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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

How to Grow a Tomato Plant

Are you yearning to grow your own sweet, juicy tomatoes? Luckily for you, tomato plants can grow almost anywhere. But as with most vegetation that produce a fruit, a little "tender, loving care" or TLC goes a long way. With adequate sunlight, water, and patience, you'll be greatly rewarded.

  1. Buy the necessary products: several small four inch pots, potting soil, a trowel, a small stick, some string, and tomato seeds.

  2. It's easiest to buy a tomato plant from a nursery and transplant it to your garden. Or you can plant from seed, which can be obtained from almost any nursery or the garden section of a department store. Good first time growers varities include Better Boy, Early Girl, Brandywine, Celebrity, or just about any cherry or grape tomato variety. If you choose to buy transplants, plant several varities rather than all of one type.

  3. For each member of your family who will eat tomatoes, plan on two plants per person as a rule of thumb. If you plan on cannning or making salsa, use up to four plants per seson.

  4. Plant the seeds. Fill each pot about halfway with potting soil. Plan on leaving an inch to 1.5 inches of "soil free" space at the top of the pot. Then, place a small cluster (2-3 seeds, about 1/4 inch apart), into this soil. Once the seeds are gently in place, cover them with 1/4 inch of soil, and fill the rest of the pot with more soil (topping the soil about 1.5 inches from the top of the rim)

  5. Choose a spot to place the plant. It is best to place tomato plants in a site receiving full sun (7 hours or more daily), and in soil with a pH between 6.0 and 7.0. Tomatoes need lots of warm sunshine to taste good. Place your planted tomato seedlings outside, if it is warm enough (its too cold if below 35 degrees F)

  6. Prepare the garden bed by adding lots of compost (5 pounds per square foot) to the soil mix, as tomatoes need a growing medium rich in organic matter. If you don't make your own compost, use store-bought compost or composted manure available in the 40-pound bags.

  7. Wait about two weeks for a stem and leaves to sprout.

  8. If multiple plants emerge from a pot, wait for the plants to mature for a week or so. Then, choose the biggest of the pot as your keeper. Kill the others by pinching or cutting at the soil's edge. Pulling the runts out can disturb the roots of your good plant.

  9. Once a sturdy stem develops with at least four leaves, give the tomato plant support. Take the small stick and place it in the soil against the stem. Then tie the stem to the stick. Be careful not to tie too tightly, and harm the stem! This will allow the tomato plant to have support has it continues to grow.

  10. At four weeks after sprouting, add a half inch of potting soil to the pot. This will help the tomato become sturdier.

  11. After six to eight weeks, transplant to an outdoor garden, greenhouse, or a larger pot (about 1 cubic foot in volume, and at least six inches deep). Transplant the tomato plants about 1/4 inch below the first set of leaves. This will ensure a strong stem that later will support heavy fruit. Give the plant about 32 ounces of warm water (about 80 degree F) within ten minutes of transplanting to avoid transplant shock.

  12. Once the plant has been successfully transplanted, continue to water about 16 ounces of warm water daily per plant. Make sure that it is secure in the soil as well. After transplanting the tomato plant, make sure to reconstruct the support system composed of the stick and string. This will further promote proper vertical growth.

  13. A week or two after transplanting, use a mulch of straw, dried grass, or pine needles to control weeds and keep the soil moist during dry weather. The mulch should be at least an inch thick and surround at least a circle 12 inches in diamter.

  14. Ensure plants get 1.5 to 3 inches of rain weekly. If not, give plants 1.5 to 2.5 gallons per plant per week. Be sure to add that amount of water. The tomato plant should be watered almost daily. Check the soil for dampness, and if more watering is needed, feel free to add a little.

  15. If you use liquid fertilizer, many gardeners use half the recommended concentration per gallon, but fertilize twice as often. You can begin fertilizing when the tomato plant is at least four weeks old.

  16. Watch for fruit to appear 50 to 80 days after transplanting. Tomato plants usually have small green fruit to start. Wait until the fruit is of good size with a bright, deep red coloring. This means that the fruit is ripe and ready to pick. The texture of the fruit can also determine if it is ready to pick. Ripeness is usually determined by a soft texture.

Pick fruit a little before its peak ripening period, and allow it to ripen off the plant. It will be less prone to rot on the stem.

Unfortunately, tomatoes are prone to a number of diseases, but you can avoid most of them very easily. To prevent mold or fungal diseases, water plants in the morning, preferably by using drip irrigation or water furrows. If you spray the entire plants from above, you will increase the chances of mold/fungal spores infecting them.

When transplanting, be careful not to disturb the roots. If the roots are cut or damaged, the plant will die.

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