Daniel Gill, Merrill, Thomas A. | 3/4/2006 4:52:07 AM
By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
It’s time to plant tomato transplants into the garden, especially in South Louisiana. North Louisiana gardeners may want to wait another week or two to be cautious. But, either way, early planted tomatoes produce more and higher quality tomatoes.
When deciding on what types to grow, choose tomato cultivars with the fruit size, disease resistance, shape and color you want.
Plant growth habit also is an important characteristic to consider. Determinant or bush types stay short, while indeterminate or vine types grow tall.
Although it is fun to try different cultivars, the bulk of your tomato planting should be cultivars that have been tested at LSU AgCenter research stations and are proven producers in Louisiana.
Some of the indeterminate cultivars recommended by the LSU AgCenter are Big Beef, Better Boy, Champion, Fantastic, First Lady, Monte Carlo, Terrific and Pink Girl. Recommended cherry types, such as Cherry Grande, Super Sweet 100 and Sweet Chelsea, generally are early and very productive. They also set fruit well in the heat of summer.
Excellent determinate types that are recommended for growing here include Bingo, Bonita, Carnival, Celebrity, Empire, Floramerica, Olympic, Mountain Delight, Mountain Pride, Spitfire and Whirlaway. Heat-tolerant cultivars, such as Heatwave, Solar Set and Sunleaper, produce better in the heat of summer and may be planted in late April or early May. For canning, choose Royal Chico, Spectrum 882 or Roma.
Start off with high-quality transplants. The ideal transplant is a stocky plant (about as wide as it is tall) that is growing actively and has not begun to bloom. The leaves should be deep green, and the stem should be thick enough to strongly support the plant. The roots should be white, and some soil should still be visible between roots when you remove the plant from the pot.
Avoid purchasing transplants that have been crowded together to save space – causing the stems to stretch and become weak. Also stay away from those that have been grown too long in pots and are too small or severely pot-bound.
Newly purchased transplants often are right out of the greenhouse and may not be ready for the harsher growing conditions of the real world garden. Harden off the transplants by placing them in a location that receives several hours of morning sun for a couple of days and gradually introduce them to more sun over a seven-day period. In addition, allow the plants to wilt very slightly before watering.
Keys to Success
Select a spot to plant your tomato plants that receives full sun (direct sun for eight or more hours). Production will be lower with less light. Tomato plants prefer a fertile, well-drained soil that has high organic matter content.
During bed preparation, dig in generous amounts of compost or rotted manure and some general-purpose granular fertilizer, following directions on the fertilizer label. Don’t overdo the fertilizer at first. You can always apply more later on.
Plant tomatoes on raised rows in the garden or in raised beds. Tomatoes grow best when spaced at least 18 inches to 24 inches apart. A common mistake is to plant the small transplants too close together.
You may plant transplants 1 inch to 2 inches deeper than they were growing in their containers. Do not remove healthy, green leaves to bury the stem deeper, because that may stunt the plant.
Each tomato plant should receive about 1 cup of soluble fertilizer at planting to get it off to a good start. Water regularly until the root system is well established, and don’t forget to keep your plants mulched with 2 inches to 3 inches of leaves, pine straw or other materials.
Tomatoes generally are trained to grow upright by tying them to stakes with a soft fabric. This saves space in the garden and keeps the fruit off the ground – reducing problems with fruit rot.
Indeterminate types are pruned primarily to make them more manageable to train on stakes, but it also encourages plants to produce larger, higher-quality fruit. Prune your plants to one or two main stems by pinching off the suckers (or side shoots) that grow where a leaf attaches to the main stem. To train a plant to two main stems, allow the first sucker produced to grow and then desucker both main stems as they grow.
Determinate types of tomatoes may be grown on stakes or in commercial tomato cages and are not desuckered either way you grow them.
After the first tomatoes have reached the size of a quarter, side-dress your plants by sprinkling about 1 tablespoon of general-purpose granular fertilizer under each plant. Repeat that about every four weeks to keep all of your plants growing vigorously.
Don’t forget to plant early for best results. I can almost taste those vine-ripened tomatoes now!
Get It Growing is a weekly feature on home lawn and garden topics prepared by experts in the LSU AgCenter. For more information on such topics, contact your parish LSU AgCenter Extension office or visit our Web site at www.lsuagcenter.com. A wide range of publications and a variety of other resources are available.