A Few Tips for Healthy Tomatoes
Anyone can grow tomatoes, right? That might be true, but there's a big difference between spindly plants producing a few fruit and shrub-like bushes covered with tomatoes. Here are a few things you can do to become one of those people who show up at work with a bag full of tomatoes, handing them out like candy to the poor wretches without a garden.
Find the Right Planting Site
The more sun the better. Last year, I rotated my main crop of tomatoes to a bed that gets only a few hours of sun a day. Sure, I got tomatoes, but the yield was substantially lower than the plants I had in a sunnier location.
Like every other plant in the garden, tomatoes enjoy good soil. If you're not blessed with dark crumbly loam and are cursed with thick clay, improve the soil. With good dirt, there is no need to add fertilizers. They're really just junk food for plants. Add organic matter such as manure or compost to the planting holes. Dehydrated manure is fine and is available in bags for a couple of bucks. I pay about $25 for a load of mushroom manure dumped into my pickup. Delivery is available.
There are a few ways to plant tomatoes. When I plant them conventionally, I always prepare the planting hole lower than soil level. I leave a depression so that when it rains or when I water, the plant can absorb as much moisture as possible.
Planting deep or horizontally are other methods of planting. Strip all but the top foliage off and turn the plant on its side, just barely covering the stem with dirt. The buried stem begins to form roots and within a day, the top of the plant has righted itself. This method produces more roots and the underground stems are closer to warmth, rain and nutrients. Proponents of deep planting like the fact that the main root ball is down deep, where it takes longer to dry out.
An old trick when planting is to add Epsom salts (this works for peppers, too). One or two tablespoons in the planting hole add magnesium, an important nutrient for plants.
One of the most common problems gardeners encounter is blossom-end rot. It starts as a black spot on the bottom of the tomato and can eventually spread throughout the fruit. Some varieties are more susceptible than others. The key is to keep the plants evenly moist, and the best way to do this is to lay down a thick layer of mulch once the ground warms up. I use straw; it's cheap and looks fine in the vegetable garden.
Plants deficient in calcium can be prone to the disease. Adding crushed egg shells to the soil will add calcium.
To pinch or not to pinch, that is the question. Suckers are sprouts that don't produce fruit. Some gardeners pinch them off to direct more energy to the fruit. Others leave them to help shade the fruit and protect it from sun scald. Being from the lazy school of gardeners, I prefer the latter method.
Doug Oster writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. This article was diistributed by Scripps Howard News Service.