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Have you ever … ?

My children have made a clubhouse out of one of the old buildings on our property. While I was working outside the other day (not eavesdropping of course), I overheard them playing a game called “Have You Ever … fill in the blank?” The way the game worked was they would ask, “Have you ever … jumped in a ditch?” I didn’t stay long, I honestly didn’t want to hear what questions may come next! But, it got me thinking about the situation we are in with COVID-19 and the number of folks that have started a garden for the first time! Have you ever … had a garden?

I was on another endless Zoom conference last week and one of the agents was talking about the number of calls she has had this year from first-time gardeners. She mentioned that it was all about tomatoes, like they are a gateway drug into gardening. That got me thinking too! She was right, one of the first plants folks dive into is the tomato. Tomatoes are like a universal garden starter kit. However, tomatoes can be difficult and disease-prone plants in the garden if conditions aren’t great. What a way to start!

There are few other plants in the garden that can grow as well or as long as the tomato in good conditions. To begin with, there are two general types of tomato: determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes will grow to three to four feet and will produce fruit for about four to five weeks. This type of tomato does well in containers and is generally good for canning because the fruit is set all at one time and ripens quickly.

Indeterminate tomatoes, in contrast, grow all season long until killed by frost. This type of tomato needs plenty of room to grow and plenty of staking. They will typically set new fruit every week. This fruit will develop and mature over time but once you start harvesting fruit, you will generally pick once or twice per week from each plant.

No matter what type of tomato you decide upon, the site conditions have got to be favorable for good growth. This plant likes to get upwards of eight hours of direct sunlight per day. This does not mean that you can’t grow them in a lower light condition, but if you get less than six hours of direct sunlight, they generally perform poorly. Deep, well-drained but moist soil is another must have. To explain a little further, this means the soil stays moist in between irrigation or precipitation events but not saturated.

Like most plants, tomatoes do not like wet feet. This means the roots are in saturated soil all of the time leading to root-rot diseases. Deep soil means the roots have plenty of room to grow deep. Tomatoes planted deeply will grow roots for the entire length of the buried stem. This will promote a healthy root system supporting a more plentiful harvest. Make certain the plants receive at least 1 inch of water every week. Usually, we can achieve this with timely rains but you may need to supplement every once in a while, by watering the plants. If you are growing in sandy soil, it drains a little quicker, requiring more water to sustain the plants. In these conditions, you may need 1 ½ to 2 inches per week.

There are more than 1,000 different varieties of tomato from which to choose. There are heirlooms such as German Johnson or Cherokee Purple. There are hybrids with amazing disease tolerance such as Red Bounty or Mountain Merit. Tomatoes also come in all different sizes from huge (beefsteak) to small (cherry or grape tomatoes).

Getting back to disease and pest issues, there are a few that can be difficult. Normally, cultural practices can hold many of these diseases at bay. We need to make sure that the soil is fertile for instance. The best way to do this is through sending a soil sample to North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services for analysis. The sample kits are available at your local extension center and the analysis is free.

For your efforts, you will receive a report complete with recommendations for lime and fertilizer to help your plants grow. This is especially important for tomatoes to keep blossom end-rot at bay. This is a physiological response in the fruit due to not having enough available calcium. This is one of the main problems I see with growing tomatoes is Southern Bacterial Wilt. This is a bacterial disease that plagues the plants when they are not rotated with other crops. In order to have a good chance at escaping this disease, do not grow anything from the Solanaceous family in the same spot for a three-year rotation. This means if you have tomatoes, peppers, potatoes or eggplant growing that spot this year, you should not plant them in that spot again until three season from now. There are a few other diseases that I see, but most of them are tolerable, and the plants will still produce plenty of fruit.

Be on the lookout for tomato horn worms. These will defoliate the plants and cause poor fruit set. They are green caterpillars with what looks like a unicorn horn. A few are tolerable and will most likely fall prey to predatory wasps. If you see one of these worms with what looks like white alien protrusions, it is best to not spray unless you have a bunch of worms. These protrusions are wasp eggs that will hatch into larvae, the larvae then eat the worm from the inside out! Crop rotation will help with insect pests, as well.

If you are growing tomatoes or other crops and would like more information or have an issue, give me a call or send an email. We will have Extension Master Gardeners back to help with questions this week as well. If you have other questions or concerns involving horticulture, email gene_fox@ncsu.edu or call 252-946-0111. Our office is open to the public, and I am working and ready to help you!

Gene Fox is the area consumer horticulture agent with North Caroline Cooperative Extension.