Yard and Garden: Tomatoes difficult, but rewarding

By Tom Dominguez, Quay County Extension

Tomatoes are a winning vegetable because of taste, nutrition and color. They aren’t the easiest vegetable to grow, but with a few guidelines you can have good success with this tasty fruit.

Tomato success comes from the following: site selection, soil preparation, variety, planting dates, planting techniques, watering, fertilizing and mulching.

Tomato season begins by finding a good site. Tomatoes do best with no less than six hours of direct sunlight, well-drained soil, soils free of tree roots, Bermuda grass and other noxious weeds. Find a site where tomatoes and relatives of tomatoes haven’t been grown for a few years. A site that is easy to see, easy get to and has a convenient water source is critical too. Out of sight — for most of us — is out of mind.

Without delay, go ahead and add 3 to 4 inches of organic matter to your planting site. Work it into the top 8 inches of soil. If the organic matter is raw (you can still identify what it is) add a little nitrogen to the soil. Follow this with a good irrigation and repeat as the top 2 or 3 inches of soil dries out. When it gets time to plant, the raw organic matter will be composted.

Select medium and small varieties to grow in our hot, arid environment. They will do so much better than the large fruiting varieties. Varieties to consider include celebrity, carnival, president, simba, merced, heatwave, superfantastic, champion and first lady. Small varieties to try include small fry, cherry grande, porter and sweet 100. Paste tomato types are good too, but they need to be managed at a higher level to prevent blossom end rot from occurring.

Planting dates are very important. Plant as close to the last freeze as possible without exposing your plants to cold damage. The last week of March to mid-April is generally a good planting window.

Tomato plants need to be established and growing before temperatures get too hot for good flowering and fruit set.
Our springs usually offer about a three-week period when the conditions are best for fruit set. Since timing is everything, it’s best to set out tomato transplants rather than planting seed.

Once daytime temperatures get above 90 degrees, and nighttime temps stay above 70, fruit set and quality take a nose dive, but they will pick up again in late summer as temperatures cool a little.

Smaller fruiting varieties are more tolerant of the high temperatures, so they can produce fruit all summer long.When it comes to choosing transplants, bigger isn’t better.

The ideal tomato transplant is six weeks old, dark green, vigorous, stocky and pest free. It should not have blooms or fruit for good establishment. If transplants are straight from the greenhouse, gradually expose them to the outdoor conditions. Check transplants frequently so they don’t dry out on a warm, windy day. If it’s going to be a while before you get them planted, you could move them up to the next size container.

Tomato plants get big! Caging, trellising, staking and sprawling are the various ways of growing them. Caging is one of the best methods because it saves room, reduces fruit rot and makes harvesting easier. Cages can also be covered with plastic bags or floating row cover which can protect plants from disease-spreading insects and gives a few degrees of protection from cold as well as wind.

Most commercial tomato cages are rarely big or stout enough for healthy tomato plants. Homemade cages made of concrete reinforcement wire are simple to construct, adequately sized and make a sturdy cage.

Plant into moist soil early or late in the day. Dig a hole deep and wide, planting almost up to the first pair of true leaves. Before planting, place a small amount, about a tablespoon, of triple or super phosphate in the bottom of the hole and cover with an inch or two of soil. Pour a cup of starter fertilizer in the hole allowing it to soak in and then plant. Follow this with a good watering. If your transplant is growing in a peat pot, soak it and gently tear it off before planting.

Transplants, especially tall, lanky ones, can be planted deeper than the original root ball — but don’t try this with most other plants! The stem will initiate new roots soon after planting, giving a larger root system quicker.

This is most useful in sandy soils. In clay or heavy soils, lanky transplants can be laid on their side planted. Water each plant as soon as it is planted. After all the plants are in the ground go back and water thoroughly.

Grow tomatoes in evenly moist soil. Drip irrigation lines or soaker hoses are a good and convenient way to water, but tomatoes can also be flood irrigated. Don’t sprinkle irrigate unless you’ve got high quality water. With the ease of drip, there’s no reason why most gardeners shouldn’t opt for this method. Design drip irrigation so there are at least two (and four would be better) emitters per plant.

So, don’t delay on planning and planting so you can enjoy a harvest this summer.

Tom Dominguez is an agent with the Quay County Extension, NMSU Extension Service. He can be reached by emailing tdomingu@nmsu.edu or calling 461-0562.