Nothing tastes better than a freshly picked, ripe tomato from your own garden. By now, your tomatoes should have been planted in an area that gets at least eight hours of full sun, and, with a little patience and planning, you can avoid some common problems.
Tomatoes are susceptible to soil-borne diseases, so it’s important to lay a 1- to 2-inch layer of mulch around the plants, avoiding contact with the stem. Besides preventing weeds and conserving moisture, the mulch will prevent any diseases in the ground from splashing onto the leaves and infecting the plant.
The lower leaves and the side of the plant opposite the sun are the most likely areas to show the first signs of trouble. Watch for yellowing, leaf curling, stippling or other discoloration. The most common tomato diseases include Septoria leaf spot and early blight, Fusarium wilt and Verticillium wilt, nematodes and tobacco mosaic virus.
Blossom-end rot can be a serious problem when the small fruit is just starting. The main sign is a dark, sunken area at the blossom end of the tomato, which occurs when there is drought stress, followed by excessive soil moisture. Consistent moisture is key. Mulch your plants, and keep the soil moist — but not soggy — to prevent blossom-end rot.
As tomatoes grow, they need support. Whether you use tomato cages or stakes and ties, supporting tomatoes keeps plants off the ground and promotes upward growth. Ensure the support is strong enough to bear the weight of the plant as it grows and bears fruit.
It’s important to manage the plants’ growth through pruning and removing suckers, which emerge where each leaf stem joins the main plant stem. If left alone, suckers will become a large tangle of stems that prevents light and air from reaching the interior of the plant. A daily inspection will help you prevent unwanted growth — snap off suckers less than 6 inches long. Pruning diseased leaves or branches is essential for good health management. Remove them from the garden, but do not add them to your compost pile.
Tomato plants are very water-sensitive and need about 1 to 2 inches of water per week, depending on the soil type. If the weather turns hotter and drier, and rainfall does not provide an adequate amount, water the tomatoes thoroughly once or twice a week on a regular basis. One or two heavy soakings are better than many light sprinklings. The soil should remain moist, like a wrung-out sponge. Consider using drip-irrigation or soaker hoses under the mulch to conserve moisture, and avoid getting the foliage wet to help prevent disease.
Through their roots, the plants will absorb most of the nutrients they need from the garden soil. Any additional fertilizer can be applied every three to four weeks until the end of harvest. Use a complete fertilizer, such as 10-10-10, but be careful not to apply too much or too frequently, as this can cause vigorous plant growth with few blooms or tomatoes.
It’s best to harvest tomatoes when they have ripened fully on the vine. However, the unripe, mature green or pink-tinged fruit can be allowed to ripen indoors. Sunlight isn’t necessary; simply place in a 70-degree room, and provide space between tomatoes for ventilation.
For additional information, visit www.extension.uga.edu/publications and www.walterreeves.com.
The Master Gardener Volunteers of Cobb County (MGVOCC) supports the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service and strives to improve the quality of life in our community by delivering research-based horticultural information, educational programs and projects.
– Master Gardener Volunteers of Cobb County is a part of the University of Georgia Extension.