This week we are planting tomatoes! This is the time many gardeners wait for all year long. Tomatoes are a popular garden item, and many people take great pride in growing their own tomatoes. It is also one of the more difficult vegetables to grow in the Carolinas.

Tomatoes grow best in our warm, but not hot weather. The plant benefits from getting in the ground as early as possible, but unlike beans and cucumbers that we have planted early recently… you really do not want to gamble with tomatoes. To make sure we are safe from frost, wait to plant tomatoes until two weeks after your average last freeze. This will keep you safe just about every year. The average last freeze in Myrtle Beach is around March 15, so you should wait to plant tomatoes after March 29. In Florence, the average last freeze is March 20, so plant after April 3rd. In Lumberton, the average last freeze is April 4th, so you need to wait until April 18 to plant tomatoes. The reason we care so much about tomatoes and are willing to gamble with beans and cukes is that we have been growing tomato seedlings for two months. Cuke and bean seeds grow much faster and are easier to replace if killed by a frost.

Make sure to harden the plant off before putting them in your garden. Put them in a shaded area outside, protected from the wind for a week before planting them in the garden. This will get them used to the harsher outdoor environment. Planting a tomato deeply will help the plant survive when it gets hot… put most of the plant underground with just two or three leaf sets showing. 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. Throughout the season, we will watch the plant carefully for insects and weakness and try to treat as needed.

Don’t let any of this scare you from trying tomatoes. It is a challenge, and that annual challenge starts now!