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Growing Tomatoes in the Home Garden


            G rowing Tomatoes in the Home Garden

Garden Tulsans seem to have a love/hate relationship with their tomatoes. Local gardeners love planting them, anticipating a summer of sweet, juicy fruits for their eating pleasure. But then, their hopes are sometimes dashed as the crop's life is cut short by weather, insects and disease.

Here are some tips to help gardeners have tomatoes from now until frost:


            A Place in the Sun. Tomatoes Need Sun Light.

Sun Many of our homes are only partially sunlit during the day. If a tomato plant gets eight to 12 hours a day of full sun, then expect plenty of fruit. A Place in the Sun Tomatoes need sunlight. Many of our homes are only partially sunlit during the day. If a tomato plant gets eight to 12 hours a day of full sun, then expect plenty of fruit.



            A Healthy Home For Roots.

Tomato The soil must be rich in organic matter. Before buying a single tomato plant, consider adding about a two inch layer of compost or organic humus. Work this into the soil along with a bit of agricultural lime. The lime adds calcium and brings the pH up close to 6.5 to 6.8, a range that is ideal for tomatoes. Many soils in Tulsa are highly acidic and need liming. Tomatoes need some nitrogen, but plenty of phosphorus and potassium. Try mixing a slow-release all purpose vegetable fertilizer into soil to keep fertility levels even for several months. If plants slow down in growth in mid-summer and foliage is pale, then add a bit of nitrogen.

To get the amount of fertilizer just right, consider bringing a soil sample to our office for testing. We will mail back a personally prescribed fertilization plan for your garden. Call our Master Gardeners for details: 746-3701.

            V arity is the Spice of Life.

Type Buy several varieties of tomatoes. Six to ten plants are plenty for a family of four for fresh eating. Plant more for keeping the harvest. Tomato varieties are divided into two basic types: Determinate and Indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes will ripen all at once and are great if we are making salsa, canning, freezing or drying the fruit. 'Roma' and 'Celebrity' are determinate tomatoes. Indeterminate tomatoes will continue to bear fruit until frost if we can keep the foliage healthy. 'SunGold', a yellow cherry tomato, will bear all season.

Most of the popular medium to large tomatoes, such as 'Jet Star', 'Better Boy', 'Beefsteak' and 'Super Fantastic' are indeterminate. If a variety is listed as "compact", or "stakeless", then it is usually determinate.

Disease resistant varieties are the key to keeping tomatoes healthy throughout the season. No matter what the variety may be, if it's disease resistant there will be code letters after the name. For example, 'Better Boy' VFN is a variety that is resistant to Fusarium wilt Verticillium wilt and Nematodes.

Many heirloom varieties are not disease resistant, but have unique flavors. They bear fewer tomatoes, and are later to bear fruit, but many gardeners feel it's worth the wait to have a few bites of these tasty tomatoes. Almost all are indeterminate, so they will bear fruit all season.

            C old Feet Slows Growth.

Temperature After buying or raising tomato plants, don't push the season. Take the soil's temperature before planting. Better yet, check local weather station web sites, they usually provide the soil temperature. It needs to be above 60 degrees F. before planting tomatoes. Air temperatures may be balmy, but it's the soil that drives the system. If roots are cold, transplants will just sit there and not grow.

Soil can be pre-warmed before planting by covering soil with clear plastic for a few days before planting, or by loosening soil and hilling it up a bit. Another tip is to plant early tomatoes on a south-facing slope. We can gain two weeks of growth by growing on soil that tilts a bit toward the sun. "Wall of Water" plant protectors are a garden invention worth trying. They are cyclinders of plastic chambers that we fill with water and place over the plant to form a tipi shape. The water collects heat energy from the sun during the day, radiating it back slowly to the plant at night. They provide great frost protection for early-season plantings.

            L ook Out for Splashing Mud.

Mud After planting tomatoes mulch with straw, hay or a thin layer of dry grass clippings to prevent mud from splashing on leaves. This is important. Our soil contains millions of microbes. Some are helpful to plants, others cause disease. Many disease-causing tomato fungal spores diseases reside in our soils. When it rains and mud splashes onto leaves, the fungus has an opportunity to start growing and invading the tissue. Septoria leaf spot and alternaria (also known as early blight) are two common tomato leaf spots diseases in Tulsa. Some tomato varieties have a letter "A" after the variety name. This means it is resistant to alternaria.

Some tomato diseases cause heartbreak no matter how well we care for the plants. Fusarium wilt will cause the entire plant to turn yellow and collapse. It doesn't matter if we've mulched, for it enters plants through the roots. Watch for either an F, FF or an F2 after the name in the disease resistance code. F2 or FF in this code means it's resistant both races of Fusarium, race 1 and race 2. If a variety has an F1 immediately after the name, then it's a hybrid. This is usually in parentheses and not part of the disease resistance code. For example 'Celebrity' (F1) (V,F2,N,T) is a hybrid that is resistant to verticillium wilt, two races of fusarium wilt, nematodes and tobacco mosaic virus. It's a great tomato for Tulsa. But there a many others, such as 'Beefmaster', 'Park's Whopper', 'Heatmaster' and 'Mountain Pride'.

            K eep Roots Cool, Moist and Happy.

Lettuce Remember, the roots drive the growth system. If they get too cold OR too hot or too dry, they'll stop growing. Keep plants mulched, evenly watered and they'll be happy. Use a thick layer of mulch, such as wheat straw. The straw is slightly reflective, will keep soil cooler and can be piled thickly to insulate the roots without cutting off the air supply.



            S weet and Sour Tomatoes.

Yellow Some people prefer a low-acid tomato. Researchers at Mississippi State University have found that most tomato fruits have a pH of between 4.3 and 4.6. The yellow or pink "low acid" tomatoes are not any lower in acid, but they are higher in sugar. As with fine wine grapes, it's the ratio of sugar to acid in a tomato that determines the flavor characteristics. For sweeter tomatoes, leave them on the vine as long as possible to ripen. Just watch out for birds, squirrels and other creatures that are fond of the fruit.


            B ugs in the System.

Bugs Insects and mites can ruin a tomato crop before we know it. Perhaps the worst pest is the red spider mite. It is a tiny, eight legged creature that multiplies rapidly, spinning tiny silken webs while sucking vital fluids from the plant. Heavily damaged leaves are pale or bronze in appearance. The best controls are to use either insecticidal soap or horticultural oil to control the mites. This is not the same as dormant oil. It is highly refined and ideal for summertime pest control of sucking pests. Good control has been achieved by spraying for mites beginning in late June. Mite season ends when temperatures cool down.

Two others pests are caterpillars that drill holes in the fruit. The tomato pinworm is a tiny larva that tunnels right down the core. The tomato fruitworm, same critter as the corn earworm, will bore into the sides of fruit, leaving a mess. Both can be controlled with products containing BT, known as Bacillus thuringiensis. This biological control will not harm other insects and is very low in toxicity.

            P ickin' and Grinnin'.

Pickin Tomatoes are ready for harvest anytime after they turn a light pink. However flavor increases as they ripen on the vine. Dead ripe tomatoes, however, will be more vulnerable to birds, turtles and other creatures. Consider a rubber snake coiled near the plants, moving it every few days. Or, try the new bird scare tape. It flaps in the breeze, spooking our avian attackers.

Store tomatoes in a cool, dark place that is above 55 degrees F. Refrigerators will ruin the flavor. Also, they will not ripen any faster on a windowsill as light has nothing to do with ripening. Store them in a dark location and they'll ripen just fine. We can speed ripening a bit by placing them in a paper sack with an apple, which emits ethylene gas.

Have a great summer in the garden with your own patch of red, sweet, juicy tomatoes!

            M aster Gardeners can Help!

Pickin Tomatoes are the number one garden vegetable. Consequently our Master Gardener volunteers field many questions about growing and caring for these plants. Feel free to call them or bring in a sample of tomato problems. As fellow tomato enthusiasts, they'll be happy to offer assistance.

The Tulsa County OSU Extension Center Master Gardener office is open weekdays from 9 to 4 p.m. at 4116 E. 16th Street. Their telephone number is 746-3701. Also see their website for helpful horticulture advice: