Remove all lower leaves, keeping just the top two to three sets. Allow the wounds to heal for a few days, then plant in a deep hole or sideways in a trench so that only the remaining leaves are above the soil. Roots will form where the leaf nodes were, resulting in a stronger, more stable plant as it grows.
Prepare your soil by mixing in 2 to 3 inches of compost. Add in some organic fertilizer if your soil is lacking in nutrients. For raised beds or containers, add in some fresh potting soil and slow-release organic fertilizer to ensure plants have the nutrition they need to grow and produce.
Choose an area that gets 6 to 8 hours of sunlight a day.
To avoid problems with fungus and disease, don't plant in an area where in the past three years you have grown tomatoes or plants from the same family, including eggplants and peppers.
Rotating your crops will help to avoid fusarium wilt and verticillium wilt, two common fungal diseases that affect tomatoes.
Fusarium wilt invades the plant through its roots. It is a serious problem that causes branches and leaves to become yellow and wilt; infected plants usually die. Look for plants labeled "F," which means they are resistant to fusarium.
Verticillium wilt causes leaves to yellow and turn brown before dropping off. The infection usually appears in a V-shaped pattern. Although it is seldom fatal, it reduces vigor and yield. Due to significant leaf drop, sun damage to the fruit also may occur. Buy plants labeled "V" or "VF."
Blossom end rot is caused by a calcium deficiency, often a result of irregular watering as well as a lack of calcium in the soil. Symptoms first appear as a water-soaked spot near the blossom end of the fruit. The spot will become brown, leathery and sunken, and may cover half of the fruit's surface. It's unsightly, but the fruit is still edible -- just cut off the damage and enjoy the rest. Avoid blossom end rot with regular and deep irrigation.
Another common tomato ailment is tobacco mosaic virus. It causes light green, yellow or white mottling on leaves, which may become stringy or distorted. It is usually caused by contact with tobacco products. Don't smoke or allow tobacco in or near your garden. Look for disease-resistant plants labeled "T."
Tomato and tobacco hornworms cause extensive damage to both plant and fruit. Look for black droppings or eggs on the leaves. It is best to hand-pick and discard them. If necessary, spray with Bacillus thuringiensis.
Russet mites are minute pests that can't be seen by the naked eye. Use a hand lens to identify their yellowish, conical-shaped bodies. They feed on leaves, stems and fruit, and if not controlled they will usually kill the plant. Apply sulfur dust or spray to young plants, and avoid planting near petunias, potatoes or other solanaceous plants that are often a host for the pest.
Blossom drop is caused by environmental issues. Insufficient pollination, lack of water, extremely high or low temperatures, and even smog -- all conditions we can't control -- are to blame.
by UC Master Gardener Rebecca Jepsen
This article first appeared in the May 1 issue of the San Jose Mercury News.