During the past couple of weeks, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a surge of interest in food gardening.
Whether the intent of starting a garden is to sustain your own food supply or just to provide a peaceful, outdoor activity and respite from the news, the thought of victory gardens in American’s homes again has me feeling optimistic about at least one thing during these difficult times.
If you are one of the many people who recently purchased tomato starts for your garden, read on to find out how to care for those newly planted tomatoes to ensure a robust plant and plentiful harvest.
By April, tomatoes should be well-established and putting on lots of growth and new leaves. For determinate tomato varieties, the only pruning you need to do is to carefully break off the lowest set of branches that are touching the ground to deter pests and open up the plant for airflow.
These tomato types are bushy and produce all their fruit at once so no other pruning is necessary. For indeterminate varieties, in addition to pruning off all the lower branches that touch the ground, prune off "suckers" that grow at a 45-degree angle from the main stem junction. Do this once a week as the plant grows. This will allow the plant to put more energy into rooting and producing flowers. It also keeps the plant open and easier to manage.
Your tomato plants are going to get very tall, and they will need support to keep them from falling over. While a store-bought tomato cage might be suitable for a smaller determinate type, there are some tried and true do-it-yourself methods for staking indeterminate tomato plants.
My favorite method is called the Florida weave, and it uses 8-foot wooden stakes or T-posts and garden twine. The stakes are placed at the ends of the row and in between each plant. The twine gets woven around each stake and along the front of each plant, then again around the back of each plant. A layer of twine is added about every other week as the plant grows. This keeps the plants tall and tidy with excellent airflow and easy access to the fruit. You can also find many DIY instructions for other string trellis methods, wooden obelisks or wire cattle panel cages that work well. There are many homemade trellis and support methods; find one that works for your growing conditions.
At this point, when the plant is well-established, it’s time to cut back on nitrogen, which helps produce leaves and bump up the phosphorus, which helps produce flowers. Look for a tomato-specific organic fertilizer that is higher in phosphorus, like a 5-10-5 or 5-10-10. Using the feeding guidelines on the label, scratch this gently into the soil at the base of the plant once a month.
Because we are growing organically, we are bound to see some leaf-footed squash bugs appear on our plants. These flying insects are large and can get out of hand quickly if not kept under control. Every other morning as I do my rounds in the garden, I bring a small bucket of soapy water with me and if I see one of these pests, I quickly grab it and toss it in the bucket where it gets trapped and drowns.
The other major pest associated with tomato plants is the tomato hornworm. These larvae emerge from eggs laid by the adult moth in late spring. You need to have a keen eye to find these caterpillars on your plants, because they can look just like the stem: large, round and green. The hook or horn on the back end of the caterpillar is the defining characteristic of these pests. They can do a lot of damage to a plant, even killing it if left unattended.
I am lucky to be able to feed these caterpillars to my hens as treats, but you might need to pick them off by hand and squish them. Better yet, to deter these pests from even making an appearance in your garden, make sure your soil is healthy and well-tilled. You can also interplant dill, basil and marigolds, which are excellent companion plants in all parts of the garden.
As for another frequent garden nemesis — squirrels — I recommend picking fruit early, just as it begins to turn pink, and letting it ripen inside on a windowsill.
Unfortunately, there are some common diseases that target tomatoes. Verticillium wilt, blight and blossom-end rot are the most common.
The best treatment for all vegetable diseases is prevention. Planting disease-resistant cultivars, starting with healthy soil, pulling weeds, rotating crops, spacing plants properly and mulching, fertilizing and watering properly are the best methods of prevention.
There are specific symptoms and treatments for each of these diseases, but a healthy growing environment, regular watering and good airflow between plants can go a long way in prevention.
If your plants continue to suffer from diseases, try growing many of the disease-resistant varieties. These varieties are labeled with letters behind the name of the plant to signify which disease or pest they are bred to resist.
Hopefully your diligence and hard work will pay off, and in a couple of months you will be enjoying your bounty.
The best tomato recipes are the simplest. The following is a recipe using cherry tomatoes, which produce in abundance. Roasting tomatoes slowly in the oven brings out the sugar content, almost caramelizing them. This confit can be spooned over pasta or crusty bread and is extra decadent when served warm over Texas Bee Tree Mi Corazon goat cheese as a dip with baguette slices. You can currently find Texas Bee Tree cheeses at Texas Farmers Market and Farmhouse Delivery.
Roasted cherry tomato confit
3 cups cherry tomatoes
3-4 garlic cloves
1⁄2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Handful of chopped herbs like thyme, basil, parsley and chives (or whatever you have on hand)
1 teaspoon salt
4-6 ounces goat cheese
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a glass or ceramic baking dish, add the tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, herbs and salt. Bake for 45-50 minutes until the tomatoes are soft. Remove from the oven and serve immediately over pasta or crusty bread, or let this cool while you prepare the goat cheese.
Place the goat cheese in a medium ramekin. Top the cheese with the warm tomato confit mixture. Serve immediately with a sliced baguette and spread with a knife.