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GROWING BETTER TOMATOES

If you are not a vegetable gardener, you might still put out a tomato plant or two.  There is no better taste than a fresh tomato picked ripe and warmed by the sun.  Tomatoes are easy to grow if you just follow a few simple steps.

First, look for tomato plants with the designation VF, VFN, or VFNT after their name.  VF letters mean the plants have been bred to be resistant to verticillium and fusarium wilts.  Add the ''N'' and they are resistant to nematodes and the ''T'' adds resistance to tobacco mosaic.

All of those diseases are deadly to tomato plants.  In addition, once nematodes enter your garden soil, they will attack your plants for years.  They are very difficult to remove.  Play it safe and buy strong, healthy plants that have built-in resistance.

Tomatoes are one of the few crops that can have their stems covered.  You really cannot plant them too deeply (unless you cover all of the foliage).  Remove bottom foliage, leaving a cluster at the top.  In the South, sink the roots almost all the way up to the top foliage.

In northern gardens, dig a root ball hole and a graduated trench leading to it.  Carefully lay the tomato plant roots into the hole with the stem in the trench and the leaves above ground.  Cover the stem and roots with soil.  Roots will develop all along the buried stem.  Tomatoes love to have their roots very warm.  Keeping them near the surface rather than burying them ensures that the roots will get plenty of heat.

Tomatoes are heavy feeders.  Water the new plants right after setting out, using diluted fish emulsion or starter fertilizer according to the label directions.  Plant tomatoes in a compost-enriched soil and then fertilize frequently throughout the growing season.  Tomatoes also require a pH of 6.0 to 6.5.  If you have acid soil, correct it with lime before you plant.

Use heavy mulch around your plants to hold moisture in the soil and keep down weeds.  The main reason for tomato blossom-end rot (soft, concave, squishy tomato bottom that ruins the fruit) is allowing the plants to be stressed by going dry.  Keep the soil moist but not wet.

You can curtail blossom end rot and save the rest of your fruit with ample water and an application of calcium chloride mixed in water.  Find the calcium chloride for tomatoes in small bottles in garden supply stores.  Follow the label directions for drenching the plant and roots with the solution.

If you wish to raise tomatoes in containers, look for the midget, patio, or dwarf varieties.  These plants are usually determinate, meaning they stop growing, produce their fruit, and then are finished.

Main season and late season tomato crops are indeterminate.  They keep on growing and setting fruit until frost or they wear out, whichever comes first.  Their vines can become very tall and should be staked or caged.

Main season tomatoes and beefsteaks should be planted in the ground.  Beefsteaks produce large fruit for slicing onto sandwiches.  They are a late season tomato.  Their large fruit takes longer to mature.

Before long, we will be enjoying our favorite tomato, whether it is the sugary tiny cherry tomato or a larger slicer.  Tomato time is just a May or June away.



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