For much of the South and West, the calendar and weather say it's spring. That means it's time to start your tomatoes. While northern gardeners may have to wait another month or so, warm season gardeners in USDA hardiness zones 7 and warmer are hurrying to get their tomato seedlings in the ground or ready for planting. Whether you garden in the North or South, tomatoes are the number one vegetable grown by home gardeners. Here are some rules of the road to grow the best tomatoes ever.
When selecting varieties to grow from seed or to buy as transplants, look for those adapted to your area. For example, when growing tomatoes in warm, humid summer areas, it's particularly important to get disease-resistant varieties. These varieties will produce better and save you lots of work later in the season. Some good disease-resistant varieties are "Sunmaster" and "Miracle Sweet".
When planting tomatoes, choose a full sun location in the garden and place these large plants on the north side so they don't shade lower-growing vegetables, such as lettuce. You don't have to limit yourself to planting tomatoes just in the vegetable garden. Consider popping a few in among the flowers or herbs. If you're short on growing space, try growing bush varieties, such as "Small Fry" or "Patio", in containers. Small fruited and cherry tomato varieties are especially productive in containers. For growing tips and more information on the best varieties, go to the Tomato Guide (www.willhiteseed.com/store/asp/guides.asp)
Transplant tomatoes on a cloudy day or in the late afternoon or evening. Bright sun can harm newly planted transplants. Soak the transplants, while still in their flats, with a water and fish emulsion or seaweed mixture an hour before transplanting. This helps hold the soil around the roots, making the root mass easier to handle. Plus this mixture applies a quick dose of soluble fertilizer to the young seedling. Don't put too much fertilizer on the plants, however. Excessive fertilizer can shock and burn seedlings. It's better to give them extra nourishment later when they're established in your garden.
To transplant, cup the roots in one hand as you remove the seedling from its container, and tuck it into the soil. A smooth and speedy transition from pot to soil means less possibility of shock to the plant. Keep transplants watered. They need water in the beginning to help them get over transplant shock, to encourage new root growth, and to replace the moisture they lose through transpiration because of heat and drying winds.
Young seedlings are particularly susceptible to pest attacks from cutworms. These ground-level pests can chew completely through thin tomato stems overnight. Before putting tomato plants in the ground, loosely wrap a newspaper collar around the stems to protect the plants. The collars should span 1 to 2 inches above and below the soil surface. This is the cutworm's territory. The collars are easy to make and will give the seedlings time to grow sturdy enough to discourage cutworms.
Once the tomatoes are planted you're well on your way to a fruitful harvest.
Q. With spring around the corner, should I replace last year's soil in my containers before adding new bedding plants, or just stir it up?
A. If you had any disease or insect problems on plants growing in those containers last year, you should replace the soil. Pests can overwinter in the soil, rising up to attack your new plants. If plants were healthy with no signs of pests, take all the soil out of the pots, dump it into large buckets, and mix in some fresh soil and fertilizer. Bedding plants are heavy feeders, and they need a nutrient-rich soil to grow well.
Keep the soil in the containers moist, even before you plant your bedding plants. When soil in a container dries out, it's often difficult to water efficiently. The dried soil doesn't absorb the water well, and the water runs through the pot before it can moisten the soil adequately.