A few tips for growing tomatoes

By Shelton-Mason County Journal staff

Shelton-Mason County Journal of Shelton, Washington

The weather has finally warmed up and the prudent gardener who has delayed planting tomatoes out in the garden should be doing so now. Each year the Master Gardeners has its plant sale the weekend of Mother's Day, but most years it is still just a bit too cold overnight for these heat-loving vegetables. I have been told by a seasoned vegetable grower and Master Gardener -Steve Edmondson — that he waits until June and some years even closer to July to put his out.

There are many ways to successfully grow tomatoes in the Pacific Northwest. Besides growing conditions, it is important to choose varieties that take less time to mature and be sure you do not use overhead watering. The wet leaves and cooler night temperatures in August and September are perfect conditions for the dreaded late blight fungus. There is nothing that will ruin your tomato harvest quicker (except maybe the deer - a story about that later) than late blight. Once a plant has it there really isn't any way to save it.

You may choose to grow your tomatoes in a container. Just about any large container will work. Some people put them on wheels and move them around so the plants get maximum sunlight. I've found that you really don't need to go to all that trouble. Just plant them in good soil, give them some fertilizer -I use Alaska fish fertilizer — and keep them moist. If they dry out too much between waterings you may develop blossom end rot, a disease related to calcium deficiency, but tied to lack of water to take up the calcium.

If the tomato plants you purchased are getting a bit tall and leggy, plant them deeper in the hole. New roots will form where each leaf node is. Remove the leaves that will be below the soil level before planting.A week before planting you should harden them off by placing them in a protected location outdoors and bring them inside at night. I have had success placing them on my covered front porch and have not had to bring them inside at night. When you are confident that your soil temperature has reached 50 degrees, place them in the ground (or container).

It is very important that you establish a healthy root system, so don't be afraid to pinch off blossoms or small fruit. They will take energy away from your developing root system. It's best not to plant deeper than 7 inches because soil temperatures will be too cool. If your plant is very tall, plant the roots at 6 inches then dig a trench next to it and lay the plant in it, with the top coming out away from the root ball. Again, roots will develop all along the stem in the ground.

They will need about 1 inch of water per week. If tomatoes are in the ground, water thoroughly at the root level twice a week. Tomatoes in containers may need more frequent watering. Mulch the tomato bed once the plants are well established to discourage weeds and make them easier to pull. Pull weeds when they are young. Avoid cultivating around tomatoes. They are shallow-rooted.

Around mid-August cut blossoms and small fruit off to encourage ripening of tomatoes already set. Reduce or stop watering about mid- to late-August to stress the plant and force fruit to ripen faster.

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