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6:06 AM Tue, Sept. 25th

Here's to growing a successful tomato garden

Courtesy photo

Courtesy photo

The number one vegetable planted in local gardens is the tomato. With that in mind, my annual 'Great Tomato Event' kicks off this weekend at the garden center.

The program includes special classes on growing tomatoes, plants grown specifically for the week's event, companion plants to tomatoes, and a horticulturalist with an extensive tomato background answering questions. In short, all the information necessary to begin planning and planting this year's tomatoes!

First, let me mention the tomato that is featured at this week's event, the ever- popular Beefsteak. The taste is a perfect balance of acidic and sweet properties for the very best tomato on BLT sandwiches, salads, salsas, canning, cooking, etc.

Beefsteak tomatoes have huge fruits that can weigh 2 pounds, with more than 50 lbs of tomatoes possible from a single vine. Because of the size of this fruit, it takes longer to ripen; so the secret is to start early and with the largest plant possible. Fortunately, this year's crop came in exceptionally large; these plants are already setting blossoms and had to be caged in their pots because of their size! Use an 'Early Season Plant Protector' to protect against frost and be amazed at this year's fruit count, its size and flavor that can only be found in a home grown tomato.

How a vine is grown will determine if it produces loads of beautiful tomatoes or a few small fruits on weak plants. The method used is the key to success.

I have four separate plantings each year that allow for BLTs from June through October. The first planting is a small one planted under the protection of my 'Early Season Plant Protectors' that allow a 3-4 week jump on the season. These mini tee-pees fold over each plant and keep them warm at night, much like a greenhouse. This first planting is completed by the end of April, or three weeks prior to the last frost. Secrets for a successful first, smaller planting is choosing the largest plants available and planting them under Plant Protectors.

The main planting is done the first part of May. This crop is the best performer, benefiting from warm temperatures and minimal disease and insect attacks. It will produce fruit in July and early August. I then set out two smaller plantings, one around June 1 and the other before the summer solstice. This schedule provides our table with tomatoes well into fall.

Tomato foliage diseases can be ruthless. Without weekly spraying of fungicides I will lose several plants as they defoliate. Instead of lots of spraying, I plan on a tomato plant to produce fruit for about five weeks, then I remove it and replace it with a new plant. This eliminates the need for excessive spraying and keeps my garden supplied with young, vibrant vines. The few extra plants cost far less than a toxic spray, and increases production.

I like to grow tomatoes up a trellis or a chain link fence so I can fan out each plant. I use flexible 1/2" green tie tape to secure the vines to the fence.

There is a point early in the season when plants have too much foliage material, and pruning is necessary. About three weeks after planting, the first flower clusters appear along with new shoots, side branches and suckers. Remove the lower foliage, new shoots and future flowers that try to grow below the first forming fruit clusters. Removing the new shoots at this point, when they are no thicker than a pencil, sends a signal to the plant to concentrate its resources on setting fruit. This little trick produces larger fruits earlier in the season. Once the plants have set the first fruit, they are better able to balance themselves between fruit set and plant growth.

From this point on, until the BLT feasting begins, I continue to tie the tomatoes up to the trellis or fence, making sure they have the perfect amount of water. Too little water can set plants back and may lead to blossom-end rot, because the plants cannot move enough calcium up into the fruit. Once the fruits start to turn color, excess water will cause the skin to split or crack. Never, ever water a vegetable garden at night; early morning is best. Drip or some type of soaker irrigation is ideal because it doesn't wet the foliage.

The major antagonists of successful tomatoes are tomato hornworms. I spray reluctantly and only if damage goes beyond tolerance. I really like Bacillus thuringiensis, or (BT) for short, a bacterium that attacks a worm's digestive system. Most years, one or maybe two treatments do the trick and keep this huge green plant eater in check.

The end of May will find me eagerly looking for the first ripe fruits. It's in anticipation of the many times in the season when I will stand at the cutting board with slices of bread, juicy red tomatoes, mayonnaise, and a touch of basil. It's my favorite way to savor every bite of that flavor that is uniquely home grown.

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If you can't make it to this weekend's 'Great Tomato Event', don't despair. My new easy care handout on "Growing Better Tomatoes" is free for the asking.

Until next week, I'll see you down the Tomato Aisle.

Throughout the week Ken Lain is at Watters Garden Center, 1815 W. Iron Springs Road, Prescott, and can be contacted through his website at www.wattersonline.com. Ken says, "My personal mission is to help local homeowners garden better in our mountain landscapes."