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GARDENING IN GWINNETT: Tomatoes: No garden would be complete without them

Tomatoes are one of the most popular vegetable garden plants. They are relatively easy to grow and are an excellent choice for gardeners with limited space. Each plant has the potential to yield 10 to 15 pounds or more of fruit when given the proper care.

Tomatoes are warm season plants that should be planted after all danger of frost has passed. They require full sun and at least one inch of water per week. The plants prefer well drained soil amended with organic matter such as compost, topsoil or other organic matter. Tomatoes are medium feeders and should have an application of a 10-10-10 balanced fertilizer applied every four weeks for optimal growth. Place some pine bark or pine straw mulch in a two- to three-inch layer around the base of the plants to keep moisture in the soil and to control weeds.

Purchase tomato transplants that are healthy and six to 10 inches in height. Tomatoes can develop roots all along their stems, so plant them as deep as their first set of leaves to encourage the formation of a strong root system. Prune them to one or two main stems. Remove any suckers arising from the roots or the nodes, and cut off any branches and leaves touching the ground.

Tomatoes do have a tendency to fall over, especially when they are loaded with fruit. Stake the tomato plants with wooden or steel stakes, tie the plants to a fence, or use tomato cages. Space them at least three feet apart for proper air circulation.

Many different varieties of tomatoes are available in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and colors. Determinate tomatoes, such as "Celebrity" and "Rutgers," usually grow in a compact bush form. They produce most of their fruit at one time and are preferred by gardeners who desire a large supply of ripe fruit for canning. Indeterminate varieties are taller in height and bear fruit continually all season long. Examples of these tomatoes include the varieties "Better Boy" and "Sweet 100."

Some varieties have been bred to have resistance to various diseases. These plants are not immune from the diseases, but are less likely to become infected. Resistance is listed on the plant label using these abbreviations: V-Verticillium Wilt, F-Fusarium Wilt, N-Nematode, TSW-Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus, T-Tobacco Mosaic Virus. The heirloom varieties are quite popular, but most of them lack the disease resistance that the newer hybrids have. Avoid planting tomatoes in the same place every year. The disease organisms and insect pests have a tendency to build up in the soil over time.

Tomatoes are occasionally troubled by insect pests. Whiteflies and aphids can be controlled by the application of insecticidal soaps. Caterpillars can be picked off the plant, if few in numbers. They can also be treated with insecticides like Sevin, or products such as Dipel or Thuricide that contain a bacteria that specifically targets caterpillar pests.

A common disorder of tomatoes is blossom end rot. The fruit develops a dark sunken water soaked area at the blossom end. The cause is a low calcium concentration in the fruit, often resulting from the plant being under stress due to lack of water followed by excessive soil moisture. Maintain the soil pH between 6.0 and 6.5 and supply calcium through applications of dolomitic limestone. To help keep the soil evenly moist, use mulch and provide a deep watering once or twice a week.

Using proper cultural practices and planting disease resistant varieties will help in the production of healthy, tasty tomatoes in the garden throughout the growing season. They are often the most prized vegetable; no garden would be complete without them.

Timothy Daly, is an Agricultural and Natural Resource Extension Agent with Gwinnett County. He can be contacted at 678-377-4010 or tdaly@uga.edu.