Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
May, 2001
Regional Report

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Staking tomato plants now while they are young provides support once the fruits set.

Tomato Care Time

If there's one vegetable everyone likes to grow, it's got to be tomatoes. There is nothing better than wandering through the garden on a warm summer night and snacking on cherry tomatoes freshly picked off the vine. Whether you've planted cherry tomatoes or prize- winning, monster-sized beefsteak tomatoes, now is the time to ensure success in the tomato patch with proper watering, pruning, fertilizing, and pest control.

Keep Them Vertical

Tomatoes grow best when supported upright. Plants flopping on the ground tend to produce fewer and more diseased and insect-damaged fruits. If you've planted determinate tomatoes (those that grow only to a certain height and then set fruit), all you'll need is a stake pounded in and tied to the plant or a small wire cage. If you're growing indeterminate plants (those that keep growing and producing fruit until frost), you'll need a strong cage made from concrete-reinforcing wire or a tepee system of bamboo, metal, or PVC poles.

For staked plants, prune off the suckers (the shoots arising between the main trunk and the side branches). Tie the plants to the stakes with cloth or velcro strips. Don't use any material that might cut into the tomato stems.

Keep Them Watered

Tomatoes produce the healthiest plants and fruits when kept well watered. If you've planted tomatoes in plastic mulch, water them through the holes in the plastic that you created when planting and mulch the paths to preserve soil moisture. Once established, the plant roots will grow to the moisture in the soil under the plastic and thrive. If you're not using plastic mulch, mulch the plants with a 4- to 6-inch layer of straw to conserve moisture.

Keeping the soil moist helps prevent a common malady of tomatoes: blossom-end rot, in which the blossom end of the fruit browns and rots before maturation. It's caused by a calcium deficiency in the fruit, which, in turn, is caused by fluctuating soil moisture conditions. If you mulch well and keep plants well watered, you'll get less blossom-end rot.

Keep Them Fed

Tomatoes are heavy feeders, so I add a balanced organic fertilizer such as a 5-4-3 monthly to keep the plants growing strong. I've even sprayed a solution of fish emulsion and seaweed on the plant foliage to help with its nutrition. The leaves can take up nutrients as well as the roots.

Keep Them Pest Free

Check every few days for pests such as whiteflies and hornworms on the foliage. Whiteflies are controlled with sprays of insecticidal soap. Hornworms can be hand picked off plants and destroyed. Leave hornworms with a white growth on their backs in the garden. The growth is braconid wasp eggs, and the hornworm is being parasitized.

With a little attention, it won't be long before you'll be enjoying the first tomatoes of the season.

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