Tuning Up Tomatoes

Tomatoes are the most popular vegetable grown. If you've ever tasted a sun-drenched, warm, juicy, sweet tomato, fresh off the vine, you'll know why. May is the time to transplant tomatoes, if you haven't already, and to start fertilizing them for the best production.

Planting in Plastic

Tomatoes are a warm-season crop and love soil that's at least 60° F. When planted in cool soils, they will just sit there and wait until the temperatures rise before they begin growing. You can get a jump on the tomato season by planting in plastic mulch. Mulch encourages more productive tomatoes with fewer problems. Not only does plastic mulch warm the soil, it conserves moisture and stops weeds from growing around the plants. Who could ask for anything more?

The color of the mulch makes a difference. Research has shown that tomatoes grown in red plastic mulch produce 20 percent more fruit than those grown in black plastic mulch. Here's how to use it. Make a raised bed, smooth the top flat, and lay the plastic mulch over the bed, sealing the sides with soil. Let the mulch heat up the soil for a few sunny days. Then use a knife to cut holes in the plastic large enough to place the tomato transplant. Stagger the holes about 18 to 24 inches apart, depending on the type of tomato you're growing. For shorter determinate varieties, such as 'Bush Celebrity', space plants 18 inches apart. For larger indeterminate varieties, such as 'Better Boy', space the plants 24 inches apart. For more information on tomato varieties, go here.

On a cloudy day, dig down into the soil through the holes you've made in the plastic. Dig deeply enough to bury part of the tomato stems. Plant one seedling in each hole, then water well with a fish emulsion and seaweed solution. Wrap a 2-3-inch-wide strip of newspaper around each tomato stem, positioned so the paper is 1 inch below the soil line. This will prevent cutworms from attacking your tender plants.

If you live in a cold area, protect the new tomato transplants during chilly nights with hot caps. These plastic caps fit over and around tomato plants, keeping them a few degrees warmer than the air temperature.

Container Planting

If you don't have room in your garden for tomatoes, try growing them in containers. Dwarf varieties like 'Patio' are perfect for a large container, such as a one-half whiskey barrel. They grow only a few feet tall, produce cherry tomato-sized fruit, and are easy to maintain. The container should have adequate drainage holes or be a self-watering type. Use potting soil mixed with some time-release fertilizer pellets. Each time you water, the pellets release fertilizer into the soil for the plants to use.

You'll need to check the soil daily unless you use self-watering containers. These containers have a reservoir of water in the bottom that slowly wicks water up into the soil around the plant. With self-watering containers you can go away on the weekend in the summer without worrying about your tomatoes drying up in the heat.

Water & Fertilizer

Keep the transplants? roots moist the first few weeks by watering through the holes in the plastic. On light, sandy loam soils, consider running a soaker hose or drip irrigation tubing under the plastic to keep the tomato roots adequately moist.

Tomato plants like to eat. Give them additional fertilizer during the growing season (called side-dressing) to keep them producing good-sized fruit. Apply an organic balanced fertilizer, such as 3-1-2, when the tomatoes first set fruit and then every 3 to 4 weeks until fall. A few tablespoons of fertilizer per plant, sprinkled around the drip line, should be fine. By following these guidelines, within a few months after transplanting you'll be enjoying fresh tomato salads and flavorful sauces from your own garden.

For more on tomato growing go to www.willhiteseed.com/store/asp/guides.asp

Question of the Week

Weeding Asparagus

Q. What is the best way to weed an asparagus patch?

A. Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet for controlling weeds in an asparagus bed. Herbicides can't be safely used in the asparagus bed and the old-fashioned method of spreading salt to kill weeds has proven to be harmful to asparagus plants as well. Persistent hand weeding is the only safe, sure-fire solution.

You can prevent weeds from growing in the first place by placing a thick layer of bark, pine straw, or chopped leaf mulch on the asparagus bed. If the mulch is refreshed periodically, it will prevent some weeds from germinating in it. If the weeds do grow, they are easily pulled from the mulch. Perennial weeds, such as dandelions, can be carefully dug out individually, or they can be cut off repeatedly at the ground until their root reserves become exhausted. In summer when the asparagus has stopped growing new shoots, you can remove the mulch, place several layers of newspaper between the asparagus plants, and cover the newspaper with mulch to smother any persistent weeds.

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