Southern Gardening: Tips for Growing Tomatoes

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Gary Bachman

As a host of Southern Gardening, I primarily promote landscape and garden ornamentals through newspaper articles, TV segments, and social media posts.

So I find it interesting that most of the questions I receive revolve around the vegetable garden.

Our ornamental plants give us the aesthetics of the landscape and the garden that we consume with our eyes. But the vegetable garden provides the home gardener with a tangible, consumable product: perhaps a tomato or a pepper in the summer or radishes, carrots or lettuce leaves in the winter.

As a “typical” home gardener, I really enjoy growing and experimenting with my vegetable garden. Each season I learn something new to share with Mississippi gardeners.

This year, tomatoes generated the majority of questions sent to me. So I’d like to share some tips and tricks that I’ve learned over the years to help you succeed in growing your own tomatoes.

The goal of most gardeners is to grow that perfect vine-ripened fruit. But most years, bugs, birds, squirrels and rats seem to conspire to make harvesting a vine-ripened tomato as magical as finding a unicorn.

The fact is, the longer the tomato is on the vine, the more likely something bad will happen. I like to harvest my large-fruited tomatoes when they start to show the first blush of color.

I bring them inside to finish ripening. At this point, the fruit has as much sugar as it will have and will ripen well on a warm counter or windowsill. If you have a coffee maker on the counter, place your ripening tomatoes nearby, as it will be a few degrees warmer, especially if plugged in.

I place my blushing tomatoes on a germination rack to fully ripen them.

While this process works for large-fruited tomatoes, smaller cherry tomatoes ripen much faster and can usually be ripened on the vine.

Tomato worms can cause frustrating problems for gardeners. These hawk or hawkmoth caterpillars seem to come out of nowhere and can consume an entire tomato overnight.

To make matters worse, they are masters at the art of disguise as they cling under tomato stalks. Sometimes the only sign of them you can find are piles of droppings on the leaves after massive damage has been done.

But all is not lost. I discovered a technique to easily find these guys at night. Under an ultraviolet flashlight, these caterpillars fluoresce and shine like a beacon in the dark.

I don’t do much in terms of disease control, because in Mississippi our tomatoes will contract nearly every known leaf-borne fungal disease of the tomato, and it may seem like a losing battle. But what I’ve learned is that tomatoes can be very regional in their adaptation, and even with affected leaves, if you’ve selected the right varieties, the plants will still produce an abundance of fruit.

My advice is usually to ask home gardeners if they want beautiful plants or great tasting tomatoes.

A great resource to help you succeed with tomatoes is the latest version of “Mississippi Vegetable Gardener’s Guide”, formerly known as “The Garden Tabloid”. It can be found online at http://extension.msstate.edu/publications/mississippi-vegetable-gardeners-guide.

Gary Bachman is professor of horticulture extension and research at Mississippi State University Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi. Contact him at [email protected]

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