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Tomato Growing Tips and Culture

Always remember
1. Cheap dirt is not worth taking home, unless you have a ditch to fill, and,
2. Never plant a $5 plant in a fifty-cent hole!

In a perfect setting, 12 hours of direct sunlight will be most appreciated by your plant. Most varieties will produce well in seven or eight hours, and small to medium varieties can produce in six hours; however, expect much less production due to the shortened period of exposure.

Soil Preparation
I could write a novel on this subject alone! If you have nice, loamy and dark organic soil that is loose and fluffy, count your blessings. For the rest of us, soil amendments are a must.

In the past few years, organic soils have literally come out of the woodwork. If a bagged potting mix contains any type of synthetic starter fertilizer or moisture-holding products, it is NOT organic. I use Dr. Earth’s Premium Natural & Organic Planting Mix, which is made with fir bark, forest humus, seaweed extract, cold water kelp meal, and additional organics, topped off with Probiotic beneficial soil microbes and mycorrhizae.

If you are fortunate enough to live within driving distance of Piedmont Farm and Garden, we sell bulk mushroom compost direct from Pennsylvania’s Amish country. This compost is made up of a rich, dark, and moist mixture of wheat straw, peat moss, cottonseed meal, cottonseed hulls, corncobs, cocoa bean shells, gypsum, lime, chicken litter and horse stable bedding. If similar product is not available, most reputable garden centers (not box stores) should carry peat moss, cow/poultry manure, vermiculite, perlite, mushroom compost, or pine bark mulch. Organic soil amendments are absolutely the best for your plants.

Always remember to add new compost every year. The ideal pH is 6.0-6.5, so you may want to take a soil sample during the winter and start making the adjustments with organic fertilizers. A good rule of thumb is if you have lots of earth worms and frogs and your soil is fluffy, you have relatively healthy soil.

Water Requirements
Frequency of watering depends upon the growth stage of the vines, daily temperatures, soil type, sunlight, air movement and humidity. If Mother Nature doesn’t supply water, it may be necessary to water two or three times a week to meet the basic needs of the plant. Try not to get the foliage wet, and remember that watering early in the evaporation cycle is a factor. In addition, deep watering is always more beneficial than shallow watering.

Always wait until danger of the last average killing frost has passed. Check with your local county extension office in order to find out the exact date. Try using Gardener “season starters” to get a jump start, up to six weeks and good to 24 degrees Fahrenheit, according to packaging. Fill the season starters with water, and they will radiate energy to give off heat. Harvest Guard is another good product that can help in the event of a late spring freeze for a few nights, good for an added 5 degrees of protection for your plants.

Dig a hole at least 12 inches wide by 12-14 inches deep, and amend the soil with any of the previously mentioned organic materials. Distribute some of the best quality organic fertilizer available to the bottom of the hole (following label directions), dispensing evenly and lightly mixing. Piedmont Farm and Garden suggests the use Dr. Earth & Espoma brands. For additional calcium, we suggest adding about one half (1/2) cup of bone meal into the hole. A great benefit of organic fertilizers is their inability to burn plants when the user follows directions.

For a ten-inch tall plant, for example, remove about 3-4 sets of leaves from the bottom of the plant stem, along with any blooms that may have already formed. This action redistributes the energy the plant is using to make flowers into the root system. You should be left with a plant with approximately 3-4 inches of foliage at the top, and a stripped main stem.

Remove your plant from the planting container and place it deep inside the hole, leaving only the foliage remaining above the soil line. Fill the hole with the rich, organic, amended soil you have previously prepared. Lightly pack the soil around the plant and thoroughly water. Be careful to avoid wetting the foliage. We recommend distributing plants about three feet apart in each row, and placing rows at least four feet apart. Properly cared for and healthy Heirloom varieties can easily grow into large plants.

Plenty of organic mulches are readily available, depending on your location. Apply 3-4 inches of any of these: straw, hay, pine needles, peanut hulls, ground corn cobs, rice hulls, dried leaves, pine bark mulch, newspapers or thin sheets of cardboard. Mulch keeps the soil moist, keeps roots cooler, controls weeds, and thwarts the spread of disease by preventing water from splashing up on leaves.

There are various forms of staking materials: wooden stakes, metal cones, wire fencing, ladder trellis, tepee towers, and round cages made from reinforced wire (our favorite!). Any of these methods will keep your vines off the ground and aid in harvesting, plus insect and disease control. We prefer to stake our tomatoes on the same day they are planted, in order to protect the plant from being broken.

The question in terms of feeding is “dry vs. liquid?” We do not have a specific preference, but we suggest dry food at planting and every 2-3 weeks at the drip line of the plant (following the amount listed on the manufacturer’s label), then supplementing every couple of weeks with liquid fish, seaweed, or kelp.

Piedmont Farm and Garden sells and recommends Dr. Earth, Espoma, and Neptune’s Harvest products. A word of caution: do not over-feed. Over-feeding can result in all vegetative growth and no reproductive growth, referring to the tomato itself.

Insects and Disease
Use the following products only as needed:
  • Neem Oil for insects and diseases
  • Dipel, BT Dust, or Thuricide for worms
  • Serenade for diseases
  • Sticky Paper for whiteflies
  • Insecticidal soap for insects
Final Wrap
When tomatoes have begun to grow and have some height to them, break off every branch from the ground level up to about 14-16” high on the plant. We have discovered that this action significantly increases air circulation, and cuts down on the incidence of water splashing on foliage of the plant.