I love tomatoes! Canning them, freezing them, drying them, pickling them, roasting them and saucing them is my idea of fun. Tomatoes, basil and mozzarella define the taste of summer for me.
Growing up in cool, dry, New England, I spent most every August canning tomatoes with my mother. You can imagine my despair when moving to the hot, humid,fungal jungle we call the South East. I found growing bountiful crops of tomatoes to be next to impossible.This went on for quite a few years until I attended an enlightening lecture given by one of the developers of the Cherokee Purple Tomatoes. Since then I have stuck to a few simple tomato growing rules with great success!
Pathogens are always in the soil, period! They splash up onto the leaves and stems of your plants and slowly take over. You can avoid the fungal pests that invade your tomato leaves by planting your seedlings in fresh soil every year, not in the ground but in pots. I use Sunshine mix, compost and organic slow-acting nutrients. Happy Frog makes a wonderful fertilizer for tomatoes. Putting my tomatoes in Smart Pot grow bags makes this extremely easy. At the end of the season, the soil can be disposed of in a part of the garden where fungi and blight will not come near any of your nightshade plants. The grow bags can be washed out, dried, folded up and stored for the winter.
Another important regimine that I strongly recommend is to never water the plants from above. Always use a drip hose and carefully water below the bottom leaves keeping all the leaves dry.
Mulch each plant heavily to retain consistent moisture and to keep pathogens from splashing up onto the leaves and stem. Keep three feet of space in between your plants for air circulation, which is key to their health.
Start with healthy, disease-resistant varieties. There are many organic out there. Eva Purple Ball, Matt’s Wild Cherry, Mortgage Lifter, Roma VF, Virginia select paste tomatoes are but a few. Some varieties have letters after their names to indicate which pathogens they show resistance to. For instance, VF stands for Verticillium Wilt and Fusarium Wilt. For a complete list and explanation of disease resistant varieties, visit one of our suppliers’ websites, e.g. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. You will find them at www.southernexposure.com. One reminder that disease-resistant does not mean disease-proof. Disease resistant means that the resistant varieties are less likely to develop that particular disease(s).
Begin fertilizing your tomatoes with a gentle nutrient, slightly higher in nitrogen, only after the plants have set their first blooms. Exposing them to too much nitrogen too early will cause you to grow a bountiful green plant with less fruit. Fertilize every two weeks after the initial treatment with a 5-10-5 organic fertilizer. I prefer the organic varieties as they are slow acting and the root development can keep pace with leaf and fruit development, which helps keep the entire plant happy and healthy.
One way to avoid heat damage and blight is to grow determinant varieties, they produce a large crop of fruit at one time, usually within a two to three week time frame from the first ripening fruit. They usually fruit early in the season. At the end of this cycle the plant will die. These varieties are perfect for canning, freezing and drying. Indeterminate varieties will produce throughout the summer, but not quite as vigorously.
I plant my tomatoes deep, leaving 2-3 leaf sets above the soil. This gives the roots a cool, moist base, allowing the plant to set more roots along the buried stem. This provides the plant with more nutrient and moisture-seeking ability.
When starting your tomatoes from seed, do so in the spring with seeding cells and trays with grow lights. Our nano domes are perfect for this task. Do not up pot them outside until the overnight temperature is above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures below 50 degrees will damage the plant and inhibit its ability to mature into a healthy adult. There are new varieties that have been developed to thrive in cooler environments; such as Black Krim, Paul Robeson, and Tommy Toes, to name a few, but most varieties will suffer in the cold..
Conversely, many varieties will stop producing in the brutal heat of the summer. A bit of shade cloth is recommended to help the plants though the hot summer and into the cooler fall temperatures, when they may start to produce fruit again.
Spraying your newly planted seedlings with an organic fungicide is a good practice. Actinovate and Serenade work well for this.
One last thought. A lot of people spend too much time pruning their tomatoes and swear by the results. One benefit of pruning is more air circulation in between plants; however, the risks far outweigh the benefits. Personally, I have not found any difference in production between pruned and unpruned plants. With pruning, you are running the risk of exposing your tomato plant to pathogen invasion through open cuts.
Growing your own organic tomatoes opens up a world of healthy culinary and gardening adventures, well worth the effort.