We are talking about tomatoes again this week. I spend so much time talking about tomatoes because they are one of the most popular garden plants, and they are one of the more difficult to grow in the Carolinas.
Many people that take up gardening or move to the Carolinas from places where tomato growing is easier, fail on their first time growing tomatoes, and give up gardening. My advice for a beginner gardener in the Carolinas is to get a few seasons of experience in gardening before trying tomatoes.
We are lucky in the Carolinas in that we have two tomato seasons. We have tomatoes that are planted in the spring to be harvested in the summer, and we also have tomatoes planted in the summer, to be harvested in the fall. Now is the time to plant tomato transplants for the fall. We started our seedlings in June, and they have been outside in the shade for the past week to acclimate themselves to the summer heat.
If your spring tomatoes are still healthy, they may produce flowers again once it cools down, and give you tomatoes through the fall. But if your spring tomatoes have already died, or are looking rough, you may want to plant again. These new transplants will grow for the next month or so, and start producing flowers in September. When our summer heat breaks in September it will be cool enough for the flowers to pollinate.
Planting a tomato transplant deeply will help the plant survive the August heat… plant it as deep as you can, while leaving the leaves above ground. All the “hairs” on the stalk of the tomato will become roots, allowing the plant to take in more water and nutrients from the soil.
Plant your tomato transplants two feet apart to give them plenty of room. Tomatoes are vines, and will need to be staked, trellised or caged to encourage the plant to grow upward and keep it off the ground. Proper air flow around a vertical mature plant will protect the plant from disease. This also makes it easier to pick the tomatoes, and to inspect the plant and treat for pests. Tomato plants are heavy, so a heavy duty, 6-foot-tall stake is recommended. Also, steel cages are popular. With stakes, tie the plant to the stake with twine or cloth every 10 inches.
As the plant grows, it will need to be pruned. “Suckers” will grow between the main stem and each leaf. Check the plant weekly and pinch these “suckers” off. Try to keep the plant to two or three main stems. This will train the plant to grow more tomatoes and less leaves. Less foliage also keeps the humidity lower around the plant, lowering the chance for disease.
Speaking of disease, there are dozens of diseases, pests and physiological disorders that attack tomato plants in the Carolinas. When choosing the variety to grow, disease resistance should be one of your top criteria. Until our summertime heat breaks in September, we will watch the plant carefully for insects and weakness and try to treat as needed.
If you plant tomatoes now, you will have Fall tomatoes in October. These plants will keep producing into November until the first freeze of the season. Any tomatoes left on the plant the day before the first freeze should be picked and will make great fried green tomatoes.