1201 S. Madison Street
Webb City, Missouri 64870
Tomatoes is by far, one of the most popular crops grown by home gardeners in our area. As our greenhouse has grown, our selection of tomato plants has grown to about 100 different varieties in the peak of the season (April). Through years of working with gardeners and growing our own tomatoes, we have compiled some information to help you have a great harvest.
Preparing Your Garden Soil
Preparing your garden soil is one of the most important steps in growing great tomatoes. Generally, the soil in our area is close to a neutral ph – around 7 which is great. However, your soil needs new organic materials regularly to feed beneficial insects in the soil. Organic materials range anywhere from composted leaves to animal manures. We have found that Back to Nature’s cotton burr compost is one of our most successful additions to our garden. It has a neutral pH and adds great texture to our soil. You need to apply about 3” to your soil and work it into the top 8-12” of soil.
Many people also like to add manure to their gardens – we carry Earthgro’s Organic Humus and Manure. The bag is 90% humus (composted organic matter) and 10% composted cow manure. This adds both food for your beneficial insects as well as a slow release fertilizer from the manure.
Tomatoes are heavy feeders. There are several ways to provide organic nutrients to your tomato plants. We like a mixture of 1 cup kelp meal, 1 cup bone meal and ¾ cup dolomite lime per plant. These are all slow release fertilizers which will provide nutrients over time without sending plants into shock like you get with many chemically created fertilizers. The kelp meal is an excellent all-around plant nutrient that is rich in micronutrients. Bone meal has a high phosphorous content to help with flowers and fruit and lime prevents calcium deficiency which will cause blossom end rot. Do not add a fertilizer to your plants that has high nitrogen content (the first number on the back of the package i.e. 23-8-8). High nitrogen will cause the plant to add foliage but not bloom and can encourage blossom end rot.
An old-time gardener’s remedy is to add Epson salts -- one or two tablespoons per hole -- when transplanting tomatoes. Epson salts add magnesium, an important plant nutrient. In addition, many people dry eggshells slowly using just a pilot light in the oven. They then crumble the eggshells and mix them into the soil around tomatoes since they are 93% calcium carbonate (great for blossom end rot prevention), 1% nitrogen and ½% phosphoric acid plus they have trace minerals.
Selecting the Plant
Heirloom versus Hybrid?
In last few years, we have been bombarded with questions about open pollinated varieties, heirlooms and hybrids. Let me give you the quick and easy and you can decide which is best for you.
Heirloom varieties are types of plants that have been passed down by gardeners over a period of time – usually at least 50 years. Although open pollinated and heirloom are separate types – I’ll just lump them together. Heirlooms/open pollinated are unique because their seeds can be saved and when planted, they will produce plants just like the parent plant. Heirlooms are grown for their large variety, varying available colors and for their great flavors and different textures. Heirlooms, however, more difficult to grow and more susceptible to diseases.
Hybrid plants are created when growers combine two types of plants to get the best qualities of each plant into one. Seeds saved from these plants will not produce a plant like the parent plant. With time, hybrids may become more stable and the seeds will be more reliable. Hybrids are faster, easier, more disease tolerant and offer a larger production than heirlooms. However, heirlooms often have a better taste than hybrids although some of the newer hybrids are improving.
The first step is selecting the best variety for your taste as well as the best variety for your garden space. I have listed below the suggestions from the Missouri Extension office.
Better Boy (VFN)
An old standby with vigorous, productive plants, Better Boy has maintained its popularity for many years. Fruits are firm and globe-shaped and may weigh up to about one pound. Quality is good, and production is abundant. Matures in about 75 days.
Big Beef (VFN)
This variety has a greater range of disease resistance than many others and won an All-America Selections award in 1994. Fruits are smooth and red, may weigh 10 to 12 ounces and are produced abundantly. Matures in about 73 days.
This variety was an All-America Selections winner in 1984 and continues to be popular. Plants are determinate, which indicates that vines are short and bushy, not lending themselves to staking. Fruits are firm and red and weigh 7 to 8 ounces. Plants are highly productive, and first harvest can be expected in about 70 days.
Early Girl (VF)
True to its name, Early Girl matures in only 52 days, making it one of the earliest varieties available. It bears medium-sized fruit of 4 to 6 ounces in abundance on indeterminate plants and probably is best suited as a companion variety to provide early tomatoes from the home garden.
Jet Star (VF)
This variety has maintained popularity and continues to be a favorite of home gardeners. Fruits are abundantly produced and weigh about 8 ounces. Fruits are crack-resistant, meaty and flavorful. Considered relatively low in acidity.
Lemon Boy (VFN)
For gardeners interested in yellow tomatoes, Lemon Boy is a newer variety that is productive and attractive. Fruits are not a golden color like varieties such as Carolina Gold but are lighter yellow. Fruits are firm and weigh about 6 to 7 ounces. Plants are vigorous and productive and mature in about 72 days.
Mountain Fresh Plus (VFN)
This hybrid, semideterminate tomato matures in about 75 days. The globe-shaped fruit has a concentrated set with good size and external appearance. Performs well staked or in cages.
Supersweet 100 (VF)
This vigorous, indeterminate variety yields hundreds of small cherry tomatoes with incredible flavor. Bite-sized fruit are borne in grapelike clusters and are widely known for their sweetness. Plants mature in about 65 days.
Interdeterminate versus determinate varieties
Determinate varieties of tomatoes reach a certain size and then stop growing. These are commonly called bush tomatoes and are the earliest maturing. They require little care to grow. Once they set their fruit, they normally do not continue to bloom. These are also recommended when you want to can tomatoes since their fruits normally mature at the same time – usually within 2 weeks – and then the plant dies. You should not prune or “sucker” determinate plants since it can severely reduce the crop. Popular varieities are Rutgers, Celebrity, Amish Paste and Roma tomatoes.
The stems of indeterminate varieties of tomatoes grow throughout the plant life forming tomato vines that continue to add side branches. To maximize fruit production, these varieties require constant pruning (removing the lower “suckers” and staking. Indeterminate plants flower and produce throughout the season. Popular varieties are Beefsteak, Big Beef, Big Boy and most cherry varieties to name a few.
Planting Your Tomatoes
Tomatoes require full sun and good drainage. In addition, they need to be at least 50’ from the nearest walnut trees since they emit juglone - an agent that kills the roots of sensitive plants like tomatoes. In Missouri, we plant after the last frost – usually between April 20 – May 15. Bush (determinate) tomatoes require spacing of 24-36” with rows 4-5’ apart where vining (indeterminate) plants require 36” spacing.
Many commercial farmers are now covering the ground with black, plastic sheeting and then planting the tomatoes in holes in the sheeting. This keeps the ground warm, keeps weeds away from the plant and keeps dirt from splashing onto the plants. However, the home gardener will need to figure out a watering system to get water to the plant roots such as soaker hoses or drip watering.
Since tomatoes are able to develop roots along their stems, you should bury them deeper than the container you purchased them in. This gives the tomatoes a large, deep root system that will help it weather the dry hot summer as it matures. The Extension agency recommends up to the lower level of leaves, however, many gardeners leave just a few of the top leaves showing. This requires a deep hole, so if you don’t want to dig such a large hole, you can dig a shallow tunnel and the plant sideways leaving just a few leaves exposed. It will straighten up and grow towards the sun as it matures.
Maintaining Your Tomatoes
Most tomatoes require staking or tomato cages to keep them healthy. Vining or indeterminate plants require large cages since they continue to grow throughout the season and many of their fruits are large. Bush tomatoes or determinate varieities may do well with just staking since their fruits are usually smaller and not as heavy as the vining varieties.
At home, we like to garden as organically as possible. One of the gardens worst enemies is Sevin Dust. Last year, it went on the EPA watch list for chemicals which means it will probably disappear within the next few years and for good reason! Sevin dust kills earthworms, bees, fish, invertebrates, crustaceans and tadpoles depending on the concentration. In addition, it has been shown to cause neurological problems in humans and pets. There are many ways to control both diseases and insects with either natural remedies or organic products.
ORGANIC INSECT CONTROL
In our home garden, we use Diatomaceous Earth. Diatomaceous earth (DE) consists of fossilized remains of diatoms, a type of hard-shelled algae. As an organic product, it is safe up to day of harvest. We dust all our vegetable plants with this white powder. As insects walk on or digest DE, they it makes cuts that cause the insect to dehydrate and die. DE even works great for tomato hornworms or slugs. The only downside to natural insecticides is the need to reapply for frequently. Since DE is a powder, it washes off with rain and must be reapplied. I usually don’t have a need for insecticides anyway until the days get hotter and rain is less frequent so I may go a few weeks between applications.
If we are having serious worm problems, we also use organic Dipel Dust or Bacillus thuringiensis. It is a microbial pesticide we commonly use for cabbage loopers, imported cabbage worms, tomato hornworms, fruitworms and pinworms, corn earworms. It only kills “segmented” worms so it doesn’t have earthworms and other friendlies. As these segmented worms eat the dust, they loose their appetite and develop severe indigestion that leads to death. As with diatomaceous earth, Dipel dust can be washed off and must be reapplied after rains but it can be applied up to harvest.
Tomatoes need fertilizer for good production. Don’t fertilize until the first fruits are at least 1” or the size of a walnut. We like to use kelp meal and fish fertilizer. The kelp provides 12% potassium and trace elements and the fish emulsion is an excellent source of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. It is immediately available to the plants, hard to overapply fish fertilizer. It has a little bit of a funky smell but it only lasts a few hours and it is you’ll be happy with the results! We carry Alaska Fish Fertilizer which has a 5-1-1 mix.
DISEASES AND PLANT/FRUIT DAMAGE
If you had problems with disease resistance in the past, you can start with some of the newer disease resistant varieties of plants. Look on the tag for VFN which stands for resistance to verticulum wilt, fusarium wilt and nematodes.
Other diseases such as early blight can be caused by heavy amounts of rainfall. Good drainage and proper plant spacing for good air circulation can minimize your plants’ risk for developing blight. The first signs of blight are the lower foliage turn yellow and drop and the fruit develop circular dark to black spots. I remove all the leaves affected and take them out of the garden. Don’t let dead leaves or fruit sit on the ground below your plants since rain can splash soil-born diseases back up on your plants. Daconil can be used for early blight once the fruit is set (at least 1” in diameter). Apply Daconil in 1-2 week intervals. You can also check out our page on natural garden remedies for more fixes for blight that you probably have in your cupboard.
Blossom end rot is a very common problem for our customers. If you did not add lime or eggshells to your soil, you may develop soft, rotting spots on the blossom end of the tomato. End rot is also caused by drought, high salt levels in the soil, fertilizers with too much nitrogen or uneven soil moisture. For a quick fix, we have both a concentrate and a ready to use product called Blossom End Rot by Fertilome works great to reverse the deficiency.
WHAT CAUSES BLOSSOM DROP IN TOMATOES
Blossom drop is a frustrating problem for many home gardeners. Tomatoes can drop their blossoms for a variety of reasons – most related to either temperature and/or stress. Below are the most common reasons for blossom drop.