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Tomato wars

Divine vines — First, largest or most delicious

I was at a Zoom videoconference meeting last week, and the tomato wars have begun. We all have that neighbor or relative we compete with each year for the “first” or “largest” tomato.

By practicing these growing guidelines, you should have a bountiful harvest and might even win your tomato war.

Indeterminate plants continue growing and setting fruit until they’re killed by frost. Determinate plants are compact varieties that bear their entire crop over a short period of time.

If you like to collect seeds to plant next year, heirlooms are the only choice. Seeds from hybrids will not come true to the parent plant.

Choose disease-resistant cultivars or be sure to manage airflow and sunlight penetration into the canopy to keep heirlooms healthy.

To give tomatoes a good start, fix the soil first. The best is well-drained soil that has been amended with compost. A soil test will tell you if you need to add anything to your soil. Plant in full sun and rotate your crops, as diseases can overwinter in the soil.

You can start seeds indoors five to six weeks before the last frost. Place your seedlings out to harden off before planting, waiting until frost threat is past.

By planting seedlings deeper than they were in the pots allows new roots to grow from the buried stems, making plants sturdy. I lay down wet newspaper then mulch plants to keep soil moist, control weeds and to prevent disease spores from splashing onto the leaves.

Water when you plant and keep them moist for the first few weeks. Tomato plants need a deep watering of 1 inch of water a week. Avoid shallow watering, as this encourages plants to develop shallow roots. Always water at ground level to keep the foliage dry, consider soaker hose or drip irrigation. Wet leaves encourage bacterial and fungal diseases.

You can pinch back new growth to encourage the plant’s energy on main stems for fruit production.

Do not fertilize with nitrogen until plants are well established and have their first fruit clusters then every three weeks afterward. Use a 5-10-10 fertilizer, as too much nitrogen will result in foliage but fewer fruits. Follow the label directions.

Tomato stems are not strong enough to hold up the vines and fruit on their own. Support your tomatoes using cages or stakes. A unique way is the Florida weave, in which stakes are driven into ground along a row of plants, then twine is alternately woven back and forth along the stakes, enclosing the tomato plants.

For cages, train the stems to the outside of the cage to improve airflow and reduce disease pressure.

After harvesting, I store tomatoes in a bowl at room temperature to preserve the flavor as refrigeration affects enzymes that ripen tomatoes and produce sugars.

If you have green tomatoes at the end of season when it threatens frost, pick them and wrap in newspaper. I place these in a box in cool area and they ripen. They are nice to have after tomato season is over.

Get all of the details on growing tomatoes throughout the season at http://go.osu.edu/tomatoes.

Baytos is an Ohio State University Mahoning County Extension Master Gardener volunteer.

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