Tomatoes or Tomates

A major consideration when attempting to produce maximum tomato yields is variety selection. Tomatoes listed on the recommended vegetable variety table include Celebrity, Merced, Bingo, Whirlaway and Surefire(medium-size fruit) for large fruited types and Small Fry for the cherry type. Such recommendations are based on at least 3 years of field tests including spring and fall conditions.

Even though all of these varieties are reliable producers never plant only one variety. By using several varieties, gardeners increase their chance of success regardless of environmental conditions which may occur. Merced is the highest quality producing variety provided it is furnished with optimum growing conditions. Optimum growing conditions include full sunlight and high levels of manure fertilization and/or regular side dress applications of ammonium sulfate. This is necessary for adequate foliage production which protects tomatoes from sunscald in the spring. If such an effort doesn't seem worthwhile, use low maintenance varieties such as Celebrity.

One of the most important techniques for successfully growing a bumper crop of tomatoes is to use a starter solution at transplanting time to insure adequate fertility during early growth of the plants. Purchase starter solutions at local garden centers or make them at home by mixing 2 level tablespoons of super phosphate in a gallon of water. Commercial starter solutions are generally preferable to home mixes because they are usually higher in phosphates and are completely water soluble. After following label directions for mixing the starter solution, pour about a cup or so in each transplant hole.

Set the transplant directly in the center of the hole and fill with soil. If the transplant is leggy and tall, lay the stem portion of the plant on its side rather than digging a hole deeper to accommodate the taller plant. Setting tomato transplants too deep, especially in heavy clay soils, often slows early growth, resulting in later maturity and fewer tomatoes. If your soil is sandy, deep planting generally does not cause a problem.

When planting, make certain the peat container is completely beneath the soil level. If it is exposed to the air, it acts like a wick and rapidly dries out the root ball, often stunting or perhaps killing the plant. When firming the plant in, leave a slight depression around it to hold additional water from spot watering or rainfall.

Either stake-and-tie or cage all tomatoes. Staking-and-tieing produces larger tomatoes earlier but less overall fruit than caging. When staking tomatoes, put the stake in shortly after transplanting to lessen root damage. A 6-foot stake set 10 inches deep in the soil works well. As the plant grows taller, tie it loosely to the stake every 12 inches with pieces of rag, twine or soft material.

A proven method of growing tomatoes involves using cages to support the plant rather than staking and pruning. Cages are nothing more than cylinders made of reinforcing wire, hog wire or similar material to support the plant and keep the fruit off the ground. Make the cylinder 18 to 20 inches in diameter and 2 to 5 feet tall. Concrete reinforcing wire is generally considered best and is available in rolls of varying lengths, most commonly in 5-foot widths. It takes a 5-foot length to make a tomato cage 18 inches in diameter. Cages are held together by bending and crimping the ends of the wire around one of the vertical wires.

Place the cages over the tomato plants shortly after planting. One plant inside each cage is recommended. For support, snip off the bottom ring of the cage and push the cage into the ground. It is highly advisable to support the cage with wooden or metal stakes to keep the cage from falling over later in the season.

Several conditions cause tomatoes to fail to set fruit. Improper fertilization, high nighttime temperatures (above 70°F.), low temperatures (below 50°F.), irregular watering, insects such as thrips and planting the wrong variety may result in poor fruit set. Any one of these can cause poor fruit set, but combinations are even more damaging.

Few, if any, large-fruited tomato varieties will set fruit during cool, cloudy weather. Even some of the so-called "heat setting" types drop blooms in cloudy weather conditions. These tomato blooms leave such a distinct stem when they fall from the bloom cluster that many gardeners think the blooms have been eaten off by insects. Blossom-set hormones, sold as Blossom-Set, are helpful in setting or holding some of these blooms by "fooling" the bloom into believing it has been pollinated. Most of this poor fruit set caused by cloudy weather conditions directly relates to improper pollination of the blooms. Tomato flowers are wind or mechanically pollinated, so gardeners don't have to have bees.

Most insects are detected and controlled using a recommended insecticide. Worms or caterpillars are the most conspicuous to gardeners. Worms (caterpillars) come in a variety of colors and shapes, but all damage plants by eating holes in leaves. They feed on tomatoes as well as most garden vegetables. Entire plants may be eaten by these caterpillars if they occur in large numbers. These can be easily controlled by using Dipel, Thuricide, Bio-Spray or Biological Worm Killer. These materials contain the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis that kills only caterpillars and does not harm beneficial insects. Good coverage of upper and lower leaf surfaces is necessary for best control.

Spider mites are the least detectable pest. Spider mites are tiny spider like, plant chiggers that feed on the undersides of leaves of many garden vegetables and flowers. Most mites are about 1/32 inch long and live and feed in a web they produce on the leaves. They reproduce rapidly and can damage plants in a short time. Inspect plants frequently by examining the underside of leaves with a magnifying glass. When large populations of mites are present, leaves appear "stippled" or dotted with yellow, and webbing is usually present on the underside of leaves. Spray plants with Kelthane with 1 teaspoon of liquid soap added to the mixture. Repeat the spray every 4 days for four consecutive applications. Sulfur also controls mites but do not apply on squash and other vine crops.

Control other insects by using insecticides such as diazinon, malathion, Sevin or endosulfan which can be legally used on the appropriate crop. Avoid the blanket use of any specific insecticide. Otherwise, insects may become resistant to the insecticide. It is a good idea to switch insecticides periodically.

Insects can be harmful, but disease can be disastrous. Diseases must be prevented, not cured.

There are two main diseases which cause this disaster every spring. Early blight (Alternaria) and Septoria leaf spot are the culprits. Early blight is characterized by irregular, brown spots that first appear on older foliage. With age, the spots show concentric rings forming a target pattern. A yellow, diffuse zone is formed around each spot. Although this fungus disease can be observed throughout the year, it is most common during the fruiting period. The more tomatoes a plant produces, the more susceptible to and disastrous are the effects of an early blight infection. The fungus is favored by high humidity and high temperatures. The only control is prevention which begins when the plant is transplanted. During periods of high humidity, which includes most of the spring, apply a fungicide weekly. The best fungicide to use is one containing chlorothalonil (Ortho Vegetable Disease Control or Fertilome Broad Spectrum Fungicide).

Another destructive foliage disease of tomatoes is Septoria leaf spot. It may attack tomatoes at any time; however, it generally causes problems after the fruit begins maturing. In checking plants for this disease, look at the older foliage. The fungus is characterized by circular lesions with gray centers surrounded by dark margins. With age, the spots become covered with tiny black specks from which spores grow. Lesions are smaller and more numerous than the early blight organism. The fruit is rarely affected, but stems and blossoms are attacked. The disease overwinters on old tomato vines and wild relatives of the tomato family. The fungus is most active when temperatures are between 60° and 80° F. and during periods of high humidity. Apply a fungicide containing benomyl. Because benomyl is a systemic fungicide which goes into the plant, it lasts longer and does not have to be applied as often. To provide complete fungus protection from Septoria and early blight during spring periods of high humidity, mix benomyl with the weekly chlorothalonil every other week.