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TOMATOES 'TIL FROST

If you want home-grown tomatoes all fall and your spring planting normally wears out too soon, consider planting more tomatoes in July. Plant them deeply, keep them well-watered and mulched, and provide some shade till the new plants are established enough to withstand our intense Texas sun. Tomatoes love the heat and will grow more rapidly than your spring crop.

If you can't find nursery transplants now, start some from seed in pots of sterile seed-start mix. Some gardeners have good luck with cuttings from existing plants, rooting them in a glass of water for transplanting.

Late tomato plantings will likely have plenty of tomatoes in various stages of maturity when a frost does come this fall. Just pull up the whole plant and place in your garage to pick as they ripen. Or you can pick all the immature tomatoes and place them in a newspaper-lined and covered box in a cool place. Check these tomatoes daily. Though you will lose some, it is possible you will be eating fresh sliced tomatoes for Christmas dinner.

Patsy Besch, Smith County Master Gardener
Texas AgriLife Extension Service


FERTILIZE TOMATOES WITH POT METHOD

The tomato is the most popular of all the garden vegetables and is grown in about 92 percent of home gardens.

One method to try for increasing your tomato yield was developed by Dr. Sam Contner at Texas A&M University called "the Texas pot method."

Prepare and fertilize your soil as usual. Before planting, soak the tomato transplants for an hour in a starter solution of 1/2 strength water-soluble fertilizer. Plant transplants 3 feet apart, placing a cup of starter solution in each hole.

Next, bury a one-gallon nursery pot or other container with three to five holes in the bottom between each tomato plant so the lip is just above soil level.

When the tomatoes begin to set, place one tablespoon of 21-0-0 or 34-0-0 in each pot and fill it with water.

Let it drain then refill two or three times. Repeat every 10 days during the growing season. This method places nutrients six to eight inches below the soil surface, directly in the root zone.

Douglas Hine, Smith County Master Gardener
Texas AgriLife Extension Service


TOMATOES

Tomato growing is interesting and fun because of the endless good options you have. There are many sizes, shapes and colors - and lots of decisions to make. Should you stake or cage plants or allow them to sprawl on the ground? Should you prune out suckers (those little branches at the leaf axils)? Do you want plants for canning or for a steady fresh supply? Should you plant early, midseason or late types - or some of all three? Here are some helpful hints.

Barbara Mole, Smith County Master Gardener
Texas AgriLife Extension Service


TIMELY TIPS FOR TOMATOES

My favorite fruit is a big, red, juicy tomato! However, many factors enter into the successful production of this easy-to-grow fruit. Select a site that gets about 8 hours of sun each day. Begin soil prep in late February. Raise the bed if in a clay soil. Tomatoes like soil with a pH of 5.5 to 7.0, organically enriched, friable, and well-drained. Remove weeds and till. Add calcium or dolomite to raise the pH. Work in about 2-3 pounds of a 10-20-20 fertilizer per 100 square feet of garden.

Plant variety is up to the gardener. Select a strong, stocky plant, one that grows best in the East Texas area, and is disease resistant - look for the VFNT hybrid. My favorite is 'Celebrity', but 'Carnival', 'Merced', 'OG50', 'Big Boy', 'Heatwave', 'Sun Master', and 'Homestead' also do well here.

Planting time is about mid-March, when the greatest chance of frost is past. Plants should be 2-3' apart in rows that are 3' apart. Bury the plant stem, leaving only the top 3 or 4 true leaves above ground to promote greater root structure. Use 1 pint of diluted starter solution or diluted fish emulsion with each plant.

Support your local tomato! Extended care calls for staking or placing a wire cage around your plants when they are about 2' tall. Caged plants yield more fruit while plants laying on the ground are prone to fruit rot and leaf diseases. When plants begin blooming, pinch out sucker shoots and the top shoot. This will help fruit ripen and will add fruit, not tall growth. Mulch the plants early and maintain a uniformly moist soil. Water early in the day. When the fruit is about golf ball size, side dress with a high nitrogen (ammonium sulfate) 21-0-0 fertilizer at the rate of about 1 tablespoon per plant. You can also help prevent blossom end rot at this time by treating with a mixture of 1 tablespoon ice cream salt dissolved in a gallon of water. Treat three days in a row. Proper irrigation, mulching and/or raising beds can also help prevent blossom end rot and keep fruit from cracking.

Companion plantings of nasturtiums, and poppies will attract insects that eat aphids and give you more peace of mind.

Good luck and good gardening!

Bill Kelldorf, Smith County Master Gardener
Texas AgriLife Extension Service


TOMATOES THE EASY WAY

This method of producing a high yield with low, infrequent watering is recommended for home gardeners with 6 to 12 plants to set out.

First, prepare your soil as you normally do each year. Dig up two to three inches of soil and lay it aside. Use a posthole digger and remove soil about 12" deep. Place rolled newspapers inside the hole vertically so they are snug but not too tight, as you want the water and air to be able to get to the roots.

Filter some soil and fertilizer in between the newspaper rolls. Fill the hole with water and let it stand overnight or until the water has soaked into the ground. Partially re-fill the hole, half full, and replace the soil that you removed previously. Your new seedlings are now ready to plant when you think the last frost has come and gone.

Be careful not to over water. And there is no need to remove the newspapers as they are biodegradable.

David O'Gorman, Smith County Master Gardener
Texas AgriLife Extension Service


STRONG, DURABLE TOMATO SUPPORT

As you are planning your spring garden, there always seems to be a problem of finding good, strong supports for your tomato vines. But tomato cages that are strong, durable, and stable can be custom-made from concrete reinforcement wire. Rolls of wire that are five feet wide can be purchased from a building supply store, cut into the desired length, and formed into a cage. (If the minimum size roll is more than you will need, share it with another gardener.)

A piece that is 72 inches long (11 uncut squares) makes a good-size cage. The wire can be cut with a bolt cutter or hack saw. Bend each length of cut wire around the other side to form the cage.

A six-foot T-post makes a strong anchor for the cage, which can be attached with wire. This prevents the wind or the weight of a large plant from toppling it over. These cages can be cleaned and stored for the next season and will last for many years.

Jack Quisenberry, Smith County Master Gardener
Texas AgriLife Extension Service


WINTER TOMATOES

Have a greenhouse or south-facing window where you could have a tomato plant in a large pot? Try your luck at winter tomatoes. You can grow seedlings from a hothouse variety like Tropic or try taking cuttings from your favorite cherry or pear tomatoes. To start cuttings now for winter production, you will need a cutting about 8 inches long to include two leaves at the bottom end which you will remove, leaving about 3 leaves at the top to nourish the cutting. Fill a 4" pot with potting medium and make sure it is damp throughout and insert the cutting to a depth above the two leaf scars where you removed the leaves. Put this in a warm, shaded area with bright light and keep the soil moist. Within 7-10 days, you will have roots and see new growth at the tip. Once it is well rooted, pinch the tip back, plant the cutting in a three to five gallon pot filled with good potting soil and a time-release fertilizer. If you place this on a plant stand with wheels, you can rotat e it to keep the plant growing straight. Do plan to nip it back and use a wire tomato cage to keep it within reasonable bounds. You don't need a six-foot tomato vine taking over the sunroom by Christmas. But, fresh tomatoes with Christmas dinner are possible.

Joyce Gay, Smith County Master Gardener
Texas AgriLife Extension Service


SAVING TOMATO SEEDS

A few years ago, I bought six cherry tomato plants at a local nursery, and I save the seeds each summer and fall from the best tomatoes. I let them ripen, then cut or squeeze the pulp and skin off, and lay the seeds on a paper plate or pie tin to dry, usually out on the grill (no flame). When they are dry, I scrape them into clean jars for the winter. In March or April, I plant them in my flowerbeds and pots. A large tub is the best planting pot because you can start out with cow manure and East Texas sand alternated in layers and mixed near the top. Place it in full sun. Be sure to install wire tomato cages into your pots to support the large plants. When I pick them, I put them on plastic trays near a window to finish ripening and usually have tomatoes until Christmas.

Jean Rhoads, Smith County Master Gardener
Texas AgriLife Extension Service


STARTING TOMATOES

New Year's Day always finds me planting tomato seeds and eating black-eyed peas.

This is not too early to start tomatoes for planting in the garden. Heirloom varieties like Pomodoro or Brandywine work well for this. In a warm, sunny window, plant 4-5 seeds in a 4" pot of potting medium and wait until they have true leaves. True leaves are not the first leaves that develop, but the next set to grow. Carefully remove the plants from the pot. Do not hold by the stem. If the delicate stem is crushed the plant will die. Pot up into individual 4" pots. Let them grow to about 6" tall, turning the pots often toward the light to keep the plants growing fairly straight. When they are 6" high, transplant them into 1gallon sized containers, stake and grow them until the threat of frost is past. Take these tall, gangly vines outside, nip off the leaves from the bottom up to 6-8" from top. Dig a trench as long as the container and the naked plant, slightly lower at one end. Remove the pot and put the root ball at the lower end and lay the stem in the trench. Cover gently with soil and wait a couple days for the top to start growing up. At that point, pinch back the tips to cause branching, stake or cage the tomato and expect fruit in May.

Joyce Gay, Smith County Master Gardener
Texas AgriLife Extension Service


GROWING TOMATOES

Most of us call them tomatoes, but their botanical name is Lycopersicon esculentum. They are relatively easy to grow. Anyone who likes tomatoes should give growing them a try. There is nothing quite like going out to your own garden and picking a fresh tomato. I still have a childhood memory about sneaking a salt shaker from the kitchen and going out to our family garden to pick a tomato and eat it like an apple with a sprinkle of salt.

There are many ways to grow tomatoes. I'm going to tell you a few things about them as well as what I do in particular.

Tomato plants prefer neutral to slightly acid, well drained soil. They should be planted in a sunny location when all danger of frost has passed. However, I find I can still have some success even though my garden spot has quite a bit of shade. And if you want to plant them earlier before the frost free date, just keep an eye on the weather and cover them with a pot as needed.

You can either buy plants or start your own 5-7 weeks prior to when you plan to set them out. In either case choose plants or seeds that are recommended for our hot Texas climate. The last few years I have done well planting the variety called Celebrity. According to Southern Living Gardening, other good choices are Atkinson, Creole, Heat Wave, Ozark Pink, Solar Set and Sunmaster.

There are also determinate and indeterminate types. The determinate type is bushier and stops growing in height after a point. These work well if you plan to use cages for support. I prefer to grow the indeterminate type that keep growing in height since I use 6 foot poles and tie the vines to them with soft cord. I also remove suckers from the plants, leaving only 2-4 main branches. I feel this gives me fewer but bigger, better quality fruit. You can let the plants trail on the ground but this requires much more space. The use of cages or poles is best for smaller gardens and also keeps the fruit off the ground keeping it cleaner and unblemished. Poles and cages can be spaced 1 ½ to 3 feet apart. Tomatoes can also be grown in pots on your patio. There are special varieties for this.

Make sure that you set the plants deep in the soil by pinching off the lower set of leaves. The top leaves should just clear the ground. This helps keep the roots cool. In fairly rich soil little fertilizer is needed, but if you feel you need to fertilize, do it from first blossom every two weeks until end of harvest.

Some pests that attack tomatoes are Colorado potato beetles, white flies, flea beetles, hornworms, spider mites and stink bugs. Hornworms, stink bugs and potato beetles can be hand picked. Visit the garden frequently especially early in the morning to look for these. If a chemical control is needed, avoid broad spectrum spays, choosing instead one that is specific to the pest.

A common disease is early blight which causes dark spots on the leaves with concentric rings inside and sunken lesions on the fruit. Liquid copper fungicide spray controls early blight and several other diseases. Verticillium or fusarium wilt may be the problem if the plants suddenly wilt after seeming to do well. Pull and discard these plants. Changing where you plant the tomatoes each year will help with these problems since the diseases harbor in the soil. Also there are plant varieties that are resistant to these diseases. Keeping tomatoes uniformly moist will help prevent blossom end rot. Mulching helps this.

I have mentioned just a few facts about tomatoes as well as a few of my personal tips. There are so many varieties and so many different ways to grow them that almost anyone can be successful. Why not give them a try? When you bite into your first home grown tomato you'll be glad you did!

Joyce Napolitano, Master Gardener
Texas AgriLife Extension Service


EASY STEPS TO TOMATOES

Almost every East Texas household sets out at least one or two tomato plants during spring so as to enjoy nature's "delight" in their summer salads - even the apartment dweller has a container of tomato plants on the patio. Tomatoes come in a variety of sizes and shapes and now even a variety of colors. However, the little cherry tomato is still a favorite for small or container gardens. It has been said that everyone and anyone can grow cherry tomatoes. Well, if you are that person who doesn't fall into the "everyone and anyone" category, here are some hints to keep in mind for growing cherry tomatoes.

When shopping for your plants, go to a reputable garden center, and run your hand across the tops of the plants to check for Whiteflies. You don't want those plants! Choose plants that are the stocky and fuller rather than leggy. If you end up with leggy plants pinch off the lower leaves and plant most of the stem, leaving only the top 4 sets of leaves above ground. Roots will develop along the stem and you will have a much stronger, studier plant. You will have to stake the plants when they are about 2 feet tall so it is a good idea to set your stakes before you plant rather than damaging the roots after the planting. Staking keeps the plants from falling over on the soil and becoming susceptible to diseases. If your plants outgrow the stakes or cages, snip off the tops and pinch off some of the blooms. This will allow fruit that has already set to mature quicker.

Don't use overhead watering. Use of a soaker hose or drip irrigation in your small gardens or a watering can for your container pots is better for the plants. If your tomatoes look wilted in the morning then they need watering. Don't forget to mulch, mulch, and mulch. Add at least two to three inches of mulch to each plant.

Get ready for a bountiful harvest.

Susan Wiggins, Smith County Master Gardener
Texas AgriLife Extension Service


GROWING HEALTHY TOMATO PLANTS

Growing a high yield of healthy, tasty, nutritious, quality home grown tomatoes is a big and rewarding challenge. Taking precautions, observing the plants with a keen eye, prior to purchase, and after planted in the ground, can often aid in the prevention of reducing damage, which, under the right conditions, can fall victim to various pests and insects.

Select plants in good physical shape with compact growth, grown in moist but not overly wet soil, with strong, healthy stems and green leaves. To aid in the prevention of reducing damage from insects and diseases rotate the crop area by planting in a different location than the previous year. Before planting, harden off the plants to outdoor exposure by slowly exposing them to sunlight. For a necessary well drained soil with nitrogen supply, incorporate compost and organic matter in the soil. Protect from cutworms by encasing the bottom of the plant with a collar sleeve from the cardboard roll of toilet paper, a paper cup with the bottom cut out, or use aluminum foil; bury it just under the soil.

Produce larger fruits by carefully pinching or cutting the side shoots (suckers) while small, which grow between the node and the branch stem of the plants.

To help prevent blight, powdery mildew, leaf scorch and various other diseases, water the plants at soil level in the early morning: or in the evening after the sun is off of the plants, allowing enough time for the water to soak into the ground before darkness. Positioning the plants in cut out sections of black landscape fabric will aid in care maintenance, while keeping the plant roots cool and retaining soil moisture.

Nelda Stanley, Smith County Master Gardener
Texas AgriLife Extension Service


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