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Jessica Walliser

5 steps to the perfect home-grown tomatoes

Jessica Walliser
| Saturday, May 19, 2018, 5:13 p.m.
Tomato plants are heavy feeders, but not just any plant food will do.
Jessica Walliser
Tomato plants are heavy feeders, but not just any plant food will do.

Now that the weather has warmed and the threat of frost is no longer in the forecast, tomato season is upon us. Tomatoes are among the most popular crops for home gardeners and deservedly so. There's no store-bought comparison to a tomato picked right out of your own backyard. If you'd like to improve your tomato crop for the coming season, here are some tomato-growing tips to get you started.

Tip 1: Pick the good ones. When shopping for tomato plants at your local garden center, look for a variety that's suited to your needs. If you grow tomatoes in containers, be sure to select a cultivar that's bred to be short statured. Ones with “patio,” “bush” or “dwarf” in the varietal name or on the description on the pot tag are a good place to start. Also be on the lookout for varieties with proven disease resistance, in addition to flavor and fruit size. Pick transplants that have healthy, green foliage and crisp, white roots. Avoid any that have spots on the leaves or a yellow color.

Tip 2: Plant 'em deep. Take a close look at the stem of your tomato transplant. All the little hairs you see along the stem have the potential to turn into roots. It's a trait that isn't very common in the plant world, but tomatoes have the ability to develop an extensive root system from all those little hairs, but only if the hairs are buried in the ground. To encourage a deep root system, tomato plants should be planted very deep. Pinch or trim off all the lower leaves and bury the stem in a deep hole or trench so that only the top three or four leaves remain above the soil's surface. Deep planting like this makes the plants more drought tolerant and better able to access nutrients in the soil.

Tip 3: Mulch well. Not only does a 2- to 3-inch-thick layer of mulch help reduce weed pressure and cut down on watering, it also helps suppress some common tomato diseases. The spores of certain blights and leaf spot diseases live in the soil and can easily splash up onto tomato leaves when it rains, infecting the leaves and causing plant decline. When a layer of mulch is applied over the soil's surface immediately after planting and prior to watering the plants in, the disease spores cannot splash up on the foliage. The mulch forms a protective barrier. Straw, shredded leaves, or untreated grass clippings are all good mulch choices for the veggie patch.

Tip 4: Water like you mean it. One of the most common physiological issues affecting tomatoes is blossom end rot. This disorder appears as a dark, sunken canker at the bottom end of the growing fruits. While it's symptomatic of a calcium deficiency, it does not necessarily mean you need to add calcium to your soil. Instead, it means you aren't watering your plants properly or consistently. The only way calcium can get into a plant is via a process called mass flow, where the calcium gets sucked into the plant with water. If your tomato plants are subjected to periods of drought or irregular watering, they don't have access to the calcium in the soil and the result is blossom end rot. The solution to this problem is simple: water like you mean it. Instead of just sprinkling a little water on the soil every day or two, water the plants deeply and thoroughly once a week. Let the water soak down deep instead of just wetting the soil's surface. If you grow your tomatoes in pots, water them daily, but make sure you apply enough to cause excess water to drain out the hole in the bottom of the pot. Never let tomato plants dry out to the point of wilting.

Tip 5: Keep the plants well fed. Tomato plants are heavy feeders, but not just any plant food will do. If you use a fertilizer that's too high in nitrogen, your plants will be huge and the foliage lush, but there will be little or no flowers or fruits. Instead, opt for an organic fertilizer that's slightly higher in phosphorous (the middle of the three numbers on the bag or bottle). Phosphorous is used for root, flower and fruit production, so it's a must for good yields. I use a complete granular organic fertilizer on my tomatoes that's Nitrogen-Phosphorous-Potassium (N-P-K) ratio is 3-4-3. It works like a charm.

With these tips and plenty of sunshine, you're sure to have a high-yielding tomato patch this summer.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden,” “Good Bug, Bad Bug,” and her newest title, “Container Gardening Complete.” Her website is Send your gardening or landscaping questions to or The Good Earth, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601.

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