Just about every vegetable gardener along the Gulf Coast has tomatoes coming into fruition in April. Here are some helpful hints for you.
Prune your plants I don’t mean just prune the suckers on your indeterminate tomatoes. Tomatoes, like its sister plant, potatoes, can form roots anywhere along its stem. See the little hairs on the stem of your plant? Each one of those tiny hairs is just waiting to contact with the soil so it can turn into a root.
Many times – in fact, almost always – there are some branches off the main stem that touch the ground. These may root. The rooting of these auxiliaries will take nutrients away from the main stem and reduce yield. They will also obstruct airflow through the plant.
I take my pruners and cut all branches that touch the ground. These, of course, go into the compost. The main stem will grow straighter and more robust as well.
Birds and critters Birds (and squirrels) had a good time ruining my tomatoes in the past. Both these species wouldn’t eat the whole tomato, but just enough to make it inedible.
They are not after the tomato, per se. In fact, there is no evidence that either birds or squirrels actually like tomatoes. What they are seeking is the water inside the fruit.
There are ways to protect your tomatoes.
- Put bird netting over your tomatoes. It will most likely keep the birds out, but may not stop the squirrels.
- Put a “sock” made of light-weight ground cover and place it over the individual tomatoes. I have never tried this, but I heard it works.
- Pick your tomatoes at first blush or even just before first blush and let them ripen inside.
- Since birds and squirrels are actually after water, place a birdbath or other source of water nearby.
These hungry green devils can destroy an entire tomato plant in a single day. And, because of their incredible camouflage, they are tough to find.
Don’t lose hope. There is an incredibly easy way to find these little beasties and destroy them. The secret: hornworms show up under a black light. So get a black light flashlight, go into your garden after dark, and inspect your plants (with the black light on). If you have any, you will see them right away.
The tomato hornworm is the larval stage of the Five-spotted hawk moth.
Stink bugs, leaf-footed bugs, spider mite I’ve found that the best way to get rid of leaf-footed and stink bugs is to flip them into a pan or any container with some warm soapy water in it. Dishwashing liquid does best. They will die instantly. That’s a lot cheaper than expensive pesticides and a lot safer too.
If the infestation is too large to handle in this way, try using Neem Oil. This oil has replaced “horticultural oil,” which was a petroleum-based product. Neem Oil is made from the Neem nut. It clogs the brachia and causes the bugs to suffocate.
For the smaller creatures like spider mites and aphids, a hard spray of water underneath the leaves will dislodge them from their feeding ground.
Fertilizing Since your plants are off to a good start, they won’t need a lot of nitrogen. They will, however, need phosphate and calcium (to prevent blossom-end rot). Add a fertilizer with low nitrogen (N), but higher phosphorus (P), and calcium. The best application is as a liquid.