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Thu, Oct. 17

Tomatoes in the garden are a sure sign of spring

Mother's Day marks the beginning of the season to plant warm weather vegetables, but many people have fudged and begun planting already. Of all the vegetables available to plant in the home garden, tomatoes reign supreme. There has been more books written on the subject, and more tomatoes planted, than any other vegetable.

Each gardener has his own preference, and in each area, depending on climate and conditions, you'll find types grown nowhere else in the country. There are aficionados of heirloom types and advocates of newer hybrids created for their size and disease resistance. Often a garden will contain choices from both categories since "old-fashioned taste" plus giant size is desirable.

It's amazing to think that this revered red globe that graces our sandwiches, salads and pasta may never have gotten off the ground so to speak when we consider it's lowly beginnings.

Centuries ago people in Mexico and South America enjoyed this fruit and they found tomatoes in ruins, sun dried, at many digs south of the border. We know for a fact that they were even grown in Italy, Spain and France as early as 1544, but it took the English a full century before they would even grow them as a curiosity. In our own country's infancy they were distained. It took an adventurous person in Maine to grow and eat them expounding on their taste and desirability in the diet of the common man. The fact that tomatoes are in the nightshade family (solanaceae) probably kept people from being enthusiastic about consuming these beautiful fruits.

To grow any number of Lycopersicon esculentum (try saying that one fast) one should be aware of it's basic cultural needs. Tomatoes like it warm but not too warm.

Tomatoes like deep, compost-rich soil that drains well with at least six hours of sun. The pH should be neutral to slightly acidic.

Tomatoes are deeply rooted and to accommodate roots, dig the planting hole deep, keeping the plant constantly moist, as they are vigorous growers. Early in spring the best way to plant is by digging the hole deeply, adding amendments then placing the plant on it's side only slightly under the soil, covering the vine up to the top third with dirt. The stem will root, giving it the advantage of more soil area to draw from and the top portion of the soil is warmer. As the season progress and the soil warms, you may simply dig a deeper hole so the roots are well below the soil area. It's best to remove all but the top leaves when planting this way. No matter what the season, the tomato plant should be buried somewhat.

To get the best results from your tomato, place slow-release fertilizer in the hole prior to planting and cover with soil and mulch before placing the plant in the hole.

The addition of calcium is very necessary to help prevent "blossom-end rot" as lack of calcium and inconsistent watering habits cause the lower part of the fruit to harden, turn brown and disfigure the tomato. Bone meal is often recommended as a supplement to help this situation, and will take a while to work as bone meal takes almost six months to become readily available to the plant. A handful or two of gypsum in the hole is the best bet. Use the extra to help loosen soil containing caliche. It's cheap and is not a fertilizer but an amendment.

If blossom-end rot becomes a problem down the road you can purchase "Cactus Juice" a liquid that contains calcium. It's a quick fix since using hard-boiled egg water is not always effective.

If you live at a higher elevation, it's best to pick tomato varieties that are smaller or set earlier, types that set fruit in cooler weather. In warmer areas types that set fruit in hotter conditions, and larger tomatoes can be grown. You may not find your favorite type in the nursery if you're from Alaska or Florida, as these types do not to do well here.

Crop rotation is often the best way to prevent past problems from becoming current ones. Tomatoes planted year after year in the same spot may deplete the soil of nutrients and offer diseases a wonderful place to continue if you've had past problems. Tomato hornworms winter over in the soil, erupting just when your tomatoes have gotten off to a good start. The cocoon looks sort of like a 2-inch long brown ancient water jug with a handle. When turning the soil, remove these and smash them or put in the garbage.

Arizona does not grow tomatoes commercially because of a tiny insect called a "leaf hopper." These hop or travel from one plant to another as they feed carrying diseases such as verticillium and fusarium wilt. Planting early encourages their dispersal as the tomato plants offer them dinner. Planting out at the proper time misses the hatch of these insects. It's best to pick tomato varieties that have the letters V N T F after the name ensuring you of resistance to verticillium wilt, nematodes (not a big problem,) tobacco mosaic (never touch or handle tomato plants if you smoke without washing your hands or throw cigarettes in the garden) and fusarium wilt. Often the "F" will have a one or two which simply means race one or two, different types of the disease.

The main reasons gardeners have problems with growing tomatoes is planting too early in the year when the soil is not warm, choosing varieties that will not grow in our area (usually this happens when ordered from out of state) or achieve their full size (not a long enough growing period), placing them in too much shade or where sick tomatoes have been grown before and, lastly, improper watering habits and lack of fertilizer, either organic (the best) or commercial. They are heavy feeders and love moist soil.

A tomato blossom will last for about 50 hours then it will fall off if not pollinated. Look at where it is attached and you'll see a detachment area where the blossom grows. Nothing is eating them. They just haven't seen a bee, ant, wasp, butterfly or other insect. Often you may have to resort to tomato spray, a hormone that aids in fruit setting. Once you've sprayed DO NOT SPRAY AGAIN or the flower will drop on the stigma creating a tomato. Some people even use a battery-powered toothbrush to vibrate the pollen where it belongs. These tricks are only necessary in normal seasons early on.

(Kate King is a certified nursery professional and gardening consultant. E-mail your questions to

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