Texans love tomatoes, so it is no wonder it is probably the most planted vegetable in home gardens. While tomatoes may sometimes be referred to as the “fruit of the vine” they are officially a vegetable. This official designation came about as a result of another trade war back in 1883. The U.S. Congress passed the Tariff act of 1883 requiring a 10% tax on all imported vegetables. A tomato importer challenged the tariff by claiming the tomato is a fruit rather than a vegetable. As a result, there was an actual Supreme Court case in 1893. The court ruled that as tomatoes are generally eaten cooked or raw and served during the principal part of the meal, they are a vegetable. Unlike a fruit that is generally eaten as desert. Ok, enough tomato trivia.
Temperature has a major effect on fruit set in tomatoes. Night temperatures below 50 degrees delays the time from pollination to fertilization causing flower drop. Night temperatures above mid 70’s disrupts pollen shed causing flower drop. This is especially true of the larger fruited varieties. Basically, the plants do not set fruit after this point. So, planting early is key to getting tomatoes producing before night temperatures hit the mid 70’s, which is around July 1. If you are only planting a few tomatoes, you can plant them in cages and wrap the cages in clear row cover. This will give you 2 to 4 degrees of frost protection during the early stages of growth. It will also give you some wind and insect protection. This can increase your production as much as 30%.
Here are some pointers if you really want to push your production. It is best to planting large vigorous transplants using a trench type method, where you dig a small trench and lay the plant in it and cover all but the very top portion. Incorporating a ¼ cup of a complete blend of fertilizer in the soil at planting is a good idea. For those wanting to really push their yields a weekly application of a foliar water-soluble fertilizer with micro-nutrients is a good practice. It is also a good idea to incorporate 2 to 3 lbs. of a high nitrogen fertilizer when the first cluster of fruit sets. Then apply an additional tablespoon of slow-release nitrogen (21-0-0) per plant every two weeks for as long as they are producing. These practices will help you to have high producing tomatoes.
While the above-mentioned planting and nutrient management steps will help insure good production, nothing good will happen without good water management. Whether you use a soaker hose, drip line or hand water, moisture management will be critical. When possible, I do not recommend sprinkler irrigation as it has the potential to increase disease on the leaves and fruit. Often folks that are really trying to do a good job will over-water, this causes diseases like crown rot and other issues like leeching of nutrients. Ideally you will want to water when the top two to four inches of soil is dry to the touch. You can test this by squeezing a ball of soil if it sticks together you still have good moisture, if it starts to easily crumble or sifts easily out of your hand it is too dry. On the other hand, if you squeeze water out of it, then you are too wet.
To help lower tomato loss to insects and varmints, you can pick your tomatoes when they are pink and let them ripen at room temperature. You may also pick them when they are pink and bring them to me. I hope everyone has a bountiful tomato crop this year.