Frequently Asked Questions

Tomatoes

Should Tomatoes Be Pruned

First off, know your variety! Never prune a 'determinate' type tomato, or you will lose production!

Indeterminate varieties vary in their response to pruning, some reportedly have increased yields when the young plant is pruned back to three or four vines. Experiment with your favorite varieties to see how they respond.

Also,removing new flowers and immature fruit near the end of the growing season can help speed ripening of mature fruit.

Is pruning necessary at all? No. Tomatoes will do just fine left to sprawl, though fruits that touch the ground are far more likely to be lost to insects, disease or rot.

But if you have the memory of your ancestors' glorious 7-foot-tall staked tomato plants and want to grow them that way, you'll need to prune a bit. By pruning, I mean removing the excess vines, which form where a leaf meets the main stem. A simple pinch does the job, but if you use pruners be sure to disinfect them with bleach to prevent spread of disease.

When plants are large enough to begin staking, you'll want to remove all but 2-3 vines, and tie them to the stake, with supports about every 10 inches. You'll likely need to remove some top growth later, to keep the overall weight down. On some varieties, pruning and staking will result in larger, cleaner fruit, but yields will be lower, and subject to sunscald due to losing the protection from the foliage.

A good compromise is growing in cages. The fruit stays clean, no pruning is necessary, and yields are large. Building or buying tomato cages is a bit of an outlay initially, but well-made cages will last many years. Another solution is growing on wooden ladders or trellises, some time is required each week to work the vines between the supports

Why do flowers on tomato plant die & fall off?

"Blossom-Drop" is a condition suffered by tomatoes, peppers, snap beans, and some other fruiting vegetables where the plant blooms but fails to set fruit, the blooms die and fall off. It may be caused by the use of excess nitrogen fertilizers or dry windy conditions, but the most common cause is temperature extremes. Tomatoes, peppers and beans are especially picky about the air temps when it comes time to set fruit. If the night temps fall below 55 or rise above 75 or if the day temps are above 90, the pollen becomes tacky and non-viable. Pollination cannot occur. If the bloom isn't pollinated, the bloom dies and falls off.

Control: Water the plants deeply once a week, mulch heavily to maintain constant soil moisture levels, establish windbreaks as needed, avoid using excessive amounts of nitrogen fertilizers, and wait for temperatures to moderate and stabilize. Earlier timed planting can help attain fruit set prior to the on-set of high temps, and the use of protection can compensate for cool nights. Some recommend attempting hand-pollination with an artist brush or a gentle shaking of the plant/cage/support prior to the hottest part of the day will also help. Fruit set will resume when temperatures moderate.

How do I start tomatoes from seed?

Planting seed: The right time to plant tomato seed is 10 to 12 weeks prior to your average last frost date.

Tomato seedlings are susceptible to damping off, so a warm area, soiless mixes amended with a small amount of bone meal and a fresh new florescent light bulb set close to the tops of plants is in order. By close I mean no more than six inches from the growing tip of the plant.

The debate of 16 hours of light vs. 24 constant light per day may never be satisfactorily won by one side or the other. However cold soil leads to damping off, so when the lights are off the seedlings still need to be warm (75 to 85F). At home that may be on top of your refrigerator, at night.

Plan on potting up at least once from what ever you use to start seedlings in. In fact twice (i.e. from a six pack to a 4" pot, to a 6" pot) every time the roots start to wind around in their pot.

Never ever use a loess soil based "potting soil" to start tomatoes, the soil particle size is too small to permit good gas exchange in the roots. Use a soiless mix or homemade equivalents, made of 2 part peat moss, 2 part finished compost, and 1 part vermiculite or pearlite, and a dash of bone meal. Pure peat--peat pots work for some people I find them more than averagely susceptible to damping-off problems. Mixes containing milled sphagnum have a natural antifungal effect, resulting in less damping-off.

Planting plants:

Hardening seedlings is an art. The short of this subsection is to gradually let your plants become accustomed to full sunlight and wind, find a very protected area and start on days above 60F with wind protection. Expect it to take 10 to 14 days of hardening off.

From 2 weeks before your last average frost date and two weeks after you will want to plant to field. If you must strive for the first ripe tomatoes on your block and you do not have a very protected microclimate in your garden you must look to things like wall'o'water towers or some kind of temporary cold frame to erect around your seedlings. If terms like 'micro-climate' are greek to you, plan for a later planting date rather than an earlier one.

You should be planting in a well drained bed that has been prepared in advance of planting. Wet cold gooey soil means that not much growing is going to happen. Corn and tomatoes both like soil that is warmed to 60F.

Trellis:

These are particularly helpfull for indeterminate plants which can weight in excess of 100 pounds each. I recommend the stoutest and tallest trellis you can afford to build.

What is blossom-end rot? How can I prevent it?

Blossom-end rot is a disorder of tomato, squash, pepper, and all other fruiting vegetables. You notice that a dry sunken decay has developed on the blossom end (opposite the stem) of many fruit, especially the first fruit of the season. This is not a pest, parasite or disease process but is a physiological problem caused by a low level of calcium in the fruit itself.

Symptoms

Blossom-end rot usually begins as a small "water-soaked looking" area at the blossom end of the fruit while still green. As the lesion develops, it enlarges, becomes sunken and turns tan to dark brown to black and leathery. In severe cases, it may completely cover the lower half of the fruit, becoming flat or concave, often resulting in complete destruction of the infected fruit.

Cause

Calcium is required in relatively large concentrations for normal cell growth. When a rapidly growing fruit is deprived of calcium, the tissues break down, leaving the characteristic lesion at the blossom end. Blossom-end rot develops when the fruit's demand for calcium exceeds the supply in the soil. This may result from low calcium levels in the soil, drought stress, excessive soil moisture, and/or fluctuations due to rain or overwatering . These conditions reduce the uptake and movement of calcium into the plant, or rapid, vegetative growth due to excessive nitrogen fertilization.

Management

Adequate preparation of the garden bed prior to planting is the key to preventing BER. Insure adequately draining soil in the bed by adding needed ammendments, maintain the soil pH around 6.5 - a pH out of this range limits the uptake of calcium. Lime (unless the soil is already alkaline), composted manures or bone meal will supply calcium but take time to work so must be applied prior to planting. Excess ammonial types of nitrogen in the soil can reduce calcium uptake as can a depleted level of phosphorus. After planting, avoid deep cultivation that can damage the plant roots, use mulch to help stabilize soil moisture levels and help avoid drought stress, avoid overwatering as plants generally need about one inch of moisture per week from rain or irrigation for proper growth and development.

Once the problem develops, quick fixes are difficult. Stabilize the moisture level as much as possible, feeding with manure or compost tea is recommended by many, foliar applications of calcium are of questionable value according to research because of poor absorption and movement to fruit where it is needed but many have reported that foliar application of magnesium (epsom salts) can effect added calcium uptake. Other various suggestions consist of powdered milk, crushed egg shells tea, bone meal tea, Tums tablets, etc. but prevention is the key. Some recommend removing affected fruit from to reduce stress in the plant.

BER should not be confused with fruit abortion or inadequate pollination although the symptoms may appear similar. The onset of BER occurs only after the fruit is well on it's way to development while insufficient pollination problems terminate the fruit while still quite small.

What is the difference between "determinate" and "indeterminate" tomatoes?

Determinate varieties of tomatoes, also called "bush" tomatoes, are varieties that are bred to grow to a compact height (approx. 4 feet).

They stop growing when fruit sets on the terminal or top bud, ripen all their crop at or near the same time (usually over a 2 week period), and then die.

They may require a limited amount of caging and/or staking for support, should NOT be pruned or "suckered" as it severely reduces the crop, and will perform relatively well in a container (minimum size of 5-6 gallon). Examples are: Rutgers, Roma, Celebrity (called a semi-determinate by some), and Marglobe.

Indeterminate varieties of tomatoes are also called "vining" tomatoes. They will grow and produce fruit until killed by frost and can reach heights of up to 10 feet although 6 feet is considered the norm. They will bloom, set new fruit and ripen fruit all at the same time throughout the growing season.

They require substantial caging and/or staking for support and pruning and the removal of suckers is practiced by many but is not mandatory. The need for it and advisability of doing it varies from region to region. Experiment and see which works best for you. Because of the need for substantial support and the size of the plants, indeterminate varieties are not usually recommended as container plants. Examples are: Big Boy, Beef Master, most "cherry" types, Early Girl, most heirloom varieties, etc.

Is it normal for Sweet Million tomatoes to continue to grow onwards at the ends of the trusses

Yes it's quite normal for some varieties to keep growing past the truss. This is common with cherry type tomato varieties. Sweet million is a classic cherry variety that has many tomatoes on each truss and is very prolific.

My favourite sweet cherry tomato is Sungold. An orange variety which is also vigorous and prolific. It also has the tendency to continue growing past the trusses due to it's vigorous habit.

Whilst your tomato plants need some leaves for photosynthesis to take place, most growers will pinch out any leaf growth that may rob the fruit trusses of nutrients. So it is a good practice to stop green leaf growth after the truss.

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