It’s been a while since we had some time to write. With two markets, farm tour last weekend, and four kids, it can be a challenge to sit down and generate some, what we would hope, valuable content to help you in your gardening endeavors.
Today we want to discuss tomatoes. The tomato is the kitchen king of the garden vegetable. Everything about the tomato signifies summer. In the garden, it signifies success. It can also be heartbreaking. Mostly just frustrating and stressful to one member of our family.
We start all of our tomatoes from seed. Honestly, I cannot remember ever planting one that was purchased from a garden shop or box store. There is something about getting those seed packets, mixing the potting soil, we make our own, and putting that seed in the fresh soil with water. It’s so exciting. And when those first tiny sprouts emerge, it’s like Christmas because you know you have a viable seed and what its potential is. That’s why when you finally put it in the ground and something happens in the negative it’s very hard.
All of what will be discussed will be based on our experience with tomato growing. Three years ago was our first time planting tomatoes in the double digits. It was roughly 20 and we had only been back in S.C. for 8 months. So when the warmer weather hit, we were like “it’s time to plant tomatoes” not paying attention to the Old Farmers Almanac on frost dates. A week after planting, I am out there at 9:00 P.M. covering plants with whatever I can find. Thankfully, we made it through. We did run into another problem about a month later in that the plants stopped growing. But we could not figure the issue out as we had amended the soil with warm castings and other amendments. It took us getting expert advice to rectify the issue.
The first year growing at our current residence was interesting. If you recall, two summers back it rained from about April until late July. Many times, we would go to the garden and see standing water, which is never a good sign. Sure enough, the plants gave up their fruit in abundance, we were excited about that, but then just turned an awful yellow-brown color. After consulting the professionals, it was assumed it was just a blight of sorts as no official tests were done. You can imagine though how this impacted our mindset when we started planting last year and knew we were doubling what was in the year before.
Last year ended up being a great year with tomatoes. We sold four to five different varieties to a mobile market as well as the normal Saturday market. And a few at retail. The great feeling we had when someone bought one was just amazing, but it almost was not the positive story…
When we expanded our growing area in March of ’14 for market-based sales, we were eager to get the amendments in the ground. In doing so, we mixed the lime, Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K), as well as the Nitrogen (N). Planting time came and we set these guys into the ground and added the water as thought correct. A few days later, boom. Everything was a crispy yellow. And sun burnt. Not good. A few more days went by, no change, a week went buy, no change. In the interim of these weeks we were researching, adding compost tea, kelp meal as a soother, etc. But no change. I finally reached out to the professionals who stated we may have V or F wilt. Again, not good. (You can see using the links below what V and F wilt are.) It was not until I posted a picture on Facebook that someone, who I go to a lot for plant information, said try adding extra nitrogen. We can say this, 9 times out of 10 in our experience when a plant yellows it has been a Nitrogen issue, so we always recommend starting there and working backwards. With some added Nitrogen, within 7 days, the plants were green as can be and produced. We look back and wonder if they would have done even better if we did not stress these guys out at the beginning.
This year has not been without some issues. We have just come to accept it. If you grow tomatoes, as we said before, be ready for a challenge. It will always be something to keep you awake. And with close to 400 in the ground and seven different varieties, you bet the sure feeling of a “sneeze” by one of our plants is a jump into action mode. That’s why two weeks back seeing some purple leaves on a tomato plant had us very concerned and rightly so. We managed to get the nutrients (NPK) in the ground when needed and at the right time. We watered on our normal routine schedule (Monday, Wednesday, Friday for 30 minutes). We pruned when needed. And the growth has been unbelievable. With very hot temps this May, we have seen blossoms and fruit like never before. So when a purple leaf turns up, it is worrisome.
Our research indicates several things. Anything from low phosphorus to bacterial spot to tomato spotted wilt virus. Of course the two former can either be corrected, low phosphorus, or slowed, bacterial spot, but the tomato spotted wilt virus is just devastating to a crop. To know for sure you would have to send a plant to a plant pathologist. As of yet, we have not decided to do so as we are hoping it’s bacterial spot. It turns out that it is rarely low phosphorus as this area is usually high in P. Also, our soil test, we have written extensively on this before and everyone should get one, showed us in the very high range. These plant disorders can impact other plants too (e.g., peppers). So a problem with one can mean a problem with many more garden veggies. It’s a good idea to rip those plants up ASAP and burn away from your other plants.
(One other action that can be taken in an effort to continue going is to spray with a copper fungicide, and yes, it’s organically accepted to use (look for the OMRI label), to the plants to slow any issue that may be going on. And spraying any other plants near by. The copper salts will help control fungal diseases that may have evaded our crops. it’s not a cure, but at this point, we are not taking a chance.)
We also use a chemical, approved in organic gardening, called B.t. to control tomato horn worms. These things can destroy a plant quickly and cannot be easily seen. But chickens love them (we feed them to the chickens when found on a plant). The B.t. stops the worm and caterpillar from eating. It’s always pleasant to see one dangling from a leaf dead as can be.
You can also have physiological issues with tomatoes. We have leaf curl right now just in our Roma tomatoes. Some say inconsistent watering causes this, which may be true as our irrigation needed adjusted, but it’s not plant threatening. At the same time, without missing a step, and I thought we would, our Romas are showing Blossom End Rot (BER). BER is caused by not having enough calcium. I am still perplexed about this as we added eggshell to the area where the plants are by side dressing. It’s frustrating, but it is usually short lived and the tomatoes can still be used by cutting off the ends impacted.
Tomato is king of the garden and everyone prides themselves on growing the best tomato around. At the farm tour last weekend, I cannot tell you how many conversations centered around the tomato. It’s a great veggie to grow, but given it’s susceptibility to disease, practice makes perfect. The good news is that some varieties are disease resistant, not sure how many of these would be non-GMO seed though, so it can be a great way to polish up those skills.
I have referenced a few links that may be of assistance to you when trying to troubleshoot. Never be hesitant to reach out to your local county extension office too.
You can read more about those diseases here: http://www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/pests/plant_pests/veg_fruit/hgic2217.html
You might find these two online tomato diagnostic tools helpful:
Tomato Problem Solver (Texas A&M) – http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/vegetable/problem-solvers/tomato-problem-solver/
Tomato Diagnostic Key (Cornell) – http://vegetablemdonline.ppath.cornell.edu/DiagnosticKeys/TomKey.html