For The Answer
Saturday, March 6, 2004
By Calvin Finch, Conservation Director, SAWS, and Horticulturist
It is too early to plant your tomatoes in the garden, but it is a good time to pot transplants in 1-gallon containers so they can gain some size while the soil warms up.
Fill the container with good quality potting soil and fertilize with 2 tablespoons of Osmocote or other slow release fertilizer designed for containers. Place a transplant in the middle of the container and water it in. If you use a peat pot transplant make sure the peat is soaked and that the lips of the peat pot are below the surface of the soil.
The 1-gallon potted tomato should be placed in full sun in a spot sheltered from the wind. The container soil heats up quickly, so the plant will put on maximum growth. If the forecast calls for temperatures under 40 degrees F. move the containers into a warm location until the temperatures rise (usually overnight). Sometime around April 1 the plant can be moved from the pot and placed in the garden.
Save a few of the potted up tomato plants until mid April as insurance for any kind of unusually cold or destructive weather. High winds or hail can be as damaging as freezing temperatures.
By April 1 your potted up tomatoes will be very large and may even have a few blooms. They will be ready to take advantage of our limited fruit-setting window in April and May. Sometimes in early June it normally becomes too hot to set more fruit.
If you do your tomato gardening in containers, a half whiskey barrel is a perfect size for one tomato plant. A 5-gallon container will work if you can water every day and apply soluble fertilizer every week. Place a tomato cage in the container just like you would in the garden. For the smaller size pots, make sure they are braced against the wind. A tomato plant full of fruit is very top heavy.
Surefire used to be my favorite tomato plant for containers. It was a relatively small plant that grew to full size quickly and set its fruit. The variety is no longer on the market. Also gone are Heatwave and Sunmaster. These varieties were commercial hybrids identified by Texas A&M Vegetable Specialist Jerry Parsons’ testing program as being good performers in South and Central Texas conditions. Unfortunately, a localized homeowner market for transplants is not enough to support a selection. Plant breeders keep looking for better varieties for the commercial market. When that occurs they do not continue to produce the older selections.
For your garden this year select from 444, Merced, Celebrity, Whirlaway, Carnival, or Bingo as your basic table tomato. Cherry selections and Romas also are very productive for salads and paste uses, respectively.
Tomatoes must be planted in full sun for maximum productivity. Allow at least 3 feet between each plant. Drip irrigation is the easiest and best way to irrigate. Tomatoes are not xeriscape plants and will need watering every two or three days even if they are mulched. The mulch is especially important to help prevent blossom end rot. Blossom end rot shows up when there is an interruption in the moisture supply to the plant with fruit. Mulch helps keep the soil cool and moist so that roots can function efficiently. Be especially watchful for those days when daily high temperatures jump 10 or 15 degrees F. from the day before.
In early July pull these spring plants, they will have finished their most productive period and the spider mites, fungus, and nematodes will be imposing their will on the plants.