By T. Eric Nightingale, UC Master Gardener of Napa County
Spring is finally here and that means that tomato season is around the corner. Don't get too excited, though. Even though seedlings will be showing up in nurseries, it's best to wait to plant them.
Tomatoes need warm air and soil, as well as a lot of sunlight, to grow strong and healthy. Planting too early can leave them spindly and weak.
Should you want to be sure the time is right, test the soil temperature with a soil thermometer. It should be 60°F or more at a depth of two to three inches. Usually this occurs in early May.
Choosing a proper location for your tomato garden is important. The spot should get several hours of sunlight each day. You may have a prime spot but don't overuse it. Like other members of the nightshade family, tomatoes nurture the soil fungi Fusarium and Verticillium. The soil can become infected if tomatoes are planted in the same location too many years in a row. Rotating your tomato planting locations, or changing out the soil in a raised bed, will prevent the fungus from affecting your vegetables.
Plant tomatoes deeply. First, remove any leaves below the top eight inches. Place the seedling at a slight angle in the hole so that only the top eight inches sit about the hole. The plant's buried stem will push fresh roots, giving the young plant increased access to water and nutrients. Tomatoes also need a good deal of room to grow, so plant them at least two feet apart.
After your seedlings are all snug in their beds, they need some nurturing. If you are concerned about hungry animals or other threats, cover the tomatoes with the top half of a large soda bottle. Not only can this keep them from becoming someone's midnight snack, but it provides them with a personal greenhouse to keep them warm.
Tomatoes thrive with water, especially in the early days. Make sure to give them enough that the water soaks deep into the soil. This will ensure the plants get enough water immediately but will also encourage their roots to follow the water deep into the soil, helping the plants stay hydrated later.
As your plants grow, they will likely require support. Some tomatoes are “determinant” and grow into a shrub only a few feet tall. Many others are “indeterminate,” however, and will continue to grow like a vine until cold weather arrives.
For these motivated climbers you will need a tomato cage or other device. I have used a few stakes placed in a circle around the plant, with loose string or plant tape strung between them. This structure provides enough support while also allowing me to easily harvest the fruits of my labor.
Tomatoes can self-pollinate, so it's possible to get fruit while growing only one plant. The pollen still needs to move from one flower to the next, though. To be sure this happens, give your plants a light shake every morning. This jostling will knock some pollen airborne and help the process along.
Calcium deficiency can be a challenge with tomatoes. You'll recognize the symptoms when you see fruit with an ugly brown circle on one end. Called blossom-end rot, this condition can sometimes be averted by using a foliar calcium spray available at most garden centers. Adding a calcium-rich soil amendment at planting time, such as crushed egg shells or gypsum, can also help.
For general feeding, a high-phosphorus fertilizer will usually provide the best results in tomato production. In an ideal world, you would test the soil and adjust the fertilizer based on the results. Kits to do this are readily available, but I have experienced mixed results.
My preferred approach to growing tomatoes is to start with a balanced fertilizer containing plenty of nitrogen, the nutrient responsible for leaf and stem growth. When flower buds are about to appear, I switch to a low-nitrogen, high-phosphorus mix to focus nutrition on bud development. Once fruit sets, I go back to a balanced fertilizer. This regimen is possibly overkill, but it has worked for me so far.
Experiment and find what practices work best in your garden. With hard work and a little luck, you will be on the path to a bountiful harvest.
Workshop: UC Master Gardeners of Napa County will hold a workshop on “Flowers and Foliage in the House” on Saturday, April 27, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m, at University of California Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Napa. Something changes when you put fresh flowers or greenery in a room. This workshop will cover choosing and planting annuals and perennials that work well for cutting, starting seeds, preparing your soil, direct-sowing seeds, selecting pollinator-friendly flowers and flower arranging. Participants will take home seeds and flower starts. Online registration (credit card only); Mail-in/Walk-in registration (check only or drop off cash payment).
UC Master Gardeners of Napa County have begun the process of re-establishing a demonstration garden in Napa Valley. For further developments, please visit the Demonstration Garden link on our website ( http://napamg.ucanr.edu/).
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County (http:/napamg.ucanr.edu) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.
When should you plant your garden tomatoes? Every year the seedlings arrive in nurseries and big-box stores by the middle of February. These tomatoes have been grown in a hothouse and do not like cold feet. They also prefer warm leaves, so don't put them out too early.
Wait until the soil temperature is at least 60°F during the day. Even without measuring I can tell that my soil is not close to that as the water coming out of my well is very cold. You can purchase a soil thermometer or use a compost thermometer if you have one. Measure the soil at a depth of two to three inches. The soil in my raised beds is currently just under 50°F.
If you have already purchased seedlings and the soil is too cool, then transplant the seedlings into gallon containers and keep them in a warm place until the ground warms. One friend kept them in his garage at night and dragged them out every morning until the soil warmed.
When the time comes to plant my tomatoes, I make sure the weeds are gone and the soil is smooth. Then I put cover the entire bed with clear plastic sheeting to keep the soil warm. I use pipes, boards and ground staples to keep the plastic flat. I determine how much room I need for each plant by placing my tomato cages feet up on the plastic. Then I cut a hole in the plastic inside each cage for the tomato. After I make the hole, I set the tomato cage aside but leave the plastic in place.
Tomatoes root easily along the main stem so if they are tall and lanky, dig a deep hole for them. Plant the seedling as deeply as possible, right up to the first set of leaves. Refill the planting hole with soil, lightly tamp it down, then water well.
Now place the cage around the tomato plant, pushing the legs right through the plastic and deep into the soil. Drive a stake into the ground inside the cage to stabilize it when the vine gets big. Square cages work much better than round ones. I have re-used some of my cages for many years.
As the plants start to grow, I protect them by wrapping the lower part of the cages with a couple of layers of Bubble Wrap. I secure it to the cages with clothespins. I also use a clothes pin on the plant tag so it stays with the plant. I have also used two-gallon plastic water bottles to protect small plants. I simply cut off the bottom of the bottle and place the whole thing over the plant.
Whatever method you use to water your tomatoes, be sure to water deeply. Ten minutes on a drip system is not enough. Once the plants are established, I usually water once a week. You can measure how deep the water has penetrated by pushing a piece of Rebar into the soil and noting where you meet resistance. Do not over fertilize, too much nitrogen encourages leaves not flowers. Once the flowers have begun to set fruit a dilute fertilizer or worm tea may be used every other week to keep plants healthy.
Tomatoes flowers are self-pollinating. Every morning I walk through the garden and shake the stems that have flowers on them. Bumblebees can do this for you using a technique known as buzz pollination or sonication. Their movement transfers the pollen from the anthers to the female part of the flower. Wind will also do this.
If you find a tomato you love and you want to save seeds, only harvest seeds from the healthiest vigorous and non-hybrid plants. Hybrid plant seeds will not produce the same kind of plant. Wait until the tomato ripens fully on the plant before you pick it then remove the seeds and spread them on a paper towel. Write the tomato's name and the year on the towel. Then let the towel air dry, store it in a dry place and save it until the following spring.
To start seeds, lay a piece of paper towel, seeds up, on the surface of a pot filled with soil. Water it and keep it moist. The seeds will grow through the towel to form roots. Reserve the strongest seedlings for planting.
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County ( http://ucanr.edu/ucmgnapa/) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.