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Wednesday, May 2, 2007 04:32 pm

Tomato-planting time

They grow best with even soil temperature

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Untitled Document One of my favorite summer treats is a ripe, juicy, fresh-picked tomato from my garden. I think that we can all agree that the quality of produce picked from the garden surpasses anything available at the supermarket. Growing at least one tomato plant is a must for most home gardeners. Here are a few tips for helping you select and grow the perfect tomato:
The recommended planting date for tomatoes is May 10, after the danger of frost has passed. Some gardeners with the urge to have the first ripe tomato on the block have already set out their plants. Although they may have a slight head start, tomato plants don’t take off in the garden until temperatures are fairly warm. There are hundreds of cultivars of tomatoes, including hybrids and heirlooms. In addition to taste, you should consider several characteristics when selecting a cultivar: color, fruit shape and size, season of maturity, plant size, disease resistance, and culinary use. Garden centers and greenhouses offer a large selection of tomato cultivars, so making a selection can be difficult. Ask other gardeners what they like to grow and try a new cultivar each year. Fruit colors include red, pink, yellow, orange, white, and green. If you are growing tomatoes for slicing and eating, select a cultivar with good disease resistance that will produce an abundant supply of medium-to-large tomatoes. Large tomatoes hold more juice and seeds. If you plan to use tomatoes for canning or to make salsa, ketchup, or sauce, select a paste type, which are meaty and have a low moisture content. Small-fruited cherry and grape tomatoes are sweet and great for salads. Tomatoes vary in their days to maturity from 45 to 80 days. Jet Star and Early Girl are early-producing cultivars, Better Boy and Celebrity mature mid-season, and Beefmaster matures late in the season. Tomato plants vary in ultimate plant height. Determinate plants grow until they produce flower clusters at the end of a growing point. This causes the plant to stop growing taller. They also flower and set all their fruit in a relatively short period of time. This is good for gardeners who plan to can tomatoes, because the fruit ripens in a short time frame. Indeterminate tomato plants tend to mature later but flower and set fruit until frost. Flower clusters form on the sides of stems, and plants continue to grow indefinitely. Tomato plants are fairly easy to grow, but climate changes, nutritional deficiencies, and diseases can sometimes cause problems. Verticillium and Fusarium are soil-borne fungi that cause yellowing of leaves, wilting, and premature plant death. These organisms persist in the soil, so if disease has been a problem in previous years, select a disease-resistant cultivar. Many cultivar names are followed by one or more letters indicating resistance: V for Verticillium wilt, F for Fusarium wilt, T for tobacco mosaic virus, and N for nematodes. Start out with strong, healthy plants. Select plants with straight, sturdy stems (about the diameter of a pencil) and dark-green leaves free of insects and signs of disease. Put plants in a full-sun location. Don’t crowd them together; this reduces the amount of light each plant gets, which discourages growth and encourages the development of disease. Provide support to the plants with cages or stakes. Caged or staked tomato plants take up less space and produce more fruit, and the support of the stake or cage will keep fruit off the ground, helping prevent rot. Place the stakes or cages at planting time. Tomato plants grow best with even soil moisture. Consider mulching your plants to conserve moisture and suppress weeds. Even soil moisture is especially important once fruit starts to develop: Blossom-end rot can result from lack of moisture, and fruits may split if the plants are overwatered. Established plants need about an inch of water per week. For more information about growing tomatoes and other garden vegetables, go to the University of Illinois Extension’s “Watch Your Garden Grow” Web site, www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/veggies.
Jennifer Fishburn is a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension Sangamon-Menard Unit. Contact her at www.extension.uiuc.edu/Sangamon. 
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