TEN MISTAKES TO AVOID WHEN GROWING TOMATOES
By Steve Reiners, Associate Professor of Horticultural Sciences, Cornell University
GENEVA, NY: Tomatoes are a multi-purpose fruit that
some people will argue are vegetables. Fresh, cooked or canned, there
are a multitude of different uses, although most will argue, "fresher,
the better." For people with a little extra time and soil, homegrown
tomatoes can't be beat. However, for those with little or no experience
tending their own tomato garden, enjoying a rich harvest can be trickier
than it looks. Here are the 10 most common mistakes to avoid when
growing and harvesting your own tomatoes.
1) Choose the right variety
- Some tomato varieties
are determinate type plants, meaning they may grow to about three feet
in height and then stop. Others, especially most of the heirloom types,
are indeterminate, meaning they will grew as high as you allow them to
grow. If your space is limited, choose determinate types like Celebrity,
Sunbeam or Mountain Spring.
2) Don't plant them too close - Tomato plants need
at least 1 1/2 feet between plants, preferably 2 feet, and that's for
plants that are grown upright on stakes or cages. If no support is given
and they are allowed to sprawl on the ground, tomato plants need twice
as much room. Plants spaced too closely will produce few fruit and have
more disease problems as the foliage stays wet. Plant according to how
big they will get, not on the size of the transplants.
3) Plant what you can use - I love tomatoes. My two
kids and wife love tomatoes. But for us, six plants is usually more than
enough, and that leaves us with enough to supply my non-tomato growing
neighbors. Save room for other vegetables and flowers.
4) Don't plant in shady spots
- Tomato plants, like
any plant that produces fruit, need at least seven hours of direct sun.
If you have less, you will have fantastic foliage but very few fruit.
There is nothing-repeat, nothing-that can overcome this light
requirement. Fruit production takes a tremendous amount of energy, and
tomato plants, like all plants, get that energy from the sun.
5) Feed the plants, but not too much -Tomatoes like
a balanced fertilizer, with similar amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and
potassium. Avoid using fertilizers that are intended for lawns. The high
nitrogen will push the leaves at the expense of fruit. Look for
fertilizers designed for tomatoes and follow the label directions. Or
better yet, throw a shovel full of compost around the plants every other
6) Don't lose sleep over pruning -
will grow just fine without pruning. Pruning refers to removing the
sideshoots or suckers that come off the main shoot. Pruning will help
control the size of the plant and can keep the plants more manageable,
which is usually desirable in a small garden. Pruning will result in
slightly fewer total fruit but the fruit will be slightly larger. You
will likely get more but slightly smaller fruit from non-pruned plants.
Do what you're comfortable with.
7) Keep the plants well watered - When the soil
around tomato plants dries out, a serious problem results. Calcium, one
of the handful of minerals needed by all plants to grow, is absorbed by
the plant's roots along with water. If water is limited, so is calcium.
The result is blossom-end rot, a brown, dry, leathery spot found on the
bottom of fruit. Don't be fooled by magic remedies that promise to fix
this. Special fertilizers, egg shells or a Tums tablet placed next to
the plant won't make a difference. Only water will make the difference.
So make sure your soils don't dry out and use mulch to help conserve
8) Don't remove leaves or branches from mature plants with
fruit - Some people think that tomato fruit need direct
sunlight to ripen. This is untrue. Pruning the plant prior to fruiting
is fine, as discussed earlier, but never remove foliage from a mature
plant. This exposes fruit to direct sun and can lead to sunscald, a
yellowing of the side exposed to the sun. The same holds true for green
fruit you are ripening inside. Do not put them on a sunny windowsill.
Instead put them in a paper bag and place them out of direct light.
9) Identify your pest problems - Remember, it's
normal to see insects on your plants and chances are, most of them are
not doing any harm. And every year, diseases will cause some yellowing
and browning. But you should get more than enough fruit to satisfy your
needs even with some pest damage. At the very least, learn to identify
common tomato pests so that you can take appropriate action. Use
chemicals as a last resort.
10) Don't put fruit in your refrigerator -
done everything right and now it's time to pick the first fruit, but
don't be tempted to put that fruit in the refrigerator. Temperatures
below 55F will destroy the fragile balance of sugars, acids and other
flavor inducing compounds. Leave tomatoes at room temperature, away from
direct sunlight. If you want them to ripen faster, put them in a brown
Stephen Reiners is associate professor of horticultural sciences
at Cornell University, at the New York State Agricultural Experiment
Station in Geneva, NY. His field research is designed to maintain and
enhance the profitability and sustainability of New York vegetable
farmers with an emphasis on processing crops such as sweet corn,
cabbage, beets and peas.