Growing tomatoes the size of your fist
The planting season is on at the lower elevations, and only a week away for the rest of us. We've been holding back until now for fear that a late frost would damage young plants. After the wet and cold weather forecast this weekend, it's time to update the flowers and top off the vegetable garden. This is the week garden centers are at full plant capacity. You will find a glut of plants overflowing into parking lots and greenhouses, just waiting to be "taken home."
It's time to plant the number one star of most kitchen gardens, so tomatoes have taken over garden centers' display benches. Whether you are a first-time tomato gardener or had some problems last year, here are some tips for tomato harvest success. Choosing climate-appropriate varieties is a must. Because of cold night temperatures at this altitude, larger tomato varieties tend to struggle, but it is possible to grow tomatoes the size of your fist. However, to guarantee crop success, be sure to select from medium-sized tomatoes like Champion, Celebrity, Early Girl, and Better Boy. Also, any of the smaller varieties like yellow pear, cherry tomatoes, and Sweet 100's perform exceptionally well.
Tomatoes enjoy a rich garden soil that drains well. Be careful not to add too much manure to the soil as this results in a huge vine with little fruit growth. You want to starve tomatoes of nitrogen and give them plenty of phosphorus, the middle of the three numbers on a fertilizer bag. Phosphorus helps plants produce more roots and fruits, which is exactly what we want for a productive tomato plant.
Along with compost and mulch, consider turning into the soil some bone meal, 0-10-0, or triple super phosphate, 0-45-0. These additives encourage larger, better-tasting fruits. Gypsum is also recommended to produce superior tomatoes. Gypsum is made of calcium sulfate, which reduces blossom end rot and fruits that split open. Sprinkle a little gypsum in the bottom of the planting hole, cover it with just a little dirt, then top dress with "Tomato & Vegetable Food."
Always plant a tomato as deeply as possible. Tomatoes are one of the few plants that will root from the hairs on the vine. Prune off the side shoots and leaves from the bottom of the plant, 2 to 6 inches above the root ball. Then plant the vine as deeply as possible, but don't bury the attached leaves. Roots will begin to grow quickly from up and down the buried vine. This will develop into a larger, deeper root structure for your tomato plant, exactly what it needs to contend with the arid months of May and June.
Right now soils can be cool for these first summer vegetable plants. Warm the soil quickly and protect plants by surrounding them with an "Early Season Plant Protector." The water-filled tubes surround new plants and form a mini greenhouse, promoting a deeper, stronger root formation for this early planting. It really works. Personally, snow has hit my garden in the past and plants surrounded by these mini greenhouse structures kept on fruiting. Plant now and expect your harvest a full month ahead of the neighbors.
Another quick and easy plant protector is the "Nuvue Frost Cover." These spring-loaded mini pop-up tents are made of white frost blankets. Plant the garden and then cover plants with these protections against cool temperatures.
Whether using the Early Season Plant Protectors or the Nuvue Frost Covers, both are worth the investment. They are reusable for years.
If you are like I am and benefit from hands-on instruction, one-on-one tutorials, and the ability to touch and feel a plant, I have the class for you. This morning at 9:30, I will be sharing knowledge for local gardeners at a free class titled, "Bigger, Better Tomatoes & Veggies." Come early; last year the tomato class was the most popular of the season, with more than 100 gardeners in attendance. We'll be introducing a new organic plant food that really brings out the best from a vegetable garden. Hope to see you there.
I received some great photos from readers last week. I am amazed at how many beautiful plants, gardens and landscapes are grown and thrive locally. They really are very inspirational.
Remember, I give a $20 garden center gift card if your garden photo is used for this column. Submit your photographs to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or to the local garden Facebook page, www.facebook.com/watters1815. Even if your photo doesn't win a gift certificate, it will be shared on our website at www.wattersonline.com. Check out some of the entries already on display on the site's photo gallery link.
I have been stuck at 1,499 fans on the Facebook page and would like to increase that number. I answer, share, or comment on each question submitted or photo posted on the site. Gardening discussions on the page have become so exciting! We now have other gardeners answering questions or sharing their gardening experiences. This is exactly the intent of this page. By sharing, we are increasing much of the joy of this hobby we call gardening.
Until next week, I'll see you in the garden center.
Throughout the week, Ken Lain can be found at Watters Garden Center located at 1815 W. Iron Springs Road, Prescott. Contact him through www.wattersonline.com.