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Taking care of tomatoes

The tomato is one of the most popular plants in the garden. Most people who do not even have room for a garden will grow tomato plants in pots on their back patio. However, tomatoes can be one of the most challenging crops to grow, due to the large number of insect pests, fungi, bacteria and viruses that have negative effects on tomatoes.

The first thing to consider when growing tomatoes is the location. Tomatoes need to have full sun (six or more hours a day) to grow their best. Sunlight increases carbohydrates, which will increase the size and quality of the fruit. You may have heard the saying “More sun equals more flowers, and more flowers equal more fruit.” This is the case with tomato plants.

Also, more sunlight will decrease the incidence of disease problems on your plant. Sunlight helps the foliage to dry quickly each morning after the dew or rain. Foliage that dries quickly will have less foliar disease. Also, it is important when watering your tomatoes to direct the water to the base of the plant to avoid getting the foliage wet.

Picking your location based on the soil quality is also important. Well drained soil is critical in the success of growing tomatoes because of the high number of root disease problems that occur and effect plants with poorly drained soils. If planting your tomatoes in a container, make sure that the container has a hole in the bottom to insure good drainage for that plant.

A simple technique that can be used that will help in growing healthy tomatoes is to prune them. This will reduce the disease pressure on your tomatoes. Prune your tomato plant when they have become larger in size and you can notice where the flowers and fruit are on the stems. Prune out the side shoots that they produce in abundance and this will improve the air movement and allow for quicker drying out of the foliage which will decrease disease incidence.

Make sure to keep your garden clean. This means pulling weeds as soon as they start to pop up in your garden. Weeds can be a host for diseases. Also, when the garden is spent and the growing season is over, make sure to clear away any debris or old plant material and leave a clean site for next year’s garden area. Diseases over-winter in the debris from the previous season, and then, when it’s time to plant your garden, they emerge and spread onto the new foliage of your healthy plants.

Heat-tolerant varieties are also a great idea. Tomato plants do not set fruit well when the nighttime temperatures are above 70 degrees. Early blight is one of the most common tomato diseases. This disease is caused by a fungus that over-winters on crop debris left from the previous year and also from weeds. This disease is also referred to as “firing-up” because it progresses so quickly from the bottom to the top of the plant. Fungicides containing chlorothalonil or mancozeb are effective at controlling this disease, but must be applied throughout the growing season.

Here is a great link to a guide of commonly found problems on tomato plants that provides the symptoms, control measures and great pictures when identifying the problem you may be seeing on your tomato plants: http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/publications/tomatoproblemsolver/