Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Lower South
March, 2004
Regional Report

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To get an early start on your tomato patch, place a gallon jug of water against the stems and provide hoops of thinwall PVC to support a protective cover for frosty nights.

Tomatoes Rule!

Tomatoes are the undisputed king of the vegetable garden. While we all have a number of veggies that we love to grow, tomatoes are the hands-down favorite. Each spring brings many new varieties to choose from and a renewed interest in our ongoing pursuit of the perfect tomato.

Whether you have a large garden or just a couple of large containers to grow in, there are some great tomatoes to choose from and a few tips that can help you get off to a successful start. I have grown tomatoes for over 35 years now and have learned (and relearned) some basics that make for a successful harvest of luscious, vine-ripe fruit. While there are definitely many ways to grow tomatoes, there are some basic techniques and rules of the game that are non-negotiable.

Sun, Sun, and More Sun
Let the sun shine in! Six hours of sunlight is minimal. With enough sun you get large, tasty fruit. In the shade you get skinny, straggly vines and few tomatoes to show for your efforts.

Good Soil
Prepare the soil well for optimum vigor and production. Mix in an inch of compost and a cup or two of complete fertilizer per 100 square feet of bed area. Raised beds warm up earlier in the spring and keep tomatoes from getting waterlogged in heavy rain. Containers work fine too if they are at least 5 gallons (larger is even better) and filled with a quality potting soil mix.

Disease-Resistant Varieties
Select locally proven varieties with a VFN (or even more letters) after the name. There are plenty of diseases and insects out there that would love to have a shot at your tomatoes. By selecting a VFN variety you are two soil diseases and one case of nematodes ahead. There is no perfect variety! Plant two or three to hedge your bets. The variety that was #1 last year may be an "also ran" this year.

A Head Start Helps
Plant early but not too early. Our summer arrives soon and shuts down most production. However a late frost will spoil the show too. I like to gamble a bit and plant about a week ahead of the last average frost. But I always have some thick row covers or 5-gallon buckets on hand to help plants through a marginally frosty night. A milk jug full of water set right up against the stem before covering the plants adds an important additional measure of protection.

Water the new plants in with a starter fertilizer solution at transplanting. This gets plants off to a good start. It could be either a synthetic liquid feed product or an organic solution like compost or manure tea, or fish emulsion. Pour a cup of diluted solution in the planting hole and then water plants in with the same solution after planting.

Once the first fruits set you really need to push plants along with good nutrition, especially the new hybrid varieties. Apply 2-4 tablespoons of fertilizer around each plant in a circle extending 8-12 inches around the stem and water it in well. Then continue to feed plants weekly with a liquid fertilizer solution.

Weed and Mulch
Control weeds as the plants get going. After a few weeks, when the soil has warmed up a bit more, apply a layer of mulch to control weeds and hold moisture. If you mulch too early, the soil will not warm as fast and growth will be delayed.

Plant Supports
Stake or cage plants to keep fruit off the ground. Caging without removing suckers results in more, smaller, later fruit. Staking and removing suckers makes for fewer, larger, earlier fruit. Take your pick!

General Tending
Water regularly when the weather begins to warm up. Deep, infrequent soakings are best. Keep an eye out for signs of insect and disease damage. Early control is very important!

There is nothing like a fresh, homegrown tomato. Grow some prizewinners yourself this spring!

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