Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Western Mountains and High Plains
July, 2008
Regional Report

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Pinch off juvenile suckers to increase size of tomatoes early in the season. Stop pinching when fruit sets.

Growing Healthy Tomato Plants

It's a hot cracker out there with temperatures soaring above 90 degrees. The warm-season vegetables are really starting to grow and fill out, but the heat raises some concerns about growing tomatoes successfully. Whether you plant tomatoes in a vegetable garden, in containers, in between flowers, or in any other place, tomatoes need your attention to keep them healthy and productive.

My gardening philosophy is to try to detect problems and treat them before they get out of hand. This means checking on your tomato plants daily. Look for signs of wilt and dehydration so you can determine a proper schedule for watering, especially during the extended hot days that lie ahead.

Keep Plants Mulched
Mulch can prevent many problems. Organic mulch prevents the soil from splashing on the stems and leaves. What's wrong with soil? It can be filled with disease spores that can ultimately land on the leaves and spread disease.

A thick mulch also keeps out weeds that compete with the plants for water and nutrients. I like to wet down four layers of old newspaper and set them around my tomato plants. Then I cover the moistened paper with a couple inches of pine needles, shredded leaves, dried grass clippings, or cedar mulch to hide and hold the papers down. This helps maintain uniform moisture in the soil around the plants and reduces the onset of blossom end rot.

Don't Forget the Epsom Salts
My grandmother would always add a couple tablespoons of Epsom salts around tomato plants once a month. I still find this helpful for tomatoes since most transplants were started in soilless potting mixes that don't contain micronutrients. This seems to buffer the soil pH slightly and reduce the onset of severe blossom end rot.

Watering is perhaps the biggest challenge in growing productive and healthy tomatoes. Furrow irrigation -- a watering practice from years past -- provides slow watering and and allows for deep soaking. Today, soaker hoses and drip irrigation systems evenly water the plants so you can avoid the overhead watering that often encourages fungus.

Avoid the temptation of frequent fertilizing your plants. Overfertilizing can promote too many leaves and too few tomatoes. My favorite tomato fertilizer is the old-fashioned, granular 5-10-5 organic-based fertilizer. Scatter the granules a foot around the plants, avoid getting any on the foliage, and lightly scratch into the mulch or soil. Then water the area to move it to the roots.

If you routinely remove suckers early in the growing season, be sure to stop as the plants begin to fruit. The extra foliage is needed to block intense sun and prevent sunscald of the fruit.

When tomato-eating season arrives, it never seems to last long enough. You just can't beat the flavor of homegrown tomatoes. These days, though, I have to set aside the salt shaker and settle for the salt-free Mrs. Dash.

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