Henrico County VA

In the garden

Tips for growing tomatoes
Tomatoes, say the folks at the Burpee Seed Company, are America’s favorite vegetable. Fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes are delicious. The lycopene they contain is good for your heart. And, provided they are properly cared for, a standard tomato plant can yield 10 to 15 pounds or more of fruit.

In Central Virginia tomatoes are usually transplanted into the garden in early May, but even now you have time to plant tomatoes since the growing season stretches into early October.

Once tomato plants are established in the garden, good care involves keeping the plant’s foliage off the ground, fertilizing, and providing adequate water consistently.

Even if you’ve staked or caged your tomatoes, once plants are about three feet tall you may need to remove all the growth from the bottom sin to ten inches. This improves air circulation and helps fight diseases such as early blight.

And you may want to sucker your plants. Suckering involves pinching out the shoots that develop in the crotch joints of branches. They don’t produce fruit and can take energy from the rest of the plant. According to the Extension Service, gardeners using stakes usually sucker, those using cages don’t.

And now that the ground has warmed up, apply a layer of mulch around your plants.

“Mulching is a very good cultural practice,” says Henrico Extension Agent Lisa Sanderson. “Mulching helps keep soil that can contain pathogens detrimental to the plant from splashing up on it, reduces weeds, and helps ensure adequate moisture.” Shredded newspaper covered with grass clippings makes good mulch that will decay over the growing season and can be tilled in to the soil in the fall, adding organic matter.

Tomatoes need moisture. While plants are developing, water them deeply and regularly, up to twice weekly depending on rain. Watering early in the day and using soaker-hose or drip irrigation saves water and helps ensure water won’t contribute to fungus problems.

When plants start setting fruit, inconsistent or inadequate watering can cause tomatoes to crack or get blossom end rot, a dark spot at the blossom end of the fruit that can cover half the tomato. Blossom end rot can also result from a calcium deficiency.

Tomatoes often require fertilizer. “We recommend fertilizing in response to a soil test report,” says Sanderson. She recommends incorporating organic matter and a fertilizer when you plant your tomatoes.

“Read the label and follow the instructions,” says Sanderson. “Over-fertilizing doesn’t benefit the plant, and it contaminates groundwater.”

A number of different diseases can affect your plants, but many of the hybrids offer resistance to some of these diseases. Good pictures are available on the web to help you identify problems. Call the Master Gardener Helpline at 501-5160 to discuss possible remedies which can include treatment or eradication.

Spider mites, stinkbugs and beetles can also cause problems. Before using chemical pesticides, check with the Extension Office for current recommendations.

Some bugs, like the tomato hornworm, can be removed by hand. “But don’t remove a hornworm that has white cocoons on its back,” says Sanderson. “Those are the pupa of brachonid wasps that have already eaten the hornworm on the inside, and the wasps are beneficial insects in your garden!”
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