Richard Bogren, Fontenot, Kathryn
Tomatoes are a Louisiana gardener’s favorite. Full of vitamins and lycopene, tomatoes are a healthy addition to any meal.
If you enjoy cooking a stuffed tomato or preparing a healthy salad, try using fresh-grown tomatoes to boost flavor. You can find many varieties to enjoy that are easy to grow in your own backyard.
Several types and varieties of tomatoes do well in Louisiana, says Kathryn Fontenot, a horticulturist with the LSU AgCenter. Two categories of tomatoes are hybrid and heirloom.
Hybrid tomatoes are those that have been selected for their disease resistance and productivity. They are the first-generation cross between two parents and are more apt than heirloom tomatoes to be blemish-free, Fontenot says. They can be indeterminate or determinate.
Indeterminate tomatoes – also called “vining” tomatoes – are vines that continue growing in length throughout the growing season and will also continue to set and ripen fruit until killed off by frost.
Louisiana-recommended varieties include Better Boy, Big Beef, Fantastic, Jet Star, Juliet and Terrific.
Determinate tomatoes – also called “bush” tomatoes – grow to a fixed mature size and ripen all their fruit in a short period, usually about 2 weeks. Once this first flush of fruit has ripened, the plant will begin to diminish in vigor and will set little to no new fruit.
Louisiana-recommended determinate varieties include Amelia, Celebrity, Cherry Grande, Floramerica, Spitfire and the Mountain series – Mountain Delight, Mountain Fresh, Mountain Belle and Mountain Spring.
Heirloom tomatoes, on the other hand, are true-type, open-pollinated tomatoes that are grown for their flavor, unique colors and shapes.
Louisiana-recommended heirloom varieties include Brandywine, Cherokee purple and Striped German
Before you prepare the soil, be sure to choose a sunny location to plant your tomatoes, Fontenot says. These plants require at least 6 hours of sunlight every day.
“Till the area where the tomatoes will be planted, making sure to break up large clumps of soil,” she says. “Tilling the soil allows the roots to penetrate the soil easily to make healthier plants.”
Tomatoes thrive in soils with high organic matter content. Adding compost prior to planting increases their productivity.
“Do not to plant tomato seeds directly into compost,” Fontenot warns. “Plant tomato transplants into soil that has been compost-enriched. And ensure that any compost used is aged so you don’t ‘burn’ your plants.”
Tomatoes do best in well-drained soil. The LSU AgCenter horticulturist recommends building rows of soil at least 6 inches high and setting the plants approximately 2 to 3 feet apart within rows.
“Rows should have 4 to 5 feet between them to provide adequate walking space between rows once plants have reached maturity,” she says.
“Tomatoes are heavy nitrogen feeders,” Fontenot says. “You should always add 2 to 3 pounds of complete fertilizer – like 13-13-13 – per 100 square feet of garden space prior to planting.”
As the plants begin to grow, look for signs of nitrogen deficiencies – generally a yellowing of lower leaves. Add half a pound of calcium nitrate or a quarter pound of ammonium nitrate per 100 feet of row each week once the first flowers and fruit have set. These fertilizers should be added to the sides of rows – a process called sidedressing.
“If you plant tomatoes in pots, be sure to locate them near a water hose,” Fontenot says. “Don’t let tomatoes wilt severely. If they wilt, you will have a decreased yield and poor-quality fruit.”
If you plant tomatoes in the ground, consider drip-line irrigation, which reduces water evaporation. It is best to irrigate deeply and infrequently rather than frequent, shallow irrigation.
Tomatoes can be prone to insect and disease problems, and Fontenot suggests three management strategies to prevent most disease and insect damage.
First, it is best to water tomatoes at the base of the plant.
Second, once the plants have finished producing fruit, remove old plants and decaying fruit to prevent disease and insects damage in your next garden.
Finally, rotate crops to prevent a buildup of insects and soil-borne diseases.
Further questions and growing tips can be found by searching the LSU AgCenter Web site at www.lsuagcenter.com.