Monday, April 18, 2011

Grow Tomatoes! How-to and Tips

My family and I consume lots of tomatoes. After all, they're a southern food favorite! Want to know how to grow tomatoes for a survival garden? Growing a vegetable garden can be one of the most satisfying activities you'll ever experience, and a good garden could mean survival for you and your family. You'll get all kinds of vegetable gardening tips from well meaning friends and neighbors - so much so that you might feel overwhelmed if you're a beginning vegetable gardener. Vegetable gardening for beginners can, indeed, seem like a daunting task.
Vegetable gardening, however, doesn't have to be so confusing. Just read what you can about the vegetables you want to grow, roll up your sleeves, and get to work!
As a vegetable gardener, one of my favorite vegetables to grow is tomatoes. Or is that a fruit? I think that debate is still raging. Nothing beats the taste of a tomato fresh out of the garden! And I’m convinced that South Georgia grows the best in the world. I can just hear you readers in other parts of the country arguing with me, but I’ve tried fresh tomatoes from all over, and I haven’t tasted one that matched our maters! The ones I had from Indiana were a close second, I must admit.
If you're a beginning vegetable gardener and are interested in growing tomatoes, I’ll share what I’ve learned with you. These tips might not be appropriate for your garden, depending on your soil type and endemic pests and diseases. Here in South Georgia, we have a sandy loam type of soil.
Planting – You can start with garden seeds, but plants might be better for a beginning vegetable gardener. Garden seed are cheaper, but growing tomatoes from started plants is more reliable and  quicker. We always planted our tomato plants deep so that the thirsty roots could get moisture more easily. Be sure to plant your tomatoes far enough apart, going by the directions on the plant cup for that specific type. If you don’t allow at least two feet between plants, the lack of air circulation can invite diseases. Vine tomatoes should be planted three feet apart. Rows should be four or five feet apart.
Where to plant – Grow tomatoes in bright sunshine. Tomatoes, like other vegetables, need plenty of sun. In South Georgia, however, there can be too much of a good thing. We often planted our tomatoes on the east side of taller plants like corn or okra. This gave the tomatoes some protection from the harsh afternoon sun.
Mulching – I used heavy mulch around and in between each plant. This cut down significantly on weeds and helped the plants retain moisture. I tried several different mulching materials and found that clean pine straw worked best for me. I believe you Yankees refer to this as “pine needles.” You can also use old newspaper, commercial mulch, or hay. If you use hay, however, make sure it’s free of seeds and mold.
Staking or caging – Grow tomatoes in cages or tied loosely to stakes. Tomato plants that are staked or caged are less likely to get diseases from contact with the soil. By keeping the leaves and fruits away from soil contact, you’ll have fewer problems growing tomatoes that are healthy.
Pruning and suckering – Suckers should be pinched off to make the plant bushier. Late-season varieties may also need pruning if they start to get too tall and leggy.
Fertilizing – Before planting, have your soil tested to discover what nutrients it lacks. We always add just a little all-purpose vegetable fertilizer when planting. When the first fruits are about a third of their final size, side dress with 10-10-10, at five pounds for every 100 feet. If your soil is calcium poor, add about three pounds of calcium nitrate for every 100 feet, too. These should be worked into the top inch or so of soil. Two weeks after you pick the first ripened fruits, repeat the side dressing, and again four weeks later.
Watering – Tomatoes require A LOT of water. In fact, a single plant that is producing fruit might need a gallon of water a day. You need to water deeply so that the root system will grow deep. This is sometimes a difficult process in the hot summers of South Georgia. What I did was to use plastic two-liter soda bottles with the bottom cut off. I inverted a bottle and buried it about halfway right next to the roots of each plant. I soaked the soil every day, plus I filled each bottle to serve as a reservoir. This kept the moisture at a consistent level.
Problems I've seen with growing tomatoes – and solutions
 Tobacco mosaic virus – This is the most persistent virus found among plants. It can survive for more than 50 years in dried plants, and there’s no way to cure it in a specific plant. The best thing to do is to buy plants that are resistant to the disease. Keep a close eye on your tomato plants to see if they develop TMV – look for splotches of yellow, dark green, and pale green in mosaic patterns on leaves. Fruits of affected plants will often have discolored patches and blister-like places on the skin. If you spot the virus, remove the affected plants and thoroughly wash your hands before touching healthy plants and garden tools. Also, don’t handle healthy plants after smoking.
 Blossom end rot – Tomato plants that have blossom end rot will bear fruits that have a dark spot or other discoloration at the blossom end. To prevent this common problem, add lime to the soil around the tomato plant.
 Radial cracking – This appears as cracks on the top of the fruit. To avoid this problem, make sure watering is consistent.
  Anthracnose – This is caused by a fungus. The ripe fruits are covered with dark bull’s eye shapes. Use fungicide sprays.
 Buckeye rot – This appears as brown spots on green or ripe fruits. To avoid this condition, stake plants to keep them off the soil, and make sure the soil has sufficient drainage. Crop rotation also helps.
 Fusarium wilt – Plants with fusarium wilt will have drooping leaves that turn brown and die. Buy plants that are resistant to the disease, keep soil at a pH of 6.5 -7, and practice crop rotation.
Spotted wilt virus – This virus causes new leaves to turn a bronze color, and small black specks will appear. The plants will wilt as the disease spreads. Spotted wilt virus is carried by thrips – insects that cannot be controlled with insecticides. Infected plants must be removed and destroyed. Mulching will help keep the thrips from the plants.

Early blight – This appears on the leaves as black spots surrounded by a yellow halo. Buy plants that are resistant to blight, fertilize well, and rotate crops
Sunscald – This is caused by too much sun exposure to fruits. It appears on green fruits as light colored hard spots that will eventually blister and become sunken. To avoid sunscald, provide shade for the plants during the hottest part of the day.

Stink bug damage – This one took us a while to figure out! Some of our ripe tomatoes would have white or pale yellow streaks in them. We took a couple of affected fruits to our county agent, who couldn’t identify the problem. He sent them to the University of Georgia, and the experts there told us it was a virus carried by stink bugs. We sprayed the garden with insecticide to kill the stink bugs, and the problem was solved!

Other bugs – All kinds of worms and insects might attack your tomatoes. Spray and/or dust the plants regularly to keep the pests at bay.

Survival Food
Growing tomatoes successfully can mean a bountiful crop. You’ll probably eat lots of tomatoes fresh from the garden, but you’ll likely also have plenty to put up for future survival food like tomato sauce, soup mix, and homemade ketchup. Why are such tomato products a good survival food? Because they’re loaded with a powerful antioxidant, lycopene. Cooked tomatoes also contain iron, calcium, vitamin C, and vitamin A.

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