use a fertilizer lower in nitrogen and higher in potassium and phosphorus during bloom time to encourage good blossom set. Fish emulsion is my choice because it delivers small amounts of macro and micronutrients.

  • Lack of magnesium, which aids in chlorophyll production and respiration of plants, also can delay fruit set, and the best way to ensure that this doesn’t happen is to add composted manure to your garden every year. Healthy soil and a slow release source of nutrients do a great deal in sustaining healthy plants throughout the season.
  • I typically sucker my plants (the practice of removing the new growth that emerges between stems and branches) early in the season to encourage good branching structure; I will stop suckering once the tomatoes start to produce their second flush of fruit to ensure that there is plenty of foliage to sustain the plant and shade the ripening fruit from the hot summer sun.
  • Sunscald can destroy tomato tissue and cause hard blisters, which ruin the fruit.
  • Foliar diseases like early and late blight, septoria leaf spot and anthracnose are foliar disease to watch for. Many bacterial and fungal diseases linger in the soil from year to year, so rotating your crop (and mulching immediately) is a good defense.
  • Keep the garden clean and weed-free; and remove leaves as they appear infected and don’t inadvertently spread it by handling healthy plants afterwards.
  • In terms of insects, the best advice is a daily inspection. Early detection of aphids can be realistically controlled by using insecticidal soap. Handpicking tomato hornworms is easy (but leave the ones with the little white sacks covering the caterpillar, these are eggs of beneficial wasps that you want in the garden). Pyrethrin and pyrethroid based botanical-based insecticides work on many pests if they become more then a pick and squish maneuver.

Pick your tomatoes when they are uniform in color and still firm. Don’t store them in the refrigerator or place them in a sunny window. This does not further ripening and just makes them mealy.

Instead store tomatoes in a basket in a cool corner of the kitchen. To expedite ripening, you can put them in a brown bag along with and apple.

Oh, yes, and I did pick a ripe Cherry tomato on June 24.