Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Growing Better Tomatoes

Many people will have already started their tomatoes from seed. If you have, make sure not to crowd the seedlings, place them in lots of light and keep them warm. Transplant them into larger pots as soon as the first real leaves appear and then again about 2 weeks later. Make sure that they are getting enough sun. If they start to stretch then they need more light - either strong, direct sunlight or 14-18 hours under grow lights. To grow strong stems, tomatoes need to ‘sway in the breeze’. Use a fan to create a breeze (not a wind storm) a few times through out the day. Don’t leave the fan on all the time as it may dry out your seedlings.
If you are buying transplants ones that have not stretched and have active white roots. If the weather is not warm enough to plant outside then treat them as mentioned above until it is time to plant.
Often, when people come to the greenhouse they are overwhelmed by the different varieties of tomatoes and don’t know which one to choose. Tomatoes vary from beefsteak (great for hamburgers) to Roma types to small cherry. There are also varieties that do well in containers and even hanging baskets. So, how do you decide? Think about whether you are planting the tomatoes in a garden or in a container on the patio. Many people choose a cherry tomato to put on their patio so their kids can nibble on the small sweet tomatoes while playing. Also, consider when do you want to start eating them. There are long keeper varieties that will stay fresh for several months. Check out the days to maturation as a guide to which varieties ripen early. Best advise is to ask the greenhouse staff if they have any recommendations or talk to other gardeners. There are also many websites that rate tomato varieties. Be adventurous there are many heirloom varieties and new varieties coming out. One of our customers has tried close to 500 different varieties!
Before planting in the garden prepare the area by covering the soil with black or red plastic for a few weeks. This will warm the soil and translate into happier tomato plants and an earlier harvest. Tomatoes love heat. Many people use plastic tomato covers that can be filled with water to add heat units and protect the tomatoes from the elements. The covers allow you to plant earlier as well. Leave the covers on until the weather warms up.
Plant tomatoes deep, in fact, you can plant them all the way up to the top few leaves. Tomatoes can develop roots along their stems. The bumps along the stem are actually dormant roots, thus transplanting deeper provides more roots and stronger plants. You can either dig a deeper hole or simply dig a shallow trench and lay the plant sideways. It will straighten up as they grow toward the sun. If you are staking the plant be careful not to pierce the stem with the cage. Plant in a sunny location as tomatoes need at least 5 hours of direct sunlight to thrive and develop a sweet flavour.
After planting, it is a good idea to mulch. Mulching conserves water and prevents the soil and soil born diseases from getting on the plants. Consider red plastic ground covers as mulch. It sounds like an old wives' tale, but studies confirm that the color red makes tomatoes grow more quickly and stockier. Why? The color red makes the tomato believe that they are overcrowded and encourages the plants to battle for dominance. The result? More tomatoes on healthier, bushier plants! USDA tests confirm that red mulch produces bigger fruit with 46% more overall weight.
How, when and where should I prune my tomato plants? This requires you finding out whether you have a determinate (usually bush style tomatoes) or indeterminate tomato plant. Determinate type tomatoes tend to set and ripen their fruit all at one time, making a large quantity available when you’re ready to make sauce and usually do not require too much pruning. Indeterminate type tomatoes (staking tomatoes) grow very tall and require pruning. These tomatoes will set fruit earlier if you pinch off the tips of the main stems in early summer. You can further prune the plants by removing the leaves from the bottom 1 inch of stem. These are usually the first leaves to develop fungus problems as they get the least amount of sun and are closest to the soil. You can also remove growth that sprouts in the crotch joint of two branches. This growth will not produce tomatoes and the energy to growth these branches takes away from producing fruit. Don’t over prune. The tomato needs leaves for photosynthesizing and creating the sugars that flavor to your tomatoes. Towards the end of the season prune off smaller fruit and flower buds so the tomato will concentrate on growing the larger fruit before the frost.
One of the most important tasks in growing successful tomatoes requires constant water management. Water deeply and consistently. Uneven or erratic watering leads to blossom end rot (calcium deficiency) and cracking. You can lessen the water during the ripening stage to encourage the development of sugars for sweeter tomatoes.
Fertilizer will improve your yields. Begin fertilizing right after transplanting with a high phosphorous (middle number) mix such as 10–52–10 for 3 to 4 weeks. After that a balance mix such as 20-20-20 once a week is recommended.
As with all gardening, the joy is in the doing and seeing what you can grow. Good luck with your tomato crop!

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