How Can I Grow Better Tomatoes?

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We are finally past the last frost dates and people are starting or already have started their summer gardens! Before it gets too late in the gardening season, I always like to remind folks of these tips and tricks related to the success of their tomato plants.

 Variety Selection

There are endless amounts of tomato varieties. Choosing a certain variety can actually help eliminate certain diseases that are prevalent in tomatoes. When searching for a tomato variety, I will always recommend going with a Mountain Series tomato (Mountain Magic, Mountain Pride, Mountain Fresh, etc.). These tomatoes were bred by our NC State Mountain Research Station and have genes that are resistant to certain diseases. You can identify what certain diseases these varieties are resistant to by these letters following their names like:  V, F, and N meaning they carry resistance to verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, and root-knot nematodes.

 Site considerations

Amend your clay! Your soil can be improved by working in 2 to 3 inches of compost, peat moss, or other forms of organic matter in the top 6 to 9 inches of your topsoil.

Rotate! Do not plant your tomatoes where other plants in the Solanaceae (Nightshade) family were planted within the last 2 years. Other common crops in the Nightshade family are eggplants, peppers, and potatoes. By rotating crop families, you can help to break disease and pest cycles associated with the soil. Plant tomatoes spaced at least 2 feet apart so that there will be good air flow to aid in pollination and drying of leaves after showers and heavy dew events.

 Trellising

Trellising can be as simple as using cages but, a lot of times people grow multiple tomato plants and buying multiple cages may not be feasible. This is where the Basket Weave or “Florida Weave” comes into play! The Florida Weave is a simple, yet very effective way to trellis multiple tomatoes with a low cost input!

The Basket Weave or Florida Weave is a common way to stake field tomatoes. Staking is important to reduce fruit rots, sunscald, and foliar diseases.

The Basket Weave or Florida Weave is a common way to stake field tomatoes. Staking is important to reduce fruit rots, sunscald, and foliar diseases.

You’ll need wood or metal T posts at either end of your rows and tomato twine! You will tie your string to one end of the stake and weave in and out of your tomato plants and tie the string to the stake at the other end of your bed. You’ll repeat this process 2-3x per tomato row.

Essentially, you are sandwiching the plants between two walls or baskets of twine. This will keep the plants upright and keep them from cascading out into the rows. Not only will this make it much easier for you to harvest, it is important for managing plant diseases. Click for more information on the Florida Weave.

Pruning

Pruning tomato plants should include removing these two things; lower leaves and suckers. By pruning lower leaves, you are freeing up nutrients to be allocated elsewhere other than the lower leaves that aren’t doing much. You also get rid of the closest leaves to the soil. This is important because a lot of tomato diseases are soil borne, so less leaf contact with the soil, the better!

Suckers are stems that form in between your main stem and the leaves of your tomatoes. By pruning these out, it will improve air circulation, tomato size, and overall viger of your plant.

Mulching

Mulch around those tomatoes! This will reduce soil-borne disease issues. Soil will not have the chance to splash up on your lower tomato leaves, therefore reducing your chances of spreading soil-borne diseases. Mulching also helps retain moisture and shade out weeds.

Scouting

If you’ve ever grown tomatoes, you know that they are susceptible to disease and pests! The tips above are all preventative measures, but that doesn’t mean they’re 100% foolproof. You should always be scouting your garden for pests. Most tomato diseases need warm, moist conditions to survive. Early blight, Gray Leaf Spot, Southern Blight, are all diseases that this time of year has perfect conditions for. Scout what is around your garden. Are the weeds around your garden showing signs of disease or pests? Be sure to keep weedy borders mowed and plant flowers to attract beneficial insects which will prey on some of those pests. Thoroughly scout fields and spray only when necessary.

Try these methods and see if they improve your tomatoes in the garden this year!

Click for more information on how to grow better tomatoes.

Click for more information on growing tomatoes in the home garden.