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Tried, true garden tips for growing great tomatoes

From the president's desk

Tomatoes need everything to be just right. Mess up soil, sun, and water conditions just a little and your tomatoes succumb to rot, spots and wilt.

SOIL PREP IS A MUST

Fall is the best time to prepare your soil for summer tomatoes. Tomatoes thrive in slightly acidic soil with a pH of 6.0 to 6.8. Test your soil and if it’s too acidic, add pulverized lime; if it’s too alkaline, add a sulfur acidifier (follow application directions on the package).

Tomatoes also want well-drained soil, so fix your soil before planting. Both sandy soil (drains too quickly) and clay soil (drains too slowly) can become tomato-friendly soil by adding decayed organic matter such as dried leaves, grass clippings or compost from your pile.

LOCATION, LOCATION

Tomatoes are sun worshipers and require full sunlight, at least six hours per day, but more is better. The south side of your property is a likely candidate for maximum sunshine.

Plants also like protection from strong wind and plenty of space to grow. A tomato plant easily can reach 6 feet high and 4 feet wide, so make sure you have a large, open space in your garden to devote to tomatoes. Depending on the variety, space seeds or seedlings between 1 feet (dwarf varieties) and 4 feet (big boys) apart.

PLANTING POINTERS

Plant tomato seedlings as soon as your garden soil reaches 65-70 degrees. If you have a long growing season, stagger your planting over four to six weeks, which will reduce bug and blight issues and will allow you to harvest fruit throughout the summer.

Dig a hole deep enough to cover roots and stems up to the lowest leaves. Add to the hole 1 cup of kelp meal and 1 cup of bone meal, which act as slow-release fertilizers that aid blossom and fruit growth.

STAKING WELL DONE

There’s no one correct way to stake a tomato plant. Some folks love to tie drooping branches to wood or bamboo stakes (green alternative). Other options: steel tomato towers or do-it-yourself tomato cages from low-cost fence wire or concrete reinforcing wire.

Remember the goal is to keep branches and fruit from dragging on the ground, where they are vulnerable to disease and infestation. If you use ties, tie them loosely around branches, which will prevent cutting tender stems.

WATER WISELY

Like most garden plants, tomatoes need about 1 inch of water per week to grow strong and tall. Tomatoes want soil to be dependably moist. They love drip hoses that supply steady water to roots; they don’t like pulsating sprays that smack tender stalks and wet foliage, making it more prone to fungus.

TRIED AND TRUE TIPS

l Cut old pantyhose into strips to use as stake ties. They won’t cut into tender stalks, are easy to tie, and will last more than one season.

l To prevent blossom rot — ugly brown patches on the bottom of fruit that result from a calcium deficiency — mix ground eggshells into the soil, or place an antacid tablet in your planting hole.

l Rotate the location of your tomato crop each year, which will cut down on pest and disease problems and allow soil to replenish nutrients.

l Even if you buy tomato seedlings from an outdoor nursery, take about a week to harden off (acclimate) the plants before putting them in the ground. Increase daylight exposure by two hours per day, gradually moving the plants from shade to full sun.

l Transplant seedlings on cloudy days, when they are less likely to dehydrate.

Remember, when it’s time to sell or buy a new home, contact the Warren Area Board of Realtors. They are the experts and can help you through the real estate process.

Cunningham is the 2020 president of the Warren Area Board of Realtors.

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