THE HOW DO GARDENER: Tomato time planting tips

A tomato plant that was planted horizontally to encourage a strong root system. (Photo by Rick Bickling)

By Rick Bickling

It’s that time of the year again. Time to plant tomatoes here in the Liberty Hill area!

One of my earliest childhood memories comes from a time when the milk, the bread, and, where I grew up, the potato chips, were delivered to your front doorstep. It was a time when the local grocery store only had fresh produce that was locally grown and was currently in season. Apples from China, or lettuce from Chile were about as common as carrots from the Moon. For me, that meant a long cold winter waiting and longing for the first fresh homegrown tomato of the season. Once that first tomato was ripe, we’d carefully pick it, wash it, and cut it into thick slices that were lovingly placed between two pieces of white bread with nothing more than just some mayonnaise, salt and pepper. It makes my mouth water just thinking about it.

No home vegetable garden is complete without a good crop of tomatoes. The tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum) is a warm-season crop and one of the most popular, and easily grown vegetables in the country. Once you’ve tasted a fresh picked tomato from your own garden, you’ll wonder what those bland, waxy, tasteless red orbs are that you’ve been getting from your grocery store produce section.

According to the USDA, tomatoes are low in Sodium, and very low in Saturated Fat and Cholesterol. They are also a good source of Vitamin E (Alpha Tocopherol), Thiamin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Magnesium, Phosphorus and Copper, and a very good source of Dietary Fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Potassium and Manganese.

Tomatoes can be grown either from seed started indoors, or from transplants purchased at your local garden center. This is now prime tomato planting time here in Central Texas as our planting season runs from March 15 to April 10. There is usually a large selection of transplants available at reasonable prices this time of the year, and transplants are usually the easiest way to start your tomatoes. Select healthy plants that are six to eight inches tall.

Check to be sure that the transplants are not root bound. That is, that they don’t have a large amount of roots poking out of the bottom of the pot.

It’s really too late to start tomatoes from seed for this growing season, so wait until this coming fall or next spring to do so. To start your own tomato plants from seed, plant the seeds in a light, seed starter type, soil mixture at least four to seven weeks before they are to be planted outdoors in your garden.

One week before they are to be planted, harden-off the tomato plants by placing the potted plants in your garden to gradually expose them to increased amounts of sunlight.

Tomatoes come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, colors, and varieties and are classified as being either determinate or indeterminate. Determinate varieties stop growing once the plant sets fruit and the entire crop is produced all at one time. Indeterminate varieties continue to grow and set fruit as long as the temperature permits.

Tomatoes do best in well-drained soil that is rich in organic matter and with a pH in the range of 6.2 to 6.8. They require at least six hours of sunlight per day. Although tomatoes love warm weather, once daytime temperatures rise above 95 degrees, nighttime temperatures stay above 85 degrees or fall below 55 degrees, tomato flowers will no longer set fruit.

If you tried to grow tomatoes last year, you will remember that it turned real hot, real early on in the year. That’s why you were lucky if you were able to get any tomatoes at all from your plants. It turned hot so early in the growing season that the plants were not able to set fruit.

The Texas AgriLife Extension Service in Williamson County recommends the following tomato varieties for our area. Listed next to each variety is the average number of days to harvest after planting for that variety.

Standard

Big Beef  – 73

Black Krim – 80

Celebrity – 70

Early Girl – 57

First Lady – 66

Sunmaster – 74

Yellow Stuffer – 76

Cherry

Juliet – 62

Sugary – 60

Sweet Baby Girl – 65

Sweet Olive – 57

Sweet 100 – 60

Yellow Pear – 78

Paste

Roma – 78

Viva Italia – 72

An excellent way to encourage a vigorous root system on your tomato plants is to lay the plant on its side when planting. Dig a hole that is as deep as the transplant root ball is wide. Next, dig a shallow trench just below the surface to bury the transplant’s stem in. Leave the top three to four inches of the plant sticking out of the ground and pile a little bit of dirt under this part to angle it slightly upward. Be sure to carefully trim off any leaves that are to be buried. Within a few days the plant will be completely vertical.

If left to their own devices, tomatoes will grow only so tall before they fall over and grow along the ground. This encourages disease, poor fruit production, and is not an efficient use of space. Use stakes or cages to help support your tomatoes and keep them growing upright. Place the stake or cage in the ground shortly after planting to minimize possible root damage. If using stakes, they should be about six feet tall and the tomato plant should be loosely tied to the stake at 10-inch intervals to support the plant.

Tomatoes need about one to two inches of water per week. A good way to help keep them from drying out and wilting is to put a two-inch layer of mulch around each plant. If you don’t have adequate rainfall, water them once or twice a week. Consider drip irrigation as it conserves moisture and avoids getting the plant’s foliage wet, which can cause diseases. Fertilize your plants once every week or two with an application of a balanced fertilizer.

Tomatoes are relatively hardy but are affected by several insects and diseases. Hornworms are three-inch-long curled caterpillars that cut plants off at the soil line, chew 1/4’’ holes in pods or seeds, and oc­casionally chew leaves. Apply a Bacillus thuringiensis based insecticide to control them. Whiteflies are small, whit­ish insects that may be found in masses on the underside of leaves. Hose off the underside of leaves to knock off aphids or apply an insecticidal soap. Neem oil, sulfur, and other fungicides can be used to help prevent blossom-end rot.

Deer or bird net is always a good idea, once the plants have set fruit, to keep our furry and feathered friends from enjoying our tomatoes before we do.

Harvest tomatoes when they are fully ripe. If you harvest them while they are still green, they can be allowed to ripen over time in the house. Keep unripe tomatoes in a well-ventilated area at room temperature until they are ripe. While fully ripe tomatoes can be kept fresh in the refrigerator for several weeks, never store green tomatoes in the refrigerator.

I don’t think I can really do too much to bring back the good old days of milk and bread being delivered to your front door. But, by following these tips, you should be able to enjoy that first fresh tomato from your garden in about 60 to 80 days from now. So, get out there, get a hold of some tomato transplants, and plant them now.

Enjoy your gardening and enjoy your harvest.

Rick Bickling is a certified Master Gardener in Williamson County. He developed a love for gardening as a boy while planting gardens, trees and shrubs with his father and grandfather. He has been designing, planting and maintaining landscapes and gardens for more than 30 years. As a Master Gardener, Rick is able to share the research tested horticultural information of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service with readers of The Independent.

For more information, visit www.howdogardener.com or reach Rick by email at howdogardener@LHIndependent.com