Information Possibly Outdated
The information presented on this page was originally released on April 28, 1997. It may not be outdated, but please search our site for more current information. If you plan to quote or reference this information in a publication, please check with the Extension specialist or author before proceeding.
Homegrown Tomatoes Make Friends Jealous
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Homegrown tomatoes are the envy of most Mississippians, but fortunately, growing these summer delicacies is not as difficult as some may think.
Dr. Rick Snyder, extension vegetable specialist in Crystal Springs, said home gardeners can produce fine tomatoes in their own plots. It just requires a little know-how and attention to details.
Snyder said tomatoes should be in the ground around the middle of April to be the envy of friends and neighbors in the summer. Tomatoes planted earlier face a chance of frost, and those planted in mid-April usually catch up to tomatoes planted in cooler soil.
Tomatoes grow best in well-drained, thoroughly tilled soil and respond well to compost and manure, Snyder said. The plants should be planted deep and set 2 feet apart for best yield.
"If the plants are the least bit leggy, plant them so that most of the stem is buried," Snyder said. "You can do this by digging a trench, laying the plant in it and curving the stem so only the top of the plant shows. The stem will grow roots and the plant will be even better off than if planted upright."
Placing mulch around the tomatoes reduces weeds and keeps moisture in the root zone. Snyder recommended using any type of organic mulch or black plastic with the tomatoes planted inside circles cut in the plastic.
Once in the ground, tomatoes need an average of one and a quarter inches of water a week.
"It's always better with tomatoes to give them one good watering per week rather than a little squirt every day or two," Snyder said. "If you water just a little, the roots don't get soaked and tend to grow shallow rather than deep."
Once growing, stake the tomatoes before they fall over. This can be done with a wire cage or a 4- to 5-foot wooden stake. If using the stake, loosely tie string or nylon stockings around the plant and fasten it firmly to the stake.
Cages work well, but make it difficult to sucker the plants.
"Suckering is removing vegetative shoots to limit the overall size of the plant," Snyder said. "The plant normally makes lots of branches and each of these can produce fruit clusters and make more branches. You end up with a bushy small plant with lots of small fruit."
Snyder recommended removing suckers up to the first fruit cluster. Suckers, found where the leaf meets the stem, can be snapped off by hand. With fewer branches, the plant's yield stays constant because the average fruit size increases.
Tomato plants need to be fertilized to produce their best. After the first fruits appear, gardeners can side-dress the plants with nitrogen. Snyder suggested using calcium nitrate instead of ammonium nitrate because it helps prevent blossom-end rot, a common problem caused by a lack of calcium in the fruit.
Another additive, wood ashes, helps tomato plants by raising the pH level if the ground is too acidic. Wood ashes are loaded with potassium, but should be applied sparingly.
Commercial fertilizers work well, but are often too strong if used at the recommended doses, Snyder said.
"One of the most common problems gardeners have is the plants look beautiful, but have no fruit at all," he said. "This is a symptom of over-fertilizing. The plants have way too much nitrogen."
Gardeners who are new to growing tomatoes may want to try "Celebrity," which Snyder called one of the best home garden varieties available.