Time for tomatoes
Nothing says summer like everyone's favorite vegetable (even though it's actually a fruit)
A small backyard tomato project can provide outside recreation for the entire family and, at the same time, serve as an out-of-doors laboratory for boys and girls interested in biology and science.
Selecting a Site
Set plants in an open area where they can get plenty of sunshine during a large portion of the day. For convenience, try to locate plants near the house and a water supply; however, if the spot you pick for convenience sake is not located in a place where the plant can receive lots of sunshine, rethink your location. Plant growth and development are usually more vigorous and disease control much easier on a plant growing in full sunlight.
For individual plants, dig a hole 2 feet wide and 12 inches deep. Save the topsoil that was removed from the hole and use it in the growing medium for refilling the hole. Mix two to three parts of the topsoil and one part of well-decomposed manure or compost. Add _ cup of a complete fertilizer, e.g. 8-8-8 or 4-12-12 and 2/3 cup of ground dolomitic limestone if the soil has not been lined in the past 3 years. Thoroughly mix these ingredients to make a uniform growing medium. If poultry manure is used, add one part of manure to three or four parts of soil to reduce the possibility of injury to the plants.
Varieties that have produced well in tests and have been placed on the recommended list for Alabama include 'Amelia VR', 'Celebrity Mountain Supreme', and 'Sunpride'. For families that may wish to plant two or three cherry-type tomato plants, 'Small Fry' and 'Sweet Million' are good varieties to consider.
Set the plants 2 feet apart and slightly deeper than they were originally growing. Firm the soil well with your hands, leaving a slight depression around each plant. Fill this depression with water to settle the soil well around the roots. Cut a 2-to-3-inch section out of an empty quart milk carton and place it around the base of the plant. Push it into the soil about _ inch to protect the plants from cutworm damage. Shade bare-root plants or tender potted plants with plywood, shingle or cardboard to protect them from the sun until they become well established.
Mulching helps control weeds and conserves moisture. It also reduces diseases by reducing the amount of water splashing onto the bottom leaves of the plants. Spread 6 to 8 inches of hay, wheat, rye or pine straw in a circle around the plants just as soon as they recover from transplanting. Pine straw and hay will settle as the season progresses so add mulch material as needed throughout the season.
A good heavy mulch helps to ensure uniform soil moisture and cuts down on the need for frequent watering. However, during extended dry periods, it may be advisable to water plants in sandy soils at 5-to-7-day intervals and plants in clay soils at 7-to-10-day intervals. Run sprinklers long enough to wet the soil 6 inches deep. If you apply water faster than the percolation rate of the oil, runoff will occur. In that case, water until runoff, allow the water to soak in, and water again 1 hour later. Continue until the soil is wet to a depth of 5 to 6 inches. Adequate moisture will help maintain uniform production and will reduce blossom-end rot.
Supporting Tomato Plants
There are many specific techniques for supporting tomato plants; however, the two general methods are staking and caging.
All flower clusters on a tomato plant usually develop on the same side of the stem. A stake should be placed so that the developing fruit are not crowded between the main stem and the stake. Therefore, do not stake plants until after the first flower cluster is formed. Then drive the stake on the side opposite the flower cluster and about 4 inches away form the base of the plant. Use a strong stake about 2 inches into the ground.
Make the first tie just above the first flower cluster, using strong binder twine or cloth strips. Use a modified figure-eight tie, looping the string around the plant stem. Cross the ends between the stem and the stake, then pass the ends of the string around the stake and tie them. Do not draw the stem up snugly against the stake. Leave room for the stem to grow without binding. Additional ties should be made above each flower cluster as it develops to support the plant and to keep the fruit off the ground. Staked tomatoes will usually produce ripe tomatoes earlier in the season than caged tomatoes.
Tomato plants can be surrounded by wire cages. However, a cage should be sturdy and well anchored to the ground. Concrete reinforcing wire provides good support for the plants. A cage should be from 20 to 36 inches in diameter. A length of wire 6 to 9 feet can be used to construct a cage within that size range. In general, a caged tomato plant will produce more but smaller sized fruit than a staked tomato plant.
Plants may be trained to a one- or two-stem system. Remove all shoots or suckers that develop in the axils of the leaves to train a plant to one main stem. To develop a two-stem system, let the first sucker below the first flower cluster develop.
This sucker will form the second stem. Remove all other shoots or suckers on both stems. When sunscald is a problem, allow shoots to develop a couple of leaves before pinching out the bud or sucker to provide more shade for the fruit.
For more information, contact the Morgan County Extension Service at 773-2549.