The Plant Doctor: You say tomato, I’ll say how to grow one

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By far the most popular vegetable grown during the gardening season is the tomato. Red, firm, succulent — an absolute delight to behold. No fat or cholesterol to worry about, a minimum amount of calories, and chock-full of vitamins and minerals. Cook it, dice it, slice it or eat it right off the vine. Add salt, pepper or salad dressing, or just enjoy it for its natural taste. This column is beginning to read like a script from the food channel. Perhaps we should leave, but only for a moment, the feasting pleasures of the tomato and direct our attention to selecting, growing and harvesting the crop.

Tomatoes come in four basic varieties, usually according to size. They are the cherry, medium, plum and beefsteak. Some of the more common varieties of these type tomatoes include the gardeners delight — cherry tomatoes, Better Boy medium tomatoes, Roma plum tomatoes and Beefmaster beefsteak tomatoes. To be sure, each year horticulturists develop improved varieties of these basic species. Indeed for a change in both color and taste, you may wish to try a yellow tomato.

In general, cherry and medium tomato plants will mature in about 60 to 65 days. Most plum and beefsteak tomatoes mature in about 70 to 80 days. Carefully selecting the correct variety will allow the patient gardener to have a crop of tomatoes from early July through September.

By the time you are reading this column, you are approaching the ideal season for planting tomato seedlings. Generally, I plant the seedlings after the danger of evening frost has passed — most often by mid-May. I select seedlings that are pot grown and are about 6 to 8 inches long. The leaves should be a full, rich green color, and the roots should be white. I avoid plants that are root bound or where the leaves are yellow and hang on scraggly stems.

Tomatoes require three basic ingredients to grow properly and to yield a bumper crop. The first is a soil that is humus rich. Compost-enriched soil and weekly feeding will be required to meet the nutritional needs of this fast-growing plant.

Tomato plants prefer a sunny location that is somewhat protected from wind and the excessive heat that generally occurs mid-day during July and August.

Finally, these plants consume a huge amount of water. They wilt easily, even after being watered in the morning. Better to water the plants several times during the day than to provide a drenching watering once a day.

If the preparation is done properly, you should begin to see clusters of yellow flowers developing throughout the plant. The yellow flowers signal the location for the future development of the tomato, singular for the beefsteak, and often in clusters for the cherry. As the fruits develop, the tomato plant will begin to sag from the weight of the vegetation. Tomato plants must be tied to a stake or wire cage for support. Some tomato plants can grow to 6 to 8 feet; thus the stakes have to be rather thick and tall to support these heavily fruited plants.

After four to six flower bunches have grown, you might wish to pinch the top of the plant in order to inhibit any additional vegetative growth. The plant now will focus on the production of additional flowers and resulting fruit, instead of growing taller.

The most common problem that occurs in growing tomatoes involves the appearance of split skins. The cause usually is irregular watering. The gardener who waters heavily one day and allows the plant to dry the next will cause the skin of the developing tomato to split. As suggested earlier, give these plants a steady supply of water. If it is particularly hot, you may consider watering the plants several times during the day.

Aphids and other pests sometimes menace your plants. These six-legged creatures enjoy the vegetation almost as much as you do. I am not in favor of using chemical pesticides on vegetation I intend to eat; therefore, the best control is biological. One suggestion is to plant marigolds, poppies and nasturtiums between your plants because they attract insects that eat tomato pests such as aphids.

Holes in fruits may signal the presence of the dreaded tomato hornworm. Remove the damaged fruit and pick off the caterpillars. The hornworm is a rather large caterpillar; its presence is easily discovered. Several species of wasps may help you in this effort. Some wasps lay eggs on the caterpillar; the larvae drive into the caterpillar after they have hatched from their eggs and mature in the now deceased host.

Just as too little water becomes a problem, too much water also can cause severe problems. A clue to overwatering or when we experience a particularly wet summer is brown leaves and black stems. Calcium deficiency and irregular watering can cause a condition known as blossom-end rot. The symptoms include a brown leathery appearance on the bottom of the fruits. Once more, regular watering, coupled with a fertilizer that includes some calcium will prevent this condition.

When the season is over, pick the still unripe red tomatoes and place them in a container or bag with some ripe apples or bananas. The ripening agents released by these fruits will stimulate the tomato plant to ripen as well.

Questions or comments on gardening and plant care should be addressed to The Plant Doctor. C/o Queens Publishing Company, 41-02 Bell Boulevard, Bayside, New York 11361.Or e-mail

Posted 7:06 pm, October 10, 2011
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