In Arkansas, we take homegrown tomatoes very seriously. They’re the number one home garden vegetable,
and everyone has their personal favorite they swear by. Whether planning long rows of tomato plants or a few pots on the patio, many gardeners are gearing up for planting, with dreams of that first bite of a juicy homegrown tomato.
What to plant
There are two main classes of tomato plants — determinate and indeterminate plants. Determinate tomatoes are often sold as bush tomatoes. These are varieties that grow to a fixed height and have all their fruit ripen in a relatively short period of time. They tend to have a stronger stem and require minimal pruning, but
staking is still encouraged (most tomatoes benefit from staking). Once they bear their fruit load, their season is
pretty much done. Celebrity, Patio, Roma and Rutgers are some commonly grown determinate varieties.
Indeterminate tomatoes, also called vining tomatoes, are those that continue to grow throughout the season. With proper care, they can set fruit until the first frost. Indeterminates can grow to a height of 10 feet or more, but most people keep them pruned to a height of 5-6 feet. They do require pruning and staking. Some examples of indeterminate varieties include: Better Boy, Big Boy, Early Girl, Traveler and most of the cherry varieties.
Keeping them healthy
Diseases can plague tomatoes, especially if you are limited in where you can plant them. Vary what you grow each season, and do not plant in the same spot for at least three years — many diseases are soil-borne and will build up disease pressure if replanted in the same spot each season. Look for disease-resistant varieties. Look for initials following the name of the tomato. Resistance by alphabet is as follows: V – Verticillium wilt, F – Fusarium wilt, T – Tobacco mosaic, N – Nematode, A – Alternaria (also called Early Blight) and TSW – Tomato-spotted wilt virus. The key word here is resistance; don’t expect complete disease control.
Where and when to plant
Whichever varieties you choose, the site and the care of the plants is important. Tomatoes need a well-drained
soil and a minimum of 6-8 hours of sunlight per day. They should not be planted until the soil warms up. Every year we see tomato plants for sale earlier, now as early as February, but don’t rush it or you may have to replant if a late cold snap gets them. Tomatoes can be planted in early April in south Arkansas, mid-April in central Arkansas and late April in the northern tier. Continue to plant tomatoes throughout the summer to ensure harvest well into fall.
Care and feeding
When you are preparing the beds for planting, broadcast a general-purpose fertilizer. If your plants suffer from blossom end rot, a calcium deficiency that causes the bottoms to rot, sprinkle a little lime into the planting hole as well. Some gardeners prefer to sprinkle a little Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) in the soil, but only a little. Many gardeners also pour a dilute starter solution (1 tablespoon of water-soluble fertilizer per gallon of water) around the transplants once they are planted. Then mulch.
Mulch keeps weeds at bay, retains moisture, moderates the temperature and helps to keep the soil from splashing on the stems and spreading disease. Some gardeners wrap their tomato stems lightly with aluminum foil before planting. This serves two purposes —one, it keeps the cutworms at bay, and secondly it also shields the stems from soil and disease entry. A 2-3-inch strip of foil wrapped lightly, so you don’t impair growth, can be used, with half of the wrapped stem below soil line, and half above.
To ensure an ample harvest, don’t forget to fertilize throughout the season. In addition to what you applied at planting, fertilize again when you see the first fruits on your plants getting to the size of a quarter or a golf ball. Most gardeners sprinkle a dry fertilizer around the plants and then water it in. I lightly scatter fertilizer around the garden as if I were feeding chickens. It is always better to apply too little than too much. They can be side-dressed again in two to three weeks. If you are growing them in the ground, this may be all the fertilizer needed for the season.
If you are growing them in containers or raised beds, more frequent irrigation will leach out the nutrition and you will have to feed more regularly. Light and frequent is fine, but don’t overdo it. Try to keep moisture levels as even as possible for the most and best-tasting fruit.