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Tomato Pitfalls

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Oh, my aching muscles...

How to avoid them

By ML Dehm
One of the greatest joys of gardening is being able to share your bounty with your friends. Homegrown tomatoes are, without a doubt, one of the most appreciated gifts that you can give. There is also a glowing sense of pride from dispensing your own homegrown produce.

But the actual growing of a plant from seed to fruition is filled with avoidable pitfalls. This article will help point out some of the major hurdles the tomato grower faces in our region.

It starts with a seed catalog.

The skies have been grey and misty for months, your spirits are low. Who can resist those beautiful photos and promises? Pictures of tomatoes bigger than a grapefruit, rich red beefsteaks which could make you the envy of the neighborhood.

Your hand hesitates over the order form. Wait a minute! Rewind! Did you read the description? 90-100 days to maturity and withstands hot, dry climates. Unless you have a greenhouse or you’re prepared to pamper it, this is not a tomato for most areas of the Pacific Northwest.  It’s not impossible to grow long season tomatoes, but you will need to have a sheltered spot or a warm wall to provide what they need.

There are many tomato varieties available that have been bred specifically to thrive in our cooler, damper weather. The best way to find these tomatoes is to consult local catalogs and nurseries. If the description doesn’t specify a maturity date, look for the words "determinate" and "indeterminate" in the description.

Determinate varieties are shorter plants that tend to produce their fruit in a relatively short period of time. Indeterminate varieties are larger, sprawling plants which take longer to grow and produce but will continue to produce over a longer period. Choose a disease-resistant variety if you know which diseases are prevalent in your area.

Check the date.
There is a mistaken belief that starting your seeds earlier than recommended will produce bigger plants that fruit faster. What you will actually end up with is a load of very leggy, stressed plants.

Seeds should be started no earlier than eight weeks before the last frost date. Use a sterile potting soil in order to prevent damping off, a fungus that causes the seedlings to die.

Although it seems like a lot of extra work, it really benefits the seedlings to be transplanted into a larger container after they produce their first set of true leaves. This encourages the plant to develop its root system rather than putting all of its energy into leggy, fast top growth. Fertilization at this stage needs to be kept light for the same reason.

Hardening off your plants simply means giving them some time outdoors during the day to adjust to cooler temperatures and ambient breezes. Plants shouldn’t be left out overnight until weather is warmer and dry. While your plants are hardening off in a sheltered area, its time to plan their new home in the garden.

Rotating your tomato plantings each year is a good idea in our climate due to the prevalence of fungal blights and wilts. Remember that potatoes can also carry the same diseases. Choose a sunny area where you did not grow tomatoes or potatoes the year before.

Test the soil too.
Tomatoes prefer a soil pH above 5.5, rich in organic matter. Dolomite lime can correct acidic soil. Some gardeners  bury the plant a little deeper than its growing level in the pot to encourage extra root growth. Use a floating row cover for protection. It will provide the extra heat the plants crave. If the cover touches the leaves, it can  burn the leaves and can promote fungal growth.

Be sure to check regularly for pests too. Plants aren’t the only ones to enjoy the warm, frost-free atmosphere! As the plants grow, you will want to stake or trellis them to keep the leaves and fruit off the ground. Wooden stakes and nylon stockings are effective supports, as are purchased tomato cages, but they are less liable to damage the plant in the wind. Watering is best done at ground level (damp foliage encourages blights).

Mulching can also be good for your tomatoes. Wait until the ground is thoroughly warm before applying the mulch. New red plastic mulches have recently been developed which are said to increase yield. It helps to fertilize once or twice during the growing season but if you’re using a commercial fertilizer, choose one with a higher phosphorus rating.

Once your tomatoes have produced fruit you can give yourself a pat on the back. Pacific Northwest tomato growing is an art which must be carefully mastered. Your friends will love the gift of a home-grown tomato! Leave the stem on the fruit to add to the aroma of your pickings. Add some fresh basil to your gift and maybe next year they’ll help with the work!
Tomatoes can be challenging to grow in a mild maritime-influenced climate. NWGN archive published February 1999.

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