Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Tomatoes: Grow perfect summer beauties

Enjoy beauties from your garden

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 04/19/07

Few things say summer like a plump, juicy, bright red tomato — the kind that slips and slides between two mandatory slices of white bread slathered with that other key ingredient, a heaping helping of mayo.

By spring, the hunger for fresh tomatoes grows so intense it prompts even the brownest of thumbs to grab a six-pack of plants at the garden center and stick them in the ground. But unbeknownst to them, there's real science to growing a tomato and, what's more, a real art to cultivating the perfect one. Little wonder, then, that mistakes are as rampant as the diseases that plague the beloved fruit — so many they prompt cries of help that light up the switchboard all summer for gardening guru Walter Reeves' Saturday morning radio call-in show.
Chris Hunt/Staff

"Almost always I get, 'My tomato has early blight. What do I do?' " says Reeves, host of "The Lawn & Garden Show" on WSB-AM. "The disease splashes up off the ground onto the plant, and by July the leaves turn yellow and fall off." (His solution: Spray with Daconil and mulch plants early on to prevent the disease from spreading.)

Despite the challenges, many gardeners manage each year to produce a bumper crop of big fat tomatoes — sought-after commodities for Plant a Row for the Hungry, a metro area food drive that collects fresh vegetables for charities.

"There is something special about food that is grown locally and with tender loving care," says Bill Bolling, executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, which distributes the produce to member agencies.

Just ask Daryl Pulis, who grows all her vegetables from seed, including heirloom varieties of tomatoes.

"I've been planting heirlooms for 20 years, back before anyone called them that," says Pulis, who lives in Cumming.

A Master Gardener, Pulis says the biggest mistakes gardeners make in growing tomatoes, whether heirlooms or hybrids, is planting them too early, instead of waiting until soil warms, and not giving them enough space. "They read the Yankee gardening book that tells them to plant tomatoes 18 inches apart," she says. "They may not get too big up north, but down here plants get huge, so you've got to give them room to spread out."

Here's what she and Reeves recommend for growing the perfect tomato:

Choosing a variety

Select one known to adapt well to your area that offers good disease resistance, such as Big Boy, Better Boy, Rutgers, Celebrity and First Lady. Among heirlooms, which typically taste better but offer less disease resistance, Pulis recommends Stupice and Arkansas Traveler.

"The wonderful thing about Stupice is it's just the right size to eat and won't flop over the sides of a sandwich," she says. "And if you slice one and don't use it all, the flavor doesn't disappear when it's refrigerated." Choose healthy plants with no signs of yellowing or spots on leaves and ones without blooms, which force the plant to spend its energy producing fruit instead of establishing roots.

Selecting a site

Plant tomatoes in a site that offers full sunlight, loose, well-drained soil and access to irrigation. "Too many try to grow them in shade, which forces the plant to stretch," Reeves says. "You may have some tomatoes but not many."

Have your soil tested if you don't know its pH; tomatoes prefer one between 6.2 and 6.8. A test (kits are available from county Extension Service offices) may show a need for fertilizer or lime.

Setting out plants

Plant tomato plants 8 to 10 inches deep (up to the first two leaves) so that only a few inches of plant are showing, and space them at least 2 feet apart. If planting in containers, avoid overcrowding and use no more than one or two plants for a whiskey-barrel-size pot. Water the plants well and add mulch, such as pine straw or newspaper, to help soil retain moisture and prevent the spread of disease from soil to plant. "Not mulching is probably the biggest mistake people make," Reeves says.

Giving support

Tomatoes thrive on trellising — but don't crowd them with cone-shaped cages that quickly prove too small. "I use those for pepper plants instead," Pulis says. Instead, she recommends looping mesh concrete-reinforcing wire into a 24-inch diameter cylinder. Using bolt cutters, remove the bottom ring of wire and use the remaining vertical prongs to stabilize the cage in the ground.

Caring for plants

Tomatoes require 1 to 1 1/2 inches of water per week. Set out an open tuna fish can to gauge that amount. Avoid overwatering plants, which can lead to problems like blossom end rot, in which the base of the fruit turns to mush. Avoid fluctuations between wet and dry by keeping soil evenly moist.

Harvesting the fruit

Show some willpower and avoid picking tomatoes until they are red but still firm. Once that occurs, bring on the white bread — and don't forget the Hellmann's!

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