By Wayne W. Moseley – I love to grow tomatoes and over the years I’ve learned a lot about how to care for tomato plants. Sure, I grow other things in my garden, but tomatoes are my prime crop. I look forward to it each year and I have a lot of success at it. My first attempts, however, were not so much fun. Because of allergies, I do not have a dog or a cat. This means the birds in my area do not have any deterrents to their incessant predation upon my tomatoes.
#1: How to Care for Tomato Plants – Deter Birds
It’s mockingbirds, mainly, that caused the most havoc to my tomato crop. They’d take a peck or two on a tomato, then go do the same on another one. Never would they just stop and peck away at one tomato, but just a peck or two and off to an- other one. They ruined my crop, so I vowed revenge.
My first attempts to keep them off my growing tomatoes were not effective. I’d drape netting over the tomatoes, but the birds would use the netting as something handy to land on, then peck through the netting. Or, they would land on the ground, walk under the netting and fly up inside it and on to their game of ruining each and every one of my tomatoes.
They were picky about it too, waiting until the tomatoes were turning red before pecking them. Mockingbirds in Mississippi are protected, so I couldn’t kill them, I had to find a way to keep them out. It’s at that point that the birds met with my rock-hard resolve. I would make a cage to keep them out.
Since I was planting 48 plants each year, I picked an area 26′ x 30′ for four rows of 12 plants each. Then I got a neighbor to cut nine cedar trees to make posts 13-feet long and eight inches in diameter at the base, one at each of four corners, one at four mid-points, and one in the middle. Then we dug holes three-feet deep and 12 inches wide at each of the locations and set the posts in quick-set concrete. (Believe me, they weren’t going anywhere.) This left the posts 10 feet high above ground, giving me plenty of head-room for walking around inside, even considering the natural sag of the netting on the top.
I then placed 2″ x 4″ treated lumber between each post on the periphery of my cage, about 1/4 into the soil for the bottom rail of what was to be my cage.
I ran one-inch galvanized chicken wire fencing (I would recommend 3/4-inch openings if you can get it) around the outside of the posts. Then I took lath strips (1/2″ x 1″ x 8′) and sandwiched the bottom of the chicken wire between it and the 2 x 4s and screwed the lath strips to the 2 x 4s every two feet. Next, came the arduous task of lacing together the overlap junction of the two chicken wire runs with 50# fish line. For this, I used a large, curved carpet needle, which can be found at any craft store.
Next, came the top to take care of. First, I got out my ladder and stapled electric fence wire from the top of each post to the post opposite it, and diagonally also, with many wires crossing over the top of the center post. This formed a support system for the netting that would cover the top. When I cast about for the perfect netting for the top of my tomato cage, my friendly neighborhood feed store man recommended Memphis Net and Twine. They manufacture fish netting that is strong enough to stand up to the elements and the rigor of netting fish. I contacted them and chose a knotted netting with small enough holes to keep birds out.
I placed this netting over the top of the 10-foot posts with the help of my wife, using 20-foot lengths of two- inch diameter PVC pipe attached to the leading edges of the netting. We were blessed to have a wind from the right direction come up at precisely the right time, which helped immeasurably and the netting went up and over with no trouble. It overlapped by about two feet on all four sides.
At that point, I again laced the edges of the fish netting to the chicken wire with fishing line. All that was left now was to make a door and my tomato cage was bird-proof.
I later decided to place clear glass cereal bowls inverted over the top of the posts to keep the rain from rotting the posts from the top. This had an additional advantage of creating a smooth surface for the fish netting to rest on. Windy days had caused the netting to rub back and forth against the post tops and the glass bowls prevented frayed netting.
#2: How to Care for Tomato Plants – Keep Weeds and Grass at Bay
Weeds (and I include grass) are the bane of gardening. They spring up everywhere, causing us to rototill, hoe, stoop down to pull them up, and it’s a lot of work. If we ignore them, they will take over our garden, their roots will choke off our crops, and all our hard work will be in vain. And there seems to be an inexhaustible number of weed seeds in common garden soil. Billions of them.
So we must be smarter than weeds. And here’s how I do that. The following are steps I had to do only one time. I till the ground, then I scrape it flat and let a few rains compact it. Next, I lay down black plastic weed sheeting (available at Wal-Mart in early spring) that comes in rolls three-feet wide and 100-feet long, overlapping the runs slightly. This plastic has tiny holes in it to let excess moisture run through, but it prevents weeds and grass from growing up through it.
Then, I lay down newspaper sections, overlapping each section with another. This also keeps sunlight out and prevents me from slipping when walking on the mulch that goes on top of it.
Now comes 12 inches of cut-grass mulch on top. After the grass was cut, I used the mower to blow several passes of cut grass into one windrow, which I raked up and transported to my grass compost bin made of used pallets. The grass had over- wintered since I mowed it, and had gone through the “heat phase.” Eight inches of mulch will compact down to about six inches after walking on it during the season, but it keeps weeds down to nothing. If I had oat straw available to me, I would use that, but so far, cut, dried grass mulch has prevented any grass sprouting up in my garden.
#3: How to Care for Tomato Plants – Try Tires and Mulching
Back before I used the deep mulch gardening techniques in my tomato cage to combat weeds, I was simply using a weed-eater to hack away at them. Weed-eating them down to the dirt was quite satisfying to me (we are in a war against weeds, you know) but the first time I goofed and hit a tomato stem with my weed-eater, that method was discarded for good.
I switched to tires. The barrier that tires provide against hoes and weed-eaters was too good to pass up. I used a jig-saw to cut the sidewalls out of 48 tires, leaving just the belt, which I placed over each of the spots in the four rows where I was to plant my tomatoes. I got the used tires from a local tire dealer. They would never see service on the road again and in exchange for a few bags of green tomatoes (he loves fried green tomatoes), the trade was made.
Next, I removed the mulch from inside the tires, cut away the newspapers and black plastic, and pushed the tires about one inch into the soil which anchored them in place. Then I dug down 12 inches inside the tires to almost the full width of the tire open- ing. It is important to give the tomato plants loose soil to grow in and if you don’t dig a deep, wide hole, the plant “sees” just hard-packed soil into which to try to grow its roots.
At this point, we have to talk about the soil density. Soil left alone, compacts more and more, year after year. Rains come and the moisture soaks into the ground and dry spells cause the moisture to percolate up to the top. These actions cause soil “granules” to compact. We disc or harrow, and then we till at the be- ginning of each spring to loosen the soil up, but too often we don’t disc, harrow, or till deep enough. When gardens are “cut up,” as we say in the South, whatever process we use doesn’t involve actual plowing of the soil.
Most garden tilling I’ve seen doesn’t loosen up soil to more than four or five inches of depth, at the most. What lies below that is, essentially, hardpan. So what happens when it rains? The water moves easily through the loosened soil, down to the top of the hardpan and stops right there, saturating the soil above it. What we need to do is plow deeper than the first six inches, to provide proper drainage.
But guess what? Once our tomato cage is set up with the black plastic sheeting and newspaper cover, we can’t use any of those methods to create drainage past the hardpan. A quick way to provide that drainage is to take a three-foot solid metal rod with a sharpened end and a 5# sledge hammer and drive about five holes into the bottom of each hole, about eight to 10 inches deep. Do this one time and you shouldn’t have to repeat it in following years.
#4: How to Care for Tomato Plants – Soil Amendments
Knowing the N-P-K composition of your soil is important. N-P-K stands for nitrogen, phosphorous, and potash (or potassium.) These three most-important components of soil chemistry need to be in proper balance with each other for garden plants to grow well.
There are self-test kits available at reasonable cost, or you can send a soil sample to your local extension office. Using either method, you will find what levels of each component your soil lacks and choose a fertilizer that will address your garden’s needs. In addition, you will find your soil’s acid/alkaline level.
Garden soil’s acidity or alkalinity is of utmost importance. Usually, I have found soils to be too acid. I use lime to counteract over-acidity and I do it at the plant level, not the overall garden level. Here’s what I do for my garden—yours may need different fertilizers or lime amendments.
I put my lime and fertilizer into each hole before planting. Here’s how I do it: First, I put half a handful of triple-8 fertilizer (8-8-8) in the bottom of each hole. I find triple-13 to be too strong. On top of that, I put half an inch of soil. Then, to stop blossom- end rot, I put down a full handful of pelletized Dolomitic Limestone, spread evenly, and another half-inch of soil over that. From my experience, the main cause of blossom-end rot is an insufficient supply of lime (calcium) from the beginning of the plant’s life in the garden.
When the plants have been placed in my garden for about six to seven weeks, I include limestone in the water I provide the plants. I pour a pint of limestone into 20 gallons of water and stir and use that mixture to water my plants for the remainder of their bearing life. Do this and you should have no blossom-end rot at all.
The soil I surround the plant roots with is a mixture of things. I have an old cement mixer which has been kept very clean each time it’s used, so there’s no cement left in it. Using it, I mix equal shovelfuls of soil and worm compost (potting soil can be used, but it’s rather expensive.) The idea is to make the resulting “soil” more friable.
Friable soil has a crumbly texture which is ideal for the plants’ root growth. Loam is an example of friable soil. If you can take a handful of your garden soil, squeeze it, then open your hand and find a compact ball of soil there, your soil probably has too much clay content and not enough decomposed vegetation in it. I find worm compost to be ideal to “loosen up” my soil and fortunately, there is a local provider.
At the same time I mix soil and worm compost, I add about a quart and a half of lime to a half cubic yard of the mixture. The cement mixer does a great job of mixing it all up.
Worm compost is what’s left after what worms feed on has been through the worm. It’s what people prefer to say rather than “worm manure.” By the way, worm compost tests out on the NPK scale at 3-3-3, a very balanced and gentle natural fertilizer; plants thrive on it. I have tested using worm compost for growing tomatoes and planted one whole row with all-soil, another with half-and-half soil and worm compost, and one row with all worm compost.
The row with all worm compost grew much faster, had very healthy- looking foliage, and was twice as high as the all soil row. However, without the triple-8 below it, at the half-growth stage of the plants’ life, they had depleted the worm compost and flagged for lack of sufficient nutrients. The best row was the one planted with half soil and half worm compost, so that’s what I go with. Learn more about how to use worms for composing.
#5: How to Care for Tomato Plants – Planting and Caging
Each plant will have a cage around it. I make cages from “cement wire” which has six inch holes, and is five feet high. It comes in rolls of 50 or 100 feet. Unroll it curl-side down, put weights on it, and cut into four-foot lengths, cutting up the five-foot length close to the squares. Form the cut piece into a cage and with pliers, bend each of the cut wires into a hook and fasten them to complete the cage.
Warning: If you unroll the cement wire roll with the curl-side up, when the wires are cut, they will snap back with a lot of force and injure you! For that reason, I unroll it cut-side down and put heavy objects on it to keep it flat on the ground before, during, and after cutting. If you have any left-over wire, when you roll it up to store it, be very careful when rolling it back up.
I plant tomato starts that are about 12 inches high. I prefer the Big Beef variety of tomato for its hearty stem structure and its resistance to many plant diseases, but primarily for its great-tasting tomatoes that are larger than most other varieties and quite solid inside, as contrasted to Beef- steak which have a lot of liquid and hollow areas in them.
In the next-to-last step, I place my plant’s cement-wire tomato cage inside the tire belt, pushing the exposed bottom wires down into the ground.
The wind will topple your cages unless you provide supports. I use four-foot-long lengths of 3/8-inch diameter steel rebar, driven one foot into the ground on the inside of the tire, up next to the cage and use short pieces of binder twine to tie it to the cage. If you live in windy areas, I suggest an additional piece of rebar on the opposite side of the cage.
#6: How to Care for Tomato Plants – Watering Tips
Before planting, I cut 10 feet sections of 1- or 1-1/2-inch thin-wall PVC pipe into 24″ sections, enough for my 48 plants. Then I drill six 1/4- inch holes in the bottom six inches of each pipe. I will place one pipe in each hole with the bottom right up next to the roots. Then I put the tomato start in the hole and place the holed-end of the PVC pipe next to the roots. The pipe is then angled toward the walkway for ease of access.
I place the tomato start at the bottom of the hole and add the soil/ worm compost mixture up to the gar- den surface. Now bring in the mulch and fill it to about three inches above the top rim of the tire. In a few days, it will compact a little, bringing it level to the top of the tire. Water only through the PVC pipe at all times; do not water the mulch.
My watering method puts the water right to the plant’s roots. This keeps water away from the stem and leaves at the top of the mulch and eliminates mold damage to the plant. Also, you will be surprised at how little water each plant will need. Here in northeast Mississippi, with high humidity and hot summer temperatures, if the temperatures are below 100°F, the plants will need only one pint of water every four days.
Do not over-water your tomatoes. Over-watering is the most common error gardeners make (besides not applying lime to their gardens). Here’s how to tell if a tomato plant needs water. When you go out to the garden early in the morning, say at 6:00 a.m., before it gets hot, look at the leaves. If the leaves are fairly flat, your tomato plant does not need water. If it’s curled inward in the morning, it needs water.
Now if you are in the garden at noon (and I try not to be) or in the late afternoon, and you observe your tomato plants’ leaves are curled, do not be alarmed. There’s no need to water them then. All tomato plants send water from their roots up through the stems and out to their leaves. There, the moisture transpires through the stomata on the leaf surfaces and evaporates into the air. If the air is very dry, the leaf will lose moisture faster than the root-and-stem moisture-delivery system can replenish it and the leaf curls up. During the night, most times, the plant will get sufficient moisture out to the leaves and they will straighten out by morning.
The rule is: only water when you see leaves curled in the morning. And remember not to water more than a pint (half-quart) when you do water. Only when we had 105°F weather did I need to give them more and then only 50% more—a pint and a half. Watch your plants and you will see that in most cases, curled leaves will straighten out in less than two hours once water is applied.
#7: How to Care for Tomato Plants – Disease & Pest Prevention
Experts recommend that you plant tomatoes in different areas from year to year to avoid plant diseases from recurring in subsequent years’ crops. I can understand that, but since I cannot move my tomato cage, I have to come up with methods to combat the problem of planting in the same place each year.
The first year, you can just use the soil at the spot. But in succeeding years, since I have to dig a hole for each plant anyway, I remove the soil from a dozen holes into a wheelbarrow and dump it on another part of my garden. Then I take soil from an unused part of my garden and use it for my soil-compost mix in planting. That way, my soil changes from year to year.
As for the cages, exposure to the elements for nine months of the year seems to keep them free of contami- nation by springtime.
In the first 30 days of a tomato’s growth, it is very susceptible to mold or fungus attack of various types. For that reason, it is necessary to keep a hand sprayer handy that contains a good fungicide. When the plant is at mid-growth or even 2/3 its full size, I spray it with a solution of Maneb, a foliate fungicide, to prevent fungus, even though I find no evidence of fungus growth. At this point, there’s almost no tomatoes formed. If a fungus takes hold of your plant, do not delay, but pull it out of the ground, take it to a remote area of the garden and burn it, then spray fungicide on your garden gloves. Fungus proliferation can spell the death of your entire tomato patch if not attended to quickly and thoroughly.
Insects are a menace to your tomato crop. They will devastate it unless you take action against them. I divide insects into two groups: Sucking insects and chewing insects.
Sucking insects like aphids, etc. will suck the life juices out of leaves — check the undersides of the leaves for infestation. Plant symptoms will be droopy-looking leaves, but don’t wait for that indication — check for sucking insects each time you visit your tomato patch. The best thing I’ve found for aphids control and other sucking insects is 5 percent Sevin® dust, broadcast on your plants with a hand-cranked blower. It is more important to dust the underside of the leaves than the topside, as that is where most sucking insects are found.
Most garden dust blowers have a straight tube which I modify to dust the underside of the leaves. I create a plastic extension to the tube, curved to direct the dust upward to the un- derside of the leaves. Find a plastic half gallon milk container and cut it in half, retaining the upper portion, which is curved. Now cut off enough of the top to remove the spout and handle. Cut a vertical slice to allow the plastic to overlap and grip your duster tube. Tape in place with duct tape. Now your duster will blow dust upward.
Chewing insects cause an equal amount of devastation to your tomato plants. The most common is the Tomato Hornworm, a big (three-inch long), fat (1/3-inch across) green-colored worm with a single horn curving upward at the top of its head. You have to be on guard against these voracious leaf-eaters as they will divest a tomato plant of half its leaves in no time at all.
One of the things you must condition yourself to do is to look at your plants’ leaves each time you visit the garden. If you find an area of tomato stems devoid of leaves, look closely for the hornworm because he’s there somewhere—you just have to spot him. Their color is so close to the color of the tomato leaves and stems, that it makes it hard to find them, but eventually you’ll find him.
Pull them off by hand and step on them, but the next thing you must do is fetch your hand-cranked blower and your package of Dipel® dust. What works for sucking insects will not work for chewing insects and Dipel® kills hornworms like magic. If you find a hornworm on one plant, dust them all.
Remember, the rain will wash off garden dusts. Re-apply after a rainy period.
Mosquitoes do not bother tomato plants, but they will bother you! If you use the PVC method of water- ing, together with thick mulching, you will eliminate most mosquito problems. I avoid visiting my garden at dusk, which is the time I notice most mosquito activity. The most effective mosquito repellents are sprays that contain Deet®. They work quite well. I have been wanting to try out the advertised electronic mosquito repellent devices that you clip onto your collar or shirt pocket, but as yet have not, so I have no idea if they are effective or not.
#8: How to Care for Tomato Plants – Harvesting Steps
Store-bought tomatoes must be harvested before they are ripened because of delays that transportation to market involve. As a result, store-bought tomatoes are essentially tasteless. If they are hothouse tomatoes, they have one additional negative quality—they are tough. We home gardeners have the advantage of being able to pick our tomatoes 15 minutes before we sit down to eat. As a result, we can wait until nature finishes her supernal ripening process and offer to us tomatoes rich in flavor and texture. There’s no comparison at all between home garden tomatoes and those bought in the store.
When we harvest our tomatoes, we need to let the ripening process proceed until they’re fully ready, as indicated by their color. A fully ripe tomato will have a complete deep red color, not a pinkish color. Wait for the right moment and you will experience a much richer flavor than picking it half ripe and letting it ripen in the windowsill.
Part of a tomato’s flavor has to do with its natural acidity and that is governed by its genetics. I choose the “Big Beef” variety, because of its robust taste. There are other varieties which can offer more acidity or less acidity, to the taste of the partaker.
Mother Nature makes a handy change to the tomato stem when it’s completely ripe. There is a little “knuckle” in the stem about one-half inch from the tomato. Tomatoes naturally resist picking until they are ripe, then the knuckle easily separates from the vine. When you pick a tomato, do not attempt to remove all of the green stem at the tomato surface, but grasp the stem up close to the tomato with your thumb on the knuckle and press on the knuckle. It will cause the stem to separate cleanly and easily at the knuckle. This leaves a short part of the stem and the top “leaflets,” intact. Leaving these attached to the tomato will better preserve the tomato until it’s ready to be washed and eaten.
As the years have marched on, I have reduced the number of my tomato plants from 48 to 36, with three cherry tomato plants. During normal seasonal weather conditions, barring excessive rains or prolonged drought, I harvest more than 800 tomatoes from the 36 Big Beef variety of tomatoes.
Over half, I sell to grocery stores and the rest are given to family, neighbors and a local nursing home. As for me, I consume more than a body should, I guess. BLT sandwiches are summer delights. The people at my church’s pot luck dinners love plates of sliced, peeled tomatoes with their rich flavor. Some go to the barber shop, friends, or people who are special to you. My wife goes to sessions at a local physical therapy heated pool and her friends there can’t wait for her to arrive with a new supply of my tomatoes. You’ll have an abundance of friends when you give them perfect tomatoes.
#9: How to Care for Tomato Plants – Overwintering
When the bearing season is over, do not delay to pull the vines up, take them to a remote part of the garden and burn them. This will insure that insects will not feed upon the remaining juices in the leaves and vines and then proliferate and reproduce to cause you anguish next year. Burn ‘em and be done with them.
After the final harvest is done, you can still enjoy tomatoes through later months by freezing or canning tomato chunks, tomato paste, or tomato puree. But eventually, in the depth of the winter, on a quiet night, you will find yourself sitting in your easy chair thinking about next year’s tomato garden.
This will most likely have been prompted by the arrival of a seed catalog in early January from top seed companies, which you will immediately take to your chair and read, dozing intermittently with visions of lush tomato foliage on healthy plants with big, red tomatoes on them, and scores of tomatoes to harvest daily—now that’s a pleasant dream.
Originally published in Countryside January / February 2013 and regularly vetted for accuracy.