Strategies for Maximum Tomato Production

When engaging the general public about vegetable gardening, it is evident that most people’s growing experience seems to be centered on raising tomatoes. Little wonder, as you really can’t beat a fresh, perfectly ripened, fully organic tomato picked straight from the backyard! From the feedback we’ve received, these gardening experiences seem to run the gamut from bust to bumper crops. In this report we hope to aid you in your cultivation of bountiful, juicy and nutritious tomatoes that you can enjoy year-round, either fresh off the vine or canned in the pantry.

HEIRLOOM TOMATO VARIETIES
Choosing your heirloom tomato varieties is only the first step for the survival gardener. There are over 1,500 breeds of heirloom tomatoes, but the ones we’ve placed in our Texas Ready banks are six of the best varieties available. They are hardy, productive, easy to grow and perform well throughout the US. Texas Ready is constantly experimenting with growing strategies to give you advice on the very best gardening practices. We currently have test gardens in Michigan and Texas, and hope to add an Arizona location soon.

SOIL COMPOSITION
Tomatoes require a lot of humus, a proper balance of plant nutrients and great compost. Humus is a product of anaerobic fermentation which occurs when organic material decomposes in an oxygen-deprived environment. As fermentation occurs, the rotting matter releases methane gas. Compost is a product of aerobic decomposition which occurs when organic material decays in the presence of oxygen. As nitrogen and carbon react, energy is released in the form of heat, resulting in compost. Anything that has seeds in it should go through the composting process where the seeds will be destroyed in the 140-160 degree temperatures. That way, when compost goes into your garden, you will not be adding future weeds.

Proper soil nutrition is critical for good yields. Of course, one can purchase fertilizer at the store, but we strongly encourage you to lean toward sustainable, natural solutions. There may come a day when you won’t be able to run out and buy bags of fertilizer or loads of compost, so if you learn how to make your own now, you’ll be way ahead of the curve. If you are a second year gardener, it is definitely time to put these skills into your toolkit. One of the best books on this subject is The New Self-Sufficient Gardener, which we sell for $20.

Nitrogen
This is needed for strong stems, leaves and stalks. But don’t feed your plants nitrogen throughout the growing season or all you’ll get is a lovely tomato bush with small fruit. On the other hand, if the plant’s lower leaves turn yellow or the growth seems stunted, nitrogen is probably needed. You are striving for the characteristic deep blue-green color on foliage; when it is present, you can be assured there is adequate nitrogen. Sources include compost and fully rotted manure.

Potassium
Potassium keeps your plants strong and healthy. Without it, your plants will be much more susceptible to diseases. Yellow spots on the leaves or small, stunted plants indicate a potassium deficiency. Good sources are wood ashes, banana peels and compost.

Phosphorus
This nutrient helps in the production of the fruit and especially the flowers. Phosphorus promotes growth and health by helping the plant develop a strong root system. A purplish hue on the underside of the leaves indicates a phosphorus deficiency. Use aged chicken manure, bone meal or phosphate rock.

Calcium
Tomato plants will not develop without calcium. This nutrient also helps prevent blossom end rot.  Sources of calcium are crushed egg shells, bone meal and ground limestone. Calcium is not contained in most commercial fertilizers, though it may be present in fertilizers specifically made for tomatoes. But given that it’s so easy to add it yourself, why bother purchasing expensive fertilizer?

GERMINATION & SEEDLING DEVELOPMENT
January is the time to start tomato seedlings. Warm the dirt by growing in trays set next to a warm window or with special mats designed to heat the soil. (These may be purchased online or through your nursery supply house.) You’ll have to transplant the seedlings several times before putting the plants outside. Transplanting encourages root development. By the time your spring frost date occurs, you should have transplanted the seedlings from the seed tray into a 2″ pot and then again into a 4″ pot. Even better, move up to a 6″ pot.  By this time your plants should be at least 18-24″ tall and have flower clusters on them. I usually plant twice as many seeds as needed so that I can select the biggest and best specimens for the garden.

Once your evening temperatures exceed 70 degrees, fruiting is greatly reduced, if not impossible. Thus, if you plant too late in the season you won’t get many tomatoes. In the south it’s especially important to start seeds early due to our very hot summers.

GRUBS & CUTWORMS
If you have chickens, send them into the garden a few days before planting. They will churn up the soil and enjoy a fine protein meal! If you don’t have chickens, cover 2” cardboard tubes with aluminum foil or fashion metal cylinders from small tin cans. Once your tomatoes are transplanted into the garden, place one of these collars around each plant at soil level. Be careful not to break the tips of the plant!

TRANSPLANTING INTO THE GARDEN
Tomato plants need a lot of wind movement around them, both for pollination and for keeping your plants healthy. Don’t plant closer than three feet; if you have the room, four feet apart is better still. If you are able to dig a deep hole (up to 24”) simply add your fertilizer mix (explained below), insert your plant, fill in the rest of the hole (leaving only the top six inches of leaves exposed) and water thoroughly.

If you have a raised bed style garden, you won’t be able to dig a very deep hole. Instead, dig a trench that is 4” wide and 18″ long. Put your fertilizer in one end of the trench and lay the plant in the trench with the root ball resting on top of the fertilizer. Daily water only the root ball and soon you will see the tip of the plant begin to rise. In a few days the tip will straighten up. At this point cover the entire plant with soil, leaving only the top 6” exposed. Water the length of the covered up stem, but make sure soil isn’t splashed up onto the foliage. (And keep that strategy up throughout the growing season.) Fungal diseases spread when spores from the soil splash onto plant leaves. A drip irrigation system or soaker hose will help to prevent this from happening.

INITIAL FERTILIZATION
When digging holes for your plants, add a tablespoon of Epsom salts and a pound of aged animal manure. It is best not to use rabbit, sheep, goat, worm, llama or alpaca manure as these break down too quickly. Preferred would be horse or chicken manure (aged at least a year) or cow manure (aged at least two months).

If you don’t have access to manure, here’s a good replacement recipe (be sure to wear gloves when mixing, due to the presence of blood and bone meal).

Component  /  Contribution
1 tablespoon blood meal  /  Nitrogen
½ cup bone meal  /  Phosphorus & Calcium
½ cup green sand (found in better nurseries)  /  Trace minerals
1 tablespoon Epsom salts*  /  Sulfur & Magnesium
1 banana  /  Potassium
2 crushed Tums tablets  /  Calcium
14 crushed, low-dosage Aspirin tablets  /  Natural rooting compound

*  Epsom salts are not the same as table salt (sodium chloride) and are safe to use in your garden.

MULCHING
Tomatoes benefit from heavy mulching, so mulch immediately after watering in. This will also help prevent soil from splashing onto the plant when it rains. As the plants grow, deepen the mulch layer to about one foot by June 1. This will control weeds, add a slight amount of nutrition, and preserve needed moisture. Mulch with fresh (less than 24 hours old) grass clippings, as long as you are sure that no chemicals were used on the lawn. Alfalfa or prairie hay also works well. Wood chips are too big and too acidic, especially if they include cedar.

WATERING
Tomatoes should be lightly watered daily. This will reduce blossom rot and help prevent the shoulders of the fruit from cracking. (Texas Ready varieties tend to be crack resistant.) Water deeply once or twice a week to encourage root growth, and do so slowly so that the water will soak in and not run off. The soil 6 inches down should be moist. In a humid environment, avoid overhead watering as this can lead to fungal diseases. If you must do overhead watering, do it early in the morning. Be sure not to water excessively as doing so will suffocate the roots. The soil should not stay soggy, so reach down regularly to check the moisture content.

TOMATO CLASSIFICATION
Tomatoes are classified by their growth habits. Indeterminate varieties are those that produce tall vines which will continue to grow and produce blossoms until frost kills them. At Epcot, there are tomato plants that have been producing fruit for many years and are well over fifty feet long. On a single vine you will find fruit in all stages of development, as the growing tips continually produce flowers. In one season these vines can easily grow over ten feet! Obviously, these plants will quickly outgrow your average three-tier tomato cages or tomato stakes. Sections of 4’ X 8’ cattle panel can be used either in straight runs or formed into circles utilizing four or five strong metal clips to hold the ends together. When you rotate your crops, simply move the cattle panels as well, or grow other vine crops on them.

Although you may certainly freeze or can indeterminate tomatoes, these varieties are more often used for fresh eating since they produce a little bit over a long period of time (unlike determinate varieties which produce a whole lot in a short period of time). Little Cherry Reds and Beefsteaks are examples of indeterminate varieties.

Determinate tomato varieties have a compact, bushy growth habit. They stop growing at a certain size (usually 3-4 feet) and then produce all their fruit at one time. The fruit forms in clusters at the tips of the branches, and production occurs within a tight 3-4 week window. Since determinate tomatoes ripen together, they make a great choice for canning and freezing. Once the main crop has been harvested, the plants go downhill quickly. These are easier to grow in containers than indeterminate varieties. Roma, Rutgers, Marglobe and Homestead are examples of determinant varieties.

Other tomato varieties fall in between and are called Semi-Determinate. Larger than determinant varieties, they will not grow as big as the true vining type indeterminate tomatoes. They have a flourish of production at one time, yet continue to produce sporadically the rest of the season. There are no semi-determinate varieties in a Texas Ready seed bank.

DISEASES
Disease prevention begins with the daily removal of dead leaves, other plant debris, unused stakes and ties, etc. Crop rotation is also important: a vegetable bed should only be used to grow members of the Nightshade family (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, peppers, tobacco and moon flowers) once every 3-4 years. It would be good to follow tomatoes with green beans to add nitrogen back into the soil or cucumbers because they are completely unrelated and rarely suffer from the same insect or disease problems.

Septoria Spot & Early Blight
Tomatoes are susceptible to several leaf spot diseases. For instance, early blight is caused by a fungus that overwinters on plant debris in the garden. It can persist at least a year without a host or be introduced through infected transplants.

These diseases start close to the ground and work their way up the plant. The oldest leaves are infected first as spring rain splashes up from the ground, carrying spores of the fungus that overwintered on debris from your last garden.

The leaves develop dark brown spots with concentric rings, and some yellowing might also be present. Spots range from the size of a pin-prick to a nickel. The disease flourishes when there is heavy dew and/or rainfall, moderate weather (75-85 degrees) and high humidity. It is perfectly acceptable for organic gardeners to use non-toxic copper based fungicides and soaps. Once these diseases get started, they are very difficult to control. As a precaution, you can spray weekly commencing at fruit set and continuing until dry weather begins in the summer.

Blossom End Rot
If you see immature fruit with a black or rotten spot on the bottom, you have blossom end rot. It appears as dark brown or leathery black areas on the bottom of maturing tomatoes. Despite its name, blossom rot is a nutrient deficiency rather than a disease and it can easily be corrected. There are three causes: insufficient calcium, a drastic fluctuation in soil moisture and/or over-cultivation with a hoe that chops away small feeder roots. Bear in mind that even though you might have sufficient calcium in your soil, if there is not enough consistent moisture available, the calcium will not be assimilated by your plants.

Blossom Drop
Blossom drop naturally occurs when a flower dies before it is pollinated. It is not a disease, but can be exacerbated by a lack of calcium or potassium. Once you see tomato blossoms starting to form, place crushed eggshells or Tums tablets at the base of each plant. (Dry out the eggshells so that they will be less attractive to fire ants.) Use banana peels to provide adequate potassium. Place them next to the stems of your tomato plants, cover with half an inch of dirt and water in.

Tomatoes have perfect flowers (meaning that each flower has both male and female parts) which are pollinated primarily through motion and not by insects. If there is little or no wind, gently shake the plants a couple of times each day. An electric toothbrush may be used to vibrate the blossoms, or you can also use a clean make-up or artist brush which takes longer.

Italian growers employ an interesting technique with nursery-raised tomatoes, which you might try as well. Line up several tomato plants and stretch a string lengthwise about eight feet above the plants. Drop a line from the horizontal string down to the soil near the base of each plant. Reduce each plant to the strongest single vine and train the vines to grow up the strings. By twanging the horizontal string twice a day you’ll pollinate every tomato plant in the nursery at the same time! Note that this technique will only work with indeterminate varieties.

A word about Blossom Set Spray. When pollination occurs, tomato plants release a hormone called Auxin which tells the plant to start developing fruit. However, if your fruit production parameters are not right (high temperatures, too much wind, too little calcium, too much or too little water, etc.) this hormone won’t be released no matter how much set spray you use. Your dollars are better spent elsewhere.

ONGOING FERTILIZATION
If your soil is good you won’t need to add additional fertilizer. However, foliar spraying two to four times a month will still help to nourish and strengthen your plants. Liquid seaweed or fish emulsion will add nitrogen, and a 1:10 solution of dissolved Epsom salts and water will provide other nutrients.

We also recommend feedings of compost tea every two weeks. There are numerous recipes for making such a solution. Try blending two pounds of sheep, cow, goat, alpaca or llama manure into five gallons of fresh water. (You may also use worm castings – my preference – or alfalfa pellets.) Let the tea steep 24 hours before watering your plants.

INSECT PESTS
Good soil produces hardy plants, and bugs can be nature’s way of removing plants that are unhealthy or diseased. (Insect attracting pheromones differ between plants raised with adequate fertilization and those growing in depleted soils.) So the first thing to do if you see pests is to ensure that your plants are healthy and that your nutrition and growing conditions are what they need to be. Beyond that, here are some organic solutions for commonly encountered tomato pests.

Tomato Hornworms
Anyone who has spent time growing tomatoes will be familiar with this creature! Tomato hornworms grow to four inches long and can easily be recognized by the black “horn” that projects from the rear of the green caterpillar. These “worms” represent the larval stage of the hawk or sphinx moth, also known as the hummingbird moth.

Tobacco hornworms are related and have diagonal white stripes and a red horn. Hornworm eggs are round and greenish-white. If you find these on the undersides of leaves, pull the entire leaf off and destroy it. Do not put it into your compost heap! The eggs hatch in 4-5 days and it takes about four weeks for the larvae grow to full size. Hornworms are voracious, destroying leaves, stems  and fruit. Pick them off and feed them to your chickens. If you get them early enough, your tomato plant will not be affected. And if you notice a hornworm covered with white egg sacs, leave it alone since the sacs are those of a beneficial, parasitic wasp.

Tomato Fruit Worm
These equal opportunity garden pests are also known as corn earworms or cotton bollworms. These garden pests are nocturnal and feed on leaves and stems, but prefer the fruit. They attack tomatoes by tunneling inside and hollowing out the cavity. You’ll first notice a pea-sized hole and then the tomato quickly decays and rots. Once attacked, the fruit is no longer useable. Pick affected tomatoes off the plant (or off the ground) and utterly destroy them! Be vigilant and watch your plants closely for the white or cream-colored, slightly flattened, spherical pinhead-sized eggs. They may be deposited on either side of the leaves, but usually close to the blossoms. Tomato fruit worms will grow 1-2 inches long and may be cream-colored, yellow, green, reddish or brown. Up to four generations can present themselves during one summer; mature larvae overwinter in the top 2-3 inches of soil. Apply neem oil or insecticidal soap once a week and soon after a rain; you can get these products at a good garden center or nursery supply.

Avoid planting corn and tomatoes close together, as corn is one of the more preferred fruit worm hosts. If your tomatoes  are already planted near corn, cover the tomato plants with a fine netting to prevent adult female moths from laying eggs on your plants. It is better to plant tomatoes near dill, parsley and asters which attract parasitic Trichogramma wasps. Big-eyed bugs, pirate bugs, lacewings and damsel bugs also feed on tomato fruit worms. Goldenrod, daisies, alfalfa and stinging nettle will attract these beneficial insects.

Red Spider Mites & Aphids
Grow French Marigolds alongside your tomatoes as their pheromones repel aphids. If you see aphids or mites (which are arachnids, not insects), the first thing to do is to blast the majority of them away with a strong stream of water. Then drench the leaves with a solution of dishwashing liquid (Dawn works best) and water. If that doesn’t work, try an insecticidal soap, neem oil or pyrethrum-based liquid, all of which can be found at your local nursery. You can also create your own oil-soap mixture by combining vegetable oil and dish soap in a 4:1 ratio. To dilute, place one tablespoon of this mixture in one quart of water and spritz throughout your garden. You may also purchase beneficial insects such as lady bugs, predatory mites or praying mantises. When releasing lady bugs, be sure that you mist the area first and then release them at dusk or your investment will soon fly away!

This report is by no means the last word on tomato raising, but it should get you off to a good start. If you are growing tomatoes from seeds contained in your Texas Ready Liberty Seed Bank, we would love to see pictures. Please email them to seeds@TexasReady.net and let us know how your garden is faring. And if you have yet to purchase a Liberty Seed Bank, be advised that we offer both a Northern and a Southern bank depending on your growing zone. Each bank comes in five different sizes and contains over eighty varieties of non-GMO, non-hybrid heirloom seed (including six different tomatoes, both determinate and indeterminate). There is no better bank, and no better value! Go to http://www.TexasReady.net for more information or to place your order.

May God Bless your Garden!

 – The Seed Lady

2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    JJM said,

    Tomatoes can be finicky. Last year my spring plantings produced a few fruits before spider mites attacked. Last fall plantings did good and were transplanted to new patch this spring. They were doing good until another spider mite infestation. Tried the rubbing alcohol and water solution that killed the mites until eggs hatched. 2nd application also included some diamotaceous earth mixed in. A 3rd treatment occurred while I sprayed a flea killer to help my dog, I decided to get the mites as well and hope I didn’t kill too many beneficials. Now hoping for recovery before the heat sinks in.

  2. 2

    Thanks for your input, JJM. When it comes to dealing with pests, we need numerous solutions in our tool kits. Depending on numerous factors, what works today may not work tomorrow!


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