It’s prime time for growing tomatoes in Texas. Follow these 10 rules for a bumper crop. – Fort Worth Star-Telegram

it’s-prime-time-for-growing-tomatoes-in-texas-follow-these-10-rules-for-a-bumper-crop.-–-fort-worth-star-telegram

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These tomatoes are planted in cages wrapped in frost cloth at the The Bexar County (San Antonio) gardens.

Special to the Star-Telegram

They’re America’s favorite vegetable — and the vote’s not even close. More than 90 percent of American gardens will have tomatoes, and since late March is prime time for planting them here in North Central Texas, I thought it might be wise to give you 10 pointers to the perfect crop. 1. Plant only small to mid-sized varieties. Some of our best performers here in Texas are no longer available, but your choices will include Red Cherry, Yellow Pear, Super Sweet 100, Porter, Roma, Early Girl, Better Boy, Super Fantastic and Celebrity. Avoid Big Boy, Beefsteak and any other variety promising giant, hamburger-sized slicing tomatoes. Curiously, they all have physiological challenges in setting fruit when temperatures climb above 90F. You don’t want to waste space on them. 2. Buy sturdy, vigorous transplants that have been acclimated to tough outdoor conditions. Stems that have a slightly “woody,” red cast to them are probably “hardened.” That means that they’ve been exposed to sun, wind and cold (but not freezes). A grower friend of mine leaves his tomato transplants on flatbed trailers so he can move them into and out of his barns and greenhouses overnight to toughen them up. 3. Grow tomatoes in full sun and don’t crowd the plants. The plants should be 4 feet apart and preferably grown in wire cages to keep the ripening fruit off the ground. The Bexar County (San Antonio) Extension office suggests wrapping the cages with frost cloth and clipping the tops shut until it gets sunny and hot. At that point you can open the tops and allow the heat to vent out. Your plants will come along more quickly and you’ll keep them from sharing insects with one another. 4. Plant in raised beds to ensure perfect drainage. Incorporate 5 to 6 inches of organic matter as you rototill the ground to 12 inches. I use a combination of equal amounts of sphagnum peat moss, finely ground pine bark mulch, well-rotted manure and fully decayed compost. I also include 1 inch of expanded shale. I replenish the organic matter at half that amount each spring as I rework the garden. 5. Use a high-nitrogen fertilizer to keep your plants growing vigorously. Yes, it does sound counter-intuitive to apply nitrogen to a fruit-producing crop, since nitrogen is known to stimulate leaf and stem growth, while phosphorus (middle number of the three-number analysis) promotes flowers and fruit, but the truth is that our heavy clay soils retain phosphorus to potentially harmful amounts. Phosphorus is very slowly soluble, so it accumulates over even a short period of time. So, surprise of all surprises: the same high-N plant food you put on your turf and shade trees will work wonders on your tomatoes. Apply it every two to three weeks. 6. Keep tomato plants moist at all times. If you allow them to become wilted on a regular basis the fruit will very likely develop sunken brown spots at the bottoms — a problem known as “blossom-end rot.” It looks like a disease, but it’s usually the result of dry soils. In sandy, acidic soils it can also be due to a lack of calcium, but since our soils are high in calcium, that’s not going to be a problem in the Fort Worth/Dallas area. 7. If you grow tomatoes in containers, choose at least 7-gallon, preferably 10-gallon pots. They’ll need that amount of potting soil to hold enough moisture once it starts to turn really warm. Stake them to keep them from blowing over. 8. If your plants aren’t setting fruit as well as you might expect, try “thumping” the flower clusters. Tomatoes are pollinated by mechanical vibration and not by insects. By flicking the flower clusters after they open, much like you would pop a paper wad across the table, you can shake the pollen loose and help the plants set their own fruit. 9. Learn the common pests that your plants may encounter. Early blight is a fungus that attacks the plants in late spring, often the last couple of weeks of May. It will start at the bases of the plants, and affected leaves will develop large yellow blotches. It can progress up the stalks rather quickly and then will impact the fruit. Use a labeled fungicide to control it and keep the foliage as dry as possible. Spider mites usually show up by mid-June. They, too, start at the bases of the plants, but they cause the leaves to turn tan and mottled with very tiny specks. The mites themselves are almost microscopic. Thump a suspect leaf over a sheet of white paper and look closely for tiny spots to start moving about. You could put 20 spider mites side by side on the head of a pin — that’s how small they really are. Use an insecticide labeled for mite control and spray both sides of the leaves. You will likely have to repeat the treatment. 10. Plant fall tomatoes from new plants set out the last week of June or the first week of July. (You may have to grow your own transplants from seeds or cuttings.) That early planting date is necessary to allow ample production before first frosts that can come in late October into mid-November many years. The same varieties you plant in the spring do well for your fall garden. New plants will be far more productive than old plants nursed through the heat. You can hear Neil Sperry on KLIF 570AM on Saturday afternoons 1-3 p.m. and on WBAP 820AM Sunday mornings 8-10 a.m. Join him at www.neilsperry.com and follow him on Facebook.
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