Everybody loves tomatoes! In fact, some people love them so much that they struggle to grow them each year, because they give their plants too much love. The calls have already started to come into my office: My tomato plant leaves are yellowing or browning, curling, spotting, wilting ... you name it and I see it and hear it every year, beginning right about now.
When I go down my list of questions about how the loving gardener has treated their tomato plants, I usually learn that they have watered the plants every day, given them quite a bit of fertilizer and planted them in the same sunny spot that worked so well for the tomatoes they produced last year. The usual plea is that they "love" tomatoes and they have done everything that they can think to do to help them along. Often though, their well-intentioned care has resulted in the tomato plant problems they are so desperately trying to solve.
Follow some basic rules for growing healthy tomato plants that will produce a great crop of tomatoes this summer.
1. Water when plants need it, but don't over water. For the first week that they are in the ground, they might need water every day, but gardeners need to back off the water after the first week and slowly wean their plants down to 1 inch of water a week for their plants. Watering tomato plants everyday will prevent them from developing a strong root system. If tomato plant roots are sitting in wet soil everyday, it is an invitation to root rot diseases.
2. Deliver the water to the root system. Do not wet the plant leaves. Wetting the leaves opens them up to infections that can cause your plant leaves to spot, yellow and wilt before the plant has a chance to produce any of the tasty tomatoes that gardeners are so anxiously anticipating. You can use a soaker hose or drip tape water your plants at the root system.
3. Water in the early part of the day.
4. Mulch around your tomato plants to help conserve water in the soil, keep the root system cool and help reduce the chance of soil-borne diseases infecting your tomato plants.
5. Rotate your tomato crops each year. Planting them in the same place allows disease pathogens that are specific to tomatoes to build their populations in the soil. Try not to plant tomatoes in the same place more than once every three or four years.
6. Be careful with fertilizer. Young tomato plants are particularly sensitive to nitrogen and can be easily burned if over fertilized. Have your soil tested. Follow soil test results carefully and don't apply all of the recommended fertilizer at the time you plant tomatoes. Wait until they have established a good root system and started to grow before you fertilize to prevent fertilizer burn, which causes tomato leaves to yellow and curl and can result in the death of very young tomato plants.
You can learn more about growing tomatoes in Georgia by reading the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension publication, "Georgia Homegrown Tomatoes".
Contact Paulding County University of Georgia Cooperative Extension for more information on soil testing or gardening questions and watch Walter Reeves, "Your Southern Garden" on Saturday, May 14, at noon on Georgia Public Broadcasting to learn more about growing tomatoes!