It’s time to plant the tomatoes

PARKERSBURG – We all remember the commercial “Time to Make the Donuts.”

Well, it is “Time to Plant the tomatoes.” Gardening enthusiasts across the Mid-Ohio Valley are setting out plants for the garden, and I guarantee almost everyone is planting some tomatoes. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, about 93 percent of all gardens have some tomato plants in them. Tomatoes can reward gardeners with big yields, and healthy, tasty, and nutritious home grown tomatoes are hard to beat. Look forward to definitely tasting the “fruits of your labor.”

For a great harvest of tomatoes, make sure you choose the right variety, provide good nutrients, scout for pests, stake or cage your tomatoes and give them plenty of water. In about 60-80 days, (most tomato varieties mature in this time period) you will be slicing up a home-grown tomato on a burger you just cooked on the grill.

Tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) is in the family solanaceae, and is is a cousin of the eggplant, red pepper, ground cherry, potato, and the highly toxic belladonna (a herbaceous perennial, also known as the nightshade or solanaccae, that has historically been used as both a medicine and poison).

Tomatoes are extremely popular for home gardeners and for good reason. Tomatoes can be eaten fresh, used in salads, canned, frozen, or incorporated into hundreds of recipes. My favorite is sliced for that old time favorite the “tomato sandwich.” Two questions; Do you use whole wheat or white bread, and is it miracle whip or mayo?

The first decision to make is what variety to plant. Asking anyone about tomato varieties is like asking about who you root for in college football. Many gardeners plant varieties passed down from parents or other relatives. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says there are 25,000 tomato varieties. Other sources cap the number of types of tomatoes at 10,000. It is a good idea to do a little homework about the variety you are planting. Open pollinated or heirloom varieties usually have good flavor, but can be susceptible to disease. Hybrid varies are developed for increase yield, drought resistance and disease resistance.

A wise choice is to choose varieties with disease resistance. Fusarium wilt is a common disease that can destroy an entire tomato crop. Many varieties are resistant to this disease. This is indicated by the letters F, FF or FFF after the variety name, for resistance to races 1, 2 and 3 of Fusarium wilt. VFN means the plants are resistant to Verticillium wilt, Fusarium wilt and root-knot nematodes; VFNT adds tobacco mosaic virus resistance to the list. Tomato spotted wilt virus resistance is indicated by TSWV.

A good choice for most home gardeners is to plant indeterminate varieties of tomatoes. Compact or determinate tomato plants refers to the plant habit of growing to a certain size, setting fruit, and then declining. Most of the early ripening tomato varieties are determinate and will not produce tomatoes throughout a summer. Indeterminate tomato plants are the opposite of the determinate types as the vines continue to grow until frost or disease kills them. These are the standard, all-summer tomatoes that most gardeners grow. They require support (mostly staking or caging) for best results, since otherwise the fruit would be in contact with the soil, thus susceptible to rot.

Tomato varieties usually fall into several different categories depending on size and color. Cherry tomatoes have small, cherry-sized (or a little larger) fruits often used in salads. Plants of cherry tomatoes range from dwarf (Tiny Tim) to seven-footers (Sweet 100). One standard cherry tomato plant is usually sufficient for a family, since they generally produce abundantly.

Beefsteak type tomatoes are large-fruited types, producing a tomato slice that easily covers a sandwich, the whole fruit weighing as much as two pounds or more. These are usually late to ripen, so plant some standard-sized or early tomatoes for longest harvest. Mortgage Lifter, Better Boy, Brandywine and Parks Whopper are examples. Roma or Paste tomatoes have pear-shaped fruits with very meaty interiors and few seeds. They are less juicy than standard tomatoes and are without a sizeable central core. Paste tomatoes are a favorite for canning since they don’t have to be cut up and since they are so meaty. Viva Italia, Amish Paste and Roma VF.

Tomatoes can come in a variety of colors including orange, yellow, pink, or striped. Many heirloom varieties are available like Cherokee Purple and dozens of yellow and pink varieties. Winter storage tomatoes are a relatively new item for gardeners. The plants are set out later in the season than most tomatoes and fruit are harvested partially ripe. If properly stored, they will stay fresh for twelve weeks or more. While the flavor does not equal that of summer vine-ripened tomatoes, many people prefer them to grocery store tomatoes in winter. Burpees Longkeeper is a standard variety.

Now you need to get your hands on some good transplants (if you did not grow your own from seed). When you at the local nursery or home garden center, select stocky, disease free transplants with strong, healthy stems and green leaves about 6 to 10 inches tall. Select plants in good physical shape with compact growth, grown in moist but not overly wet soil. Set tomato transplants in the ground, covering the stems so that only two or three sets of true leaves are exposed. If transplants become “leggy,” horizontal planting of tomato plants is an effective way to make plants stronger. Roots will form along the buried portion of the stem, giving better growth and less chance of plant injury from an excessively weak stem.

Tomatoes (as well as eggplant and peppers) are very sensitive to frost so we usually wait till there is no chance of frost to plant transplants into a raised bed or garden. To aid in the prevention of reducing damage from insects and diseases rotate the crop area by planting in a different location than the previous year.

Tomatoes love rich, well-drained soil with lots of organic matter so incorporate compost or aged manure well before planting time. They are heavy feeders so use a starter fertilizer for transplants. After the first fruits appear, side-dress tomatoes with pound. 10-10-10 or equivalent per 10 feet of row. Additional fertilizer may be needed depending on plant growth, fruit load, and soil fertility. Do not add Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) to the soil unless soil testing shows a magnesium deficiency.

Tomatoes have a relatively shallow, fibrous rooting system, so cultivate carefully or use a thick mulch to prevent weeds. Keep the root zone moist by watering deeply and regularly during dry periods. Water at least once weekly, more frequently when during dry periods and when blossoms begin to develop.

Many of our disease problems, especially early and late blight, are spread from soil splashing up on the leaves. Don’t use overhead watering. Use of a soaker hose or drip irrigation in your small gardens or a watering can for your container pots is better for the plants.

If your tomatoes look wilted in the morning then they need watering. Don’t forget to mulch, mulch, and mulch. Add at least two to three inches of mulch to each plant.

To help prevent blight, powdery mildew, leaf scorch and various other diseases, water the plants at soil level in the early morning: or in the evening after the sun is off of the plants, allowing enough time for the water to soak into the ground before darkness. Positioning the plants in cut out sections of black landscape fabric will aid in care maintenance, while keeping the plant roots cool and retaining soil moisture.

Suckers are shoots that arise from axils (the angle where a plant stem and leaf branch meet). These shoots will eventually produce flowers and fruit. However, moderate pruning (traditionalists call suckering) will increase size of remaining fruit, hasten ripening, and keep your plants more manageable. Prune staked tomatoes to one to three main stems (plant spacing can be reduced in these situations). Remove all other suckers weekly.

It is especially important to remove suckers that emerge from the plant base. Pinch shoots off with your fingers.

Many home gardeners make the mistake of planting their tomatoes too close. Plants should be spaced 18-24 inches apart in the row and each row three feet apart. Staking or using cages is important management for tomatoes. It is important to reduce fruit rots, sunscald and foliar diseases and makes harvesting a whole lot easier. Don’t wait to stake and trellis your tomatoes until they are large! It is much easier start when they are a foot tall and you can sucker as you go along.

If you have limited space or poor soil, tomato plants can be grown in containers using a planting mix. Any container is suitable as long as drainage is provided. (You can reuse five gallon plastic buckets drilling holes in the bottom for drainage) Professional potting mixes for container gardening are widely available. Some manufacturers also add slow-release fertilizer and/or a polymer for additional water retention. Gardeners should also select the tomato cultivars that are compact and adapted for container production. Pay close attention to water and fertilizer needs of container-grown tomato plants since they can dry out very quickly and nutrients leach out of potting mixes. Make sure you choose a big enough container, your tomato plant may get bigger than you think.

Tomatoes are not worry free and do have some disease and insect problems. Blossom-end rot can be a serious problem. The main symptom is a dark-colored dry rot of the blossom ends of the fruit. It occurs when there are extremes in soil moisture, which cause calcium deficiency in the fruit. When rain or irrigation follows a dry spell, the roots cannot take up calcium fast enough to keep up with the rapid fruit growth. Blossom-end rot also occurs if the delicate feeder roots are damaged during transplanting or by deep cultivation near the plants.

There are some steps you can take to help prevent this disease. Test your soil (soil test kits are available through West Virginiia University Extension) and maintain a pH between 6 and 6.5 and an adequate calcium level by liming or applying gypsum. Mulch with 2 to 3 inches of materials such as grass clippings, pine straw and leaves. Mulching prevents rapid soil drying and allows roots to take up available calcium efficiently. Do not over-fertilize plants with nitrogen or potash. Excessive amounts of these nutrients depress the uptake of calcium. Keep moisture levels fairly uniform by regular watering and by maintaining a mulch layer around the base of the plants. Water plants during extended dry periods. Tomatoes need 1 to 1 inches of water per week. Irrigation water will drain from raised beds more quickly.

Add organic matter to the soil. This will help “loosen” clay soils and will improve the water-holding capacity of sandy soils. In either soil, organic matter will increase plant uptake of water and calcium. Examples of organic matter are peat moss, composted pine bark, leaf compost, manures, and mushroom compost. Great Gardening and enjoy a home grown tomato this summer!

Need more information on growing tomatoes or other vegetables? Contact J.J. Barrett, WVU Extension Agent for Agriculture and Natural Resources in Wood County at (304)-424-1960 or e-mail

Several WVU Extension Fact Sheets are available through the Wood County WVU Extension Office or online. If you do not have computer access, contact the Extension Office and we can furnish you with copies

Understanding late Blight in Tomatoes by Dr. Lewis Jett

Growing Great Tomatoes by John Porter

Tomato Flavor Depends on Amount of Sugar and Acids Dr. John Jett

Collecting West Virginia ’63 Tomato Seeds- Melissa VanTine