Tomatoes are the rock stars of the summer harvest and this is the time of the growing season when many tomato growers are counting down the days until they harvest plenty of ripe fruit. It’s also the time of the season when gardeners should go all out to maximize the productivity of tomato plants to harvest bushels of big, ripe red (or yellow, purple, or multicolored) beauties.
The water content of a ripe tomato is around 95%, which means that tomato plants will need at least 1½ inches of water each week, either from rain or supplemental irrigation. Tomatoes have deep root systems and frequent shallow watering, which moistens the top inch or two of soil, will do little to provide the amount of water tomatoes need. A weekly deep watering that moistens the soil to a depth of 12 to 14 inches will produce more and larger fruit than a frequent shallow watering.
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Best Way to Grow Tomatoes: Consistent Soil Moisture Is Key
A lack of consistent and consistent soil moisture can also lead to physiological disorders such as blossom end rot and fruit cracking. Blossom end rot is where the bottom of the tomato turns into a black, sunken canker. It is a symptom of a lack of calcium in the developing fruit that occurs when the soil is not kept constantly moist, preventing the roots of the plant from absorbing the calcium present in the soil. Dramatic fluctuations in soil moisture can also cause cracks at the end of the fruit stem.
Be sure to water the soil, not the foliage, to keep the foliage dry, which will reduce the potential for spreading fungal spores that cause leaf scorch. A 2 to 3 inch layer of organic mulch will also help retain soil moisture and even out large variations in soil moisture.
Pruning for productivity
Eliminating suckers, which are side shoots appearing in the leaf axils between the stem and a leaf, will result in a more open plant, which produces fewer but larger tomatoes, as the suckers directly compete with the main stem for water, nutrients and sunlight.
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In addition to removing suckers, removing leaves from the lowest 8 to 10 inches of tomato plants will conserve energy for flowering and fruit set, and reduce the possibility of fungal spores splashing onto plant foliage. The leaves can be removed with scissors or secateurs, but be sure to disinfect the tools with bleach if you see signs of fungal disease such as yellowing and browning of the lower leaves of the plant.
Continue to fertilize
Tomatoes are heavy eaters of soil nutrients and the recent heavy and heavy rains experienced in greater Columbus may have moved some soil nutrients below the root zone of tomato plants.
Be sure to use a fertilizer high in phosphorus, which is responsible for developing extensive root systems and lots of flowers and fruits. Applying too much nitrogen at this time of the season tends to produce bushy, leafy tomato plants with few flowers or fruit.
Scout for pests
To maximize production, be sure to inspect tomato plants closely for the presence of insects and signs of fungal diseases. At this time of the season, be on the lookout for chinch bugs, aphids, flea beetles, Colorado potato beetle and spider mites.
In a few weeks, start looking for the large tomato worms, which can quickly devour the foliage of tomato plants. Signs of fungal diseases such as yellowing, browning and wilting of leaves on the lower part of the plant will require removal and disposal of affected foliage. Do not add infected leaves to the compost heap.
Growing large tomatoes
Many gardeners aim to grow the biggest tomatoes possible. The key to growing large tomatoes is to select large, indeterminate tomato varieties such as Porterhouse, Rhode Island Giant, Big Zac, and Bull’s Heart. Indeterminate tomato varieties are those that do not stop growing when they reach a specific height. They also continue to flower and fruit for a longer period during the growing season than determinate varieties.
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If you are currently growing tall varieties of tomatoes and want to maximize the size of your tomatoes, remove the new flowers at the top of the plant as the older fruits near the bottom of the plant begin to grow. This will force the plant to use its energy to produce fewer but larger tomatoes.
And don’t forget to keep groundhogs away from your tomatoes, as they tend to feed on the larger fruits just before they’re ready to harvest!
For more information on growing tomatoes in the home garden, go to: go.osu.edu/aggingtomatoes.