For starters, I know we are still in winter. I know the ground is wet and it has been cold. On the flipside, in about four months, it will be a great time to be rolling with a warm season vegetable garden.
Growing up, I was not a big fan of fresh garden tomatoes. I know that may get me kicked out of Georgia, but I was not a fan. I loved tomato soup and tomato sauces, but fresh sliced tomatoes were not on my list. At some point, I joined the fresh tomato club because I now tremendously enjoy a fresh sliced tomato on a hamburger or sandwich.
Today, I wanted to give reminders for our home garden tomatoes growers in the area. I will be using information from a UGA publication by Bob Westerfield, a UGA Extension horticulturist.
A good place to start today will be on soil requirements for tomato gardening. You will see me mention soil testing in most articles that I type. That will be true in tomato gardening also.
Tomato plants need a soil that is in the 6.2 to 6.8 pH range. We can be lower or more acidic in soil pH in our area so soil testing can be important. A properly taken soil test can give you accurate liming recommendations to improve an acidic soil.
If you sample now and a dolomitic limestone recommendation is given, you can work the lime in the soil several months before planting season. Lime reacts with soil slowly so that is the reason for getting it out sooner. Dolomitic lime also will provide calcium and magnesium which can also be important for plant growth and health.
No matter how much I suggest to run a soil test, some clients will not do it. In absence of a soil test, you can apply lime at a rate of 5 pounds per 100 square feet. I will add that if you do run a soil test and the pH is normal, but the calcium is low, it is suggested to apply gypsum at the rate of 1 pound per 100 square feet.
I think it is fair to say that most tomato gardeners purchase transplants instead of growing their own plants from seed. If you do grow from seed, you will need to start your tomatoes from seed indoors four to seven weeks prior to planting in the garden.
It is suggested that if you start from seed indoors, you need to use a light soil mix and try to give the plants plenty of light. You may need supplemental light if you do not have a south facing sunny window. Westerfield also suggests to harden off indoor grown tomato plants approximately a week before planting. Hardening off is exposing them to increasing number of hours of light each day before transplanting in the garden.
When you plant the actual transplants are important. The simple rule is to wait to plant till after the danger of frost has passed. I am fully aware that many gardeners will try to plant earlier, but keep in mind that early planted tomatoes are normally placed in cold and damp soils. These plants are also susceptible to cold damage from late frosts.
I know folks like to be able to say they grew the first vine ripe tomato in the neighborhood, but waiting till after frost time has passed may result in more gardening success. Keep in mind that tomatoes are warm-season plants that prefer temperatures in the 70 to 80 degree range. Tomatoes need to be planted in a spot that will give eight hours of sunlight per day.
Another tip is to plant tomatoes in a spot where you can provide supplemental water when needed. Tomato plants will need 1 to 2 inches of water per week depending on soil type in the garden. This would be a good time to think about irrigation needs for the garden area. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation is a good option. Going this route will help put the water where you need it, help conserve water and will keep the foliage of the plants dry. Wet foliage can lead to disease issue because of our additional Georgia heat, humidity and pathogens in the area.
What tomato variety you plant is all up to you, but keep in mind you have many options available. You may want to try a new variety from time to time, but many people are locked into certain varieties. Varieties grown can be family tradition or because of the end goal of the tomatoes. My grandfather basically always grew Better Boys so that is what we would plant year to year.
Some gardeners may want to go with a determinate variety because they do a lot of canning. Determinate varieties are more compact bush types that will produce most of the tomatoes at one time. The indeterminate varieties have fruit clusters that will grow all season.
In making variety selections, I would also keep in mind to take advantage of resistant options that some varieties provide to some of the disease, virus and insect issues.
As we get closer to gardening season, we will revisit tomatoes and cover more topics.
For more information, contact UGA Extension- Gordon County at 706-629-8685 or email Extension Agent Greg Bowman at firstname.lastname@example.org.