Daniel Gill, Merrill, Thomas A.
By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
This message is for tomato lovers. It’s time to plant!
More specifically, if you want to grow fresh, flavorful, vine-ripened tomatoes in your garden, you need to get them planted by the middle of April. Early planting ensures more production and higher-quality tomatoes.
Although cooler weather sometimes comes our way in late March, hard freezes definitely are unlikely for the rest of the season. So you don’t really have to worry about low temperatures being a problem for tomatoes you plant now.
When selecting tomato cultivars, choose those with the characteristics you want – such as fruit size, shape and color, as well as disease resistance and plant growth habit. (Determinant or bush cultivars stay short. Indeterminate or vine cultivars grow tall.). Although it is fun to try new cultivars, the bulk of your tomato planting should include varieties that have been tested at LSU AgCenter research stations and are proven to produce well here.
Some of the indeterminate cultivars recommended by the LSU AgCenter are Big Beef, Better Boy, Champion, Fantastic, First Lady, Monte Carlo, Terrific, BHN 444 (spotted wilt virus resistant) and Pink Girl. Recommended cherry types, such as Cherry Grande, Super Sweet 100 and Sweet Chelsea, generally are early and very productive, but they also set fruit well in the heat of summer.
Excellent determinate types recommended include Bingo, Bonita, Carnival, Celebrity, Empire, Floramerica, Heatwave (heat tolerant), Olympic, Mountain Delight, Mountain Pride, Solar Set (heat tolerant), Spitfire and Whirlaway. Heat-tolerant varieties produce better in the heat of summer and may be planted as late as the end of April or early May. For canning, choose Royal Chico, Spectrum 882 or Roma.
To be successful, start off with high-quality transplants. The ideal tomato transplant is a plant that is somewhat small (about as wide as it is tall) and is growing actively but has not begun to bloom. The leaves should be deep green, and the stem should be stocky. The roots should be white, and some soil should still be visible between roots when you remove the plant from the pot.
Newly purchased transplants often have come right out of the greenhouse and may not ready for the harsher growing conditions of the garden. Harden off the transplants by placing them in a location that receives several hours of morning sun for a couple of days, and then gradually introduce them to more sun over a seven-day period. Also, allow the plants to wilt very slightly before watering.
Tomato plants need full sun (direct sun for eight or more hours) for best production and should be planted into fertile, well-drained soil that has high organic matter content. During bed preparation, dig in generous amounts of compost or aged manure and a light application of fertilizer. Don’t overdo the fertilizer at first. You can always side-dress with more later on.
Plant tomatoes in raised beds or on raised rows in the garden. A common mistake is to plant the small transplants too close. Tomatoes grow best when spaced at least 18-24 inches apart. Leggy plants may be planted on their sides with the top, leafy portion bent upward and the bare stem laid into a shallow trench and covered. Do not remove healthy, green leaves to bury the stem deeper, since this may actually stunt the plant.
At planting, each tomato plant should receive about one cup of soluble fertilizer 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 2-3 inches of leaves, pine straw or other materials.
Tomatoes generally are trained to grow upright by tying them to stakes. Strips of old nylon stockings or cloth are ideal for tying the plants to the stakes.
Vining tomato cultivars 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 by pinching off the suckers (or side shoots) that grow where leaves attach to the main stem. This is called "desuckering."
Tomatoes also may be grown in cages. Vine types grow too tall for most commercial tomato cages, but they can be grown in a cage made by creating a cylinder out of 5-6 feet of concrete reinforcement wire. When grown this way, vining tomatoes are not desuckered.
Bush varieties of tomatoes may be grown on stakes or in a commercial tomato cages and are not desuckered grown either way.
After the first tomatoes on the plants have reached the size of a quarter, side-dress your plants with 1-2 tablespoons of all-purpose fertilizer per plant to keep them growing vigorously. Repeat that every four weeks.
For an excellent publication on growing tomatoes, which goes into more detail and discusses insect and disease control, contact your parish’s LSU AgCenter Extension office and request a free copy of Publication 1902, "Grow Tomatoes in the Home Garden." You also can find it, along with other helpful gardening information, in the publications section at www.lsuagcenter.com.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.