There are few things as exciting to a gardener as a fresh, juicy tomato from their very own garden. Unfortunately there is nothing as discouraging, especially after the hard work, time and money you invest in your home tomato garden, than finding out the plants are being eaten by pests or they have contracted a disease.
The good news is that many common tomato plant problems can be prevented through good practices in your garden. These tips will help you grow bigger, healthier tomatoes and could possibly save you money on sprays and other corrective measures.
Before the Growing Season – Garden Planning
Proper Drainage – Plant tomatoes in sunny, well-drained site. Use raised beds, if possible, to promote proper drainage.
Crop Rotation – To avoid soil-borne diseases, place your tomatoes on a three-year rotation schedule and rotate with unrelated crops such as corn, beans or lettuce. Make sure you don’t plant your tomatoes in the same place that other members of the tomato family (peppers, eggplants, and potatoes) have grown in the past two years in order to keep them healthy.
Soil Preparation – Improve garden soil before planting by adding organic material such as compost.
Seedling Selection – If you’re going to buy seedlings instead of planting seeds, always look for clean, dark green foliage. If the bottom leaves are yellow or brown, or if there are any flowers already showing, the plant is probably stressed and should be avoided. Look at the leaves and the underside of the leaves closely for any pests. If you see any chew marks or aphids, don’t buy them.
Plant Spacing – When planting, space tomato seedlings a minimum of 18 inches apart to allow for maximum air circulation. If you purchase or grow tall, thin seedlings, planting them deeper in the ground, all the way up to the first set of leaves, will help strengthen the plant. Tomatoes are a unique plant and can grow roots out of any portion of the stem.
Tomato Varieties – Home gardeners have access to many excellent tomato varieties. When purchasing seeds or seedlings, consider their disease resistance as part of your selection process. Many hybrid tomato varieties have been bred with built-in resistance to wilt and other common genetic problems.
To tell what diseases a hybrid can resist, look at the letters after its name on the plant tag or seed packet. For example, the “Celebrity” tomato variety is labeled VFFNTA which means the plant is resistant to (V)erticillium wilt, (F)usarium races 1 and 2, root knot (N)ematodes, (T)obacco mosaic virus, and (A)lternaria stem canker. This would be a good choice if diseases have killed your tomatoes in the past.
During The Growing Season
Plant and Garden Maintenance – Eliminate competition for nutrients by keeping your garden weed-free. Mulch around the base of plants to retain soil moisture. Do not allow garden debris to build up at the base of the plants.
Pruning Tomato Plants – Some gardeners prune tomatoes by pinching “suckers”, the leafy shoots that grow from the “V” between the central trunk (stem) and lateral branches.
If left on the plant, suckers will keep growing and usually produce fruit. It can be helpful sometimes to prune suckers out so the overall plant doesn’t get top-heavy, or produce more fruit than the plant can mature in time for fall. Just keep in mind, if you prune them, you will get fewer, but larger fruit.
You can let some of the suckers stay on if you prefer. It’s up to you how you want your tomatoes to grow. If you aren’t sure, try experimenting with one plant and see how the fruit turns out.
Pest and Disease Control
Tomato plants are usually more vulnerable to insect and disease damage when they are younger or have been stressed by external factors such as weather or inconsistent watering. It is important to pay particular attention to your plants during these times so you can detect problems while they can still be controlled.
Plant Inspection – A good practice is to monitor for pests and diseases at least once a week by inspecting plants and the top and underside of leaves.
Garden Dust – A general-purpose garden dust can be very effective if your plants do develop problems, especially if detected earlier rather than later. Many dusts are considered safe for organic gardens, although you should always read the label carefully to make sure you understand the contents.
If you follow any or all of the tips in this article, you will surely be rewarded by your garden with the freshest tomatoes on the planet…a summertime delight that will bring you health and happiness.