Tomato time is just around the corner, and whether you are growing your own transplants or leaving that to the pros, it is not too soon to start prepping for the season. As vegetable plants go, tomatoes rank pretty high — in popularity, in variety and also in maintenance. A successful harvest means you must pay attention to their needs throughout the growing season. From seeding in January to harvesting in June, gardeners spend half a year caring for and fussing over tomato plants, so let’s make the effort count. This month-to-month guide offers tips to help you stay on track as you move eagerly toward that first, juicy harvest. Texas covers a lot of ground, so monthly activities may vary by a week or two, depending on the weather and where you live.
January. A good starting point for planning is to ask yourself, “How many?” Assess the space you have for tomatoes and the time you can devote to their care. Tending two or three tomato plants is an easy task, but keeping up with two dozen plants over the course of six months can easily become overwhelming. The location should receive a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight (more is better, especially in early spring, when temperatures are mild) and should be large enough so that plants can be spaced at least three feet apart for adequate air circulation as they grow. Tomatoes can be grown in the rows of a vegetable garden, in a raised bed or tucked into a sunny flower border. Gardeners with limited space might consider planting a compact variety in a large container.
Once you decide how many plants, the next question might be, “Which ones?” There are hundreds of unique varieties of tomatoes, but only a small sampling will be available at nurseries as transplants. Growing your own tomato starts provides an opportunity to choose specific varieties that appeal to you. The best advice I can offer on variety selection is to look on the seed packet or catalog description for disease and nematode resistance as well as “days to harvest” with 70 or less. That number provides an estimate of how many days (from transplanting outside) it will take a specific tomato variety to start producing fruit. Seventy days means if you set out transplants in mid-March — and growing conditions are ideal — your plants should start pumping out tomatoes about 10 weeks later. Of course, ideal conditions in Texas are awfully hard to come by and that first fruit might be delayed by a week or two or even three. That puts us well into May, and with the triple threat of heat, insects and disease looming, the sooner plants start producing, the longer harvest we can enjoy before plants succumb. Also, most tomatoes stop setting fruit when nighttime temperatures rise above 75°, which is another reason to look for early-maturing varieties.
Many popular and delicious heirlooms start producing 80–90 days from transplanting, which means pollination and fruit set may be jeopardized by the early arrival of warm nights and hot days. Yields may be lower as plants suffer through the rapidly rising heat of June, but for many gardeners, including myself, it is worth the effort because truly flavorful and colorful heirloom tomatoes are hard to come by unless you grow them yourself.
And you never know when you might hit on an heirloom that actually likes Texas weather. Just to be on the safe side I always plant at least two or three dependable producers, such as ‘Big Beef’, ‘Celebrity’, ‘Early Girl’, ‘Juliet’ or ‘Sun Gold’.
February. Now that you’ve settled on the number of plants, take advantage of mild winter days to prepare the planting area. Loosen the soil, remove weeds and other plant material and rake the ground level. Cover soil with a two- or three-inch layer of compost and fork it in lightly. The regular addition of organic matter is key to improving soil structure and health; it also feeds the microbes in the soil that in turn make nutrients available to the plants.
Purchase or make tomato cages this month. They should be four-to-five feet tall, 16-to-20 inches in diameter and made from sturdy wire. It’s best to avoid the short, rickety cages often sold at big-box stores. Texas Tomato Cages (http://tomatocage.com) are popular with gardeners because they are well built and fold for storage. I have had mine for over a decade and also use them for peas, cucumbers and pole beans. Texas tomato expert, Bill Adams, introduced me to a more economical option — triangle cages made from cattle panel. Cut 18- or 24-inch sections from the fencing and connect with wire or zip ties. Snip off the lower line of tubing so the ends can be pushed into the ground. When not in use, the panels can be stacked or hung for storage.
Once your tomato cages are in order, take the time to measure and cut row cover to fit each cage. Cut it long enough so that it can be gathered and closed at the top during cold weather. Fold up each length of row cover, label and set aside until planting day. Have clothespins or similar clips at the ready to attach the row cover to the tomato cage. You’ll also need metal or wooden stakes to anchor the cage in the soil — strong spring winds are notorious for knocking over unsecured cages and damaging plants in the process. The stakes can be hammered into the ground and attached to the cage with zip ties or wire.
Row cover comes in different weights, so be sure to purchase one that offers a few degrees of frost protection and not the thin kind used as an insect barrier. There are cheaper alternatives to wrapping tomato cages with row cover. I’ve used old sheets, towels, blankets, quilts, Christmas-tree disposal bags, large garbage bags and bubble wrap — anything that will enclose the cage and trap the heat. When plants are set out in the garden, a wrapped cage will protect plants during a chilly night; but if temperatures are predicted to dip into the low thirties, you’ll want to temporarily double up on the layers. One way to generate a little extra warmth for plants is to place a one-gallon milk jug filled with water next to the plant inside the cage. It will gather solar heat during the day and radiate warmth overnight. Some people even use a string of Christmas lights around plants to provide extra warmth.
March. The spring frenzy over tomatoes kicks off this month as transplants start showing up at nurseries. Savvy gardeners who have grown their own transplants can relax and avoid the crowds, but weekend gardeners may have to settle for whatever varieties they can find on the shelves. Demand often outweighs supply, so shop early if possible. Begin acclimating transplants to outdoor conditions by moving them to a protected area outside a few hours each day. Be prepared to move them indoors if freezing weather is forecast.
A label for each variety is a must. I mark the planting date on each label so I can note when a particular variety starts blooming and when the first fruit is ready for harvest. It’s interesting to compare harvest dates between varieties and to compare the actual harvest date to the “days to harvest” on a seed packet.
About two weeks before your anticipated planting date, dig a loose hole where each tomato will be planted, incorporate an all-purpose garden fertilizer (following the directions on the package) together with a handful of worm castings and then water it in well. Mark each amended hole with a stone or a stake. Watch the forecast in your area and plant tomatoes in the ground after the danger of freezing weather has passed. If possible, transplant in the evening or during a cloudy day. Water both the transplants and the hole at planting time — wet roots into wet soil will ease the transition and help prevent transplant shock.
It’s all right to plant tomatoes right up to their first leaves; they will root along any stem that is buried. Cover the root ball and stem with soil, and form a little berm around the plant. Water one last time with a starter solution made from water-soluble fertilizer or liquid fish emulsion diluted to half strength. Complete the planting process with a layer of mulch over the soil. Dried leaves, organic straw or shredded bark are good options. Mulch helps moderate soil temperature, blocks weeds and enriches the soil as it decomposes. It also prevents soil from splashing up onto the leaves during heavy rains, a result that is a primary source of a soil-borne fungus called early blight.
Now that plants are nestled into their new home, top with a cage, anchor it to the soil and secure the row cover. Even when cold weather is not a threat, you’ll want to keep young tomato plants covered to protect them from damaging winds. As the plants grow stronger, gradually roll the row cover down the cage; once the weather moderates and the forecast is clear, you can remove the covers altogether. Shake them out, fold, label and store for next season.
April. Examine leaves and stems for insect eggs and early signs of pests. Handpick and destroy or use an approved insecticide. Leaffooted bugs, tomato hornworms and other tomato pests are easier to control — whether by crushing, whacking or spraying — in their immature stage of development.
Feed plants with water-soluble fertilizer or fish emulsion every two-to-three weeks. As plants begin to fill the cage, check occasionally to make sure stems are growing up and not out; the stems break easily, and it can be hard to redirect them once they escape the confines of the cage.
May. Try to provide consistent moisture for plants. A deep soaking twice a week is preferable to a light sprinkling every day. Using drip-irrigation tubing or soaker hoses underneath the mulch is an efficient way to accomplish this task.
Gardeners who live in South Texas and those who set out plants extra-early with extra-protection will be picking their first juicy tomatoes this month. As plants begin to produce, make notes of variety, harvest date, size, flavor and yield.
June. The peak harvest month for tomatoes has finally arrived. Savor it! Share it! Brag about it! Get together with other tomato lovers and have a taste test. Put up some surplus for winter by canning, freezing or drying.
Unfortunately, this glorious season will soon come to an end. It won’t be long before sizzling summer days zap both gardeners and tomatoes of their vigor. As spring becomes a memory and Texas heat moves in, bugs multiply and disease spreads. Plants that are still healthy and vigorous can be held over until tomato-growing conditions return in fall, but it’s not worth the effort and the water to keep declining plants alive in the hopes of a few mediocre tomatoes. Harvest what you can and discard diseased plants in the trash. The planning for next season now begins as you compare notes on yield, flavor and disease susceptibility to determine which tomato varieties will earn a valuable spot in next year’s garden.
By Patty G. Leander, B.S.
Advanced Master Gardener — Vegetables