Saturday, May 10, 2014

Time to Plant Tomatoes

Mother's Day is the traditional time to plant tomatoes in East Tennessee. Another way to determine the correct planting time: the dogwoods should have dropped their blossoms and be fully leafed-out. These are convenient ways to remember that tomatoes should be transplanted after the soil temperature is above 65 degrees.

I know, I know, many people plant tomatoes in April in hopes of an early harvest. They use all sorts of season extenders in hope of having ripe fruits before anyone else in the neighborhood. Nevertheless, despite all the effort and expense, these tomatoes ripen around July 4, just like everyone else's. The most effective way to get a jump on the season is black plastic mulch, applied around the base of the plant at transplant time. This will help increase the soil temperature. But it is unlikely to shorten the time to maturity by much more than a week.

Assuming you are planting some tomato plants this weekend or next week, here are a couple of tips for a bigger harvest:

1) Plant deeply. Remove all but the top three clusters of leaves and bury the stem deeply enough that the lowermost leaf cluster is about an inch above the soil line. This encourages development of a large root system to support the eventual crop.

2) Remove blooms. Pinch off all blooms that are present on your transplants. These will sap energy, and although they may produce some early fruits, the overall harvest will be reduced.

3) Feed early. Put a couple of tablespoons of balanced organic fertilizer in the planting hole. As growth resumes about a week after transplanting, you can also side-dress the plants with another round of food. Feed about every two weeks until blooms appear, then stop feeding. Too much nitrogen after blooming begins will reduce the crop.

4) Mulch immediately. Apply two or more inches of mulch as soon as your plants are in the ground. Mulch not only helps maintain even soil moisture, important for tomatoes, but also prevents soil splashing up on the leaves during a rain. Soil can carry the spore of disease organisms such as Fusarium and Verticillium.

5) Grow hybrids. If you are an inexperienced gardener, grow modern, disease resistant hybrids and buy your heirloom tomatoes at the Farmer's Market. Heirlooms are delicious, but many of them have no resistance to common diseases, and can be a challenge to grow in our hot, humid climate.

Also, if you use tobacco, wash your hands thoroughly before going into the tomato patch, and don't use tobacco in the garden area. Tobacco can transmit TMV (tobacco mosaic virus) to your tomatoes.

I will be giving a presentation this afternoon at 2:00 at UT Gardens, as part of the annual Bloomsdays event. Stop by the South Greenhouse, say hello, and catch my talk on growing hardy orchids in the Tennessee Valley. The event is open today and tomorrow from 9:00Am to 5:00PM. I hope to see you there!

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