Early Start for Better Tomato Crop
Tomatoes are the most popular vegetable grown in Texas gardens. Learning more about growing them will aid you in harvesting a maximum crop. Tomatoes will grow in almost any type of soil with good drainage and at least 6 hours of daily sunlight.
Now is the time to begin preparing your tomato bed. Tomatoes will produce best with lots of organic matter in the soil. Therefore, prepare the soil bed by adding at least 3 inches of compost into the top 4 to 6 inches of soil. Do not work the soil if it sticks to your tools. If you do not have adequate garden space, try a 10-gallon pot.
Most families only need a few plants. By starting now, you can have a head start on the season. Transplants are your best option at this time of year. Begin checking with the local nurseries now to learn when the first transplants are expected. Once purchased, move the plants to larger pots. Put a 4″ potted tomato into a gallon pot (in potting soil). Until about March 15 (average last frost date), set them out in the sun during the day and bring them into the garage at night. This will “harden them off” and direct sunlight keeps them from getting leggy. A little wind makes the stems stronger. So far, this winter is milder than usual, which means you might put a few tomatoes out in the garden early.
When the night temperatures are above 55 degrees tomatoes will “set”. The goal is to set as many as possible before the summer heat arrives which is often in June but can be earlier. Starting early and choosing a variety that does well in Central Texas will contribute to a maximum harvest. Tomato growers all have their favorites. Small or medium fruited tomatoes do best in Central Texas. In choosing the variety, look for lots of letters after their name. The more alphabet letters, the more disease resistant is the tomato. For example, VFN following the name suggests resistance to two diseases and nematodes. Grow two or three different varieties to hedge your bet. My favorites last year were ‘Bush Early Girl’, ‘Champion’, and ‘Juliet’.
When you put your transplants into the ground, incorporate 1/4 to 1/2 cup of complete slow release fertilizer into the soil for each plant. Also, be sure the young plants are well watered while still in their pots. Furthermore, additional fertilizer should not be added until the first cluster of fruit sets. After fruit set, work in 1 level tablespoons of high nitrogen fertilizer about 6 inches from each stalk. Too much fertilizer results in a lovely bush and no tomatoes! As the tomatoes ripen, fertilize ever 3 to 4 weeks with not more than 2 tablespoons of fertilizer.
Tomatoes should be protected from blowing wind and late frosts. Using crop row cover around the cages will protect the plants from wind and will give up to 4 degrees of frost protection. My favorite protective device is the ‘water wall’, which can be reused for years. I have never lost a tomato plant to late freezes when using the water wall. These are available from local nurseries. Several layers of newspapers or gallon jugs of water placed around the plant will also provide some protection from late frosts.
During the growing season, a layer (2 to 3 Inches) of mulch will keep the weeds at bay and reduce water evaporation. Support each plant with stakes or cages. Tomatoes that come in contact with the soil will often rot or be attacked by insects.
As the tomato plant grows, keep it adequately watered and check frequently for insect damage. Harvesting tomatoes when pink is a sure way to prevent bird damage. They will ripen well in the house.