what i have learned about tomatoes

what i have learned first and foremost: i am not a tomato expert.

that might not be all my fault.  i live in a part of the country that is not very conducive to growing healthy tomatoes.  in fact last week, i heard another master gardener remark  that oklahoma is the  best place to grow tomato pests and tomato diseases. not necessarily tomatoes.  i say all that to say, this is not a tutorial.  just imagine we are strolling through my garden (or yours)  having a casual conversation about tomatoes and exchanging ideas and tips on what worked and what didn’t.  mostly what didn’t.

  1. tomatoes like to be warm.  here, our last final frost date is around tax day.  technically that means that all warm weather vegetables can be set out after that date.  however, tomatoes like a soil temp of about 60 degrees and usually the soil by that time is still pretty cool.  this can be a hard concept to grasp because most nurseries and hardware stores are already selling tomato transplants, giving you the urge to get out and start digging in the dirt.  i have found that it is best to wait a few weeks after the planting date.  not that i have always done that mind you.  you can cheat a bit if you want by using the wall-o-water tubes or warming up the ground with black plastic.  i’ve used the wall-o-water gadgets once and they worked fine.  the drawback is that they are not pretty and if you are like me and want everything in your garden to be beautiful you won’t like them.  that is why they are currently sitting in my garage and i haven’t used them since.
  2. the soil around tomato plants should never be allowed to dry out.  i learned this the hard way.  last summer when i was growing grape tomatoes, i was not being consistent about checking the soil every day.  as a result the soil got very dry and the plants started to wilt so i immediately flooded them with water.  a few weeks later the plants began to drop leaves.  they survived and produced but not as much as they might have otherwise.  now i use a lot of mulch to conserve moisture, sometimes even laying several layers of newspaper down first to keep the soil nice and moist.  as long as they get one inch of water per week, i don’t need to do a lot of extra watering.
  3. eggshells help prevent blossom end rot.  eggshells provide the calcium needed to prevent this common disease.  whenever i plant my tomatoes, i place a small handfull of crushed eggshells in the bottom of the hole.  so far i’ve not lost any plants to blossom end rot.  i have, however lost quite a few to spider mites………
  4. spider mites like tomatoes as much as i do.  so far, for the past three years i have lost my plants mid-summer to spider mites.  i have tried spraying with pyola, an organic insecticide, starting regularly around june.  this only helps a little bit.  i have also completely quit planting marigolds, which i love.   although they deter nemetodes and therefore are thought to be a great companion plant,  marigolds attract spider mites.  in spite of all my efforts i still struggle with mites.  this year i am going to try pruning my tomatoes, making them easier to manage and i am planning to put in a fall crop around july 4.  should we lose some plants, then, hopefully a successive planting will at least give us some harvest until fall.
  5. tomatoes like basil.  planting them together also makes me feel like an italian.  i’m married to one, i need to live up to it.  tomatoes also like carrots, so i’ve been told.  but carrots do not like oklahoma soil so i’ve never been able to try this practice.
  6. ollie likes tomatoes.  last year i caught him tugging at a few green ones before ripping them off the vine and chowing down.  this is the reason for all the little chicken wire “fences” around my vegetable beds.
  7. tomatoes should never be planted in the same place twice.  rotating the crops will help prevent nemetodes, those unpleasant little underground beings that tie your roots in knots.  i’ve read conflicting information about how much time to allow between plantings.  some sources say one  year, some say two or even four.  i rotate every year.  my small garden won’t allow for much more than that.

our favorite variety are the heirloom cherokee purples.  i also love to grow romas which i have found to produce well, take up minimal space, do not need to be staked, and seem to be more resistant to pests and disease.  this year i am also putting in two celebrity tomato plants.  i will have ten plants total which should be more than enough provided we have good luck with them.

*cute tomato graphic credit

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