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Growing great tomatoes matter of pride

Growing a juicy healthful tomato is a thing of pride and each gardener has their favorite varieties and growing method. Tomatoes are low in calories, and rich in Potassium and Vitamin A.

I have room for only two tomato plants on the south side of my house, although the area becomes shaded by mid-afternoon. I purchased a four-pack of 'Celebrity' seedlings that ripen in 70-78 days and have medium sized fruits. It is a determinate variety, which means it grows to a certain height (3-5 feet) and then stops. Determinates produce most of their fruit all at once. Indeterminate varieties, such as 'Better Boy,' 'Early Girl' and 'Big Beef' keep growing and fruiting and can reach heights up to nine feet.

I grow my tomatoes in a raised bed in cages. Since I had two extra plants, I gave them to my neighbor who has two topsy-turvy tomato plant bags. She has the same light conditions that I have so we decided to compare the results of our harvest. One of her bags produced the first ripe tomato, but so far they have not yielded as many fruits as my plants. Another gardening friend is enthusiastic about these bags and has already harvested many large tomatoes.

One advantage of the bags is that the foliage is not splashed with soil during rain or watering and therefore the plants are protected from soil born diseases. Septoria leaf spot is the most common disease. Check the lower leaves of your plants for yellowing and brown spots. Remove and destroy these leaves. Other tomato diseases are Verticillum and Fusarium wilts, tomato mosaic virus and alternaria. A series of letters (VFNTA) following the tomato variety names in seed catalogs indicates a resistance to these diseases and to nematodes.

To avoid disease and pests site the plants in full sun (a minimum of 6 hours) and give them ample space. They need to have plenty of air circulation around them so that rain and dew evaporate quickly. Plants that are too close together produce fewer and smaller fruit. Plant at least 2 feet apart for staked plants and 3 to 4 for those growing on the ground.

Staking tomatoes has several advantages. Since the plants grow upward, they are exposed to more sun and they take up less space. They get better air circulation, lessening disease, and the fruits are kept off the ground away from slugs and rodents.

Pruning staked plants will produce larger, but fewer fruits, and speeds ripening. While still small, remove the suckers that form at the base of the branch where it meets the main stem (the axil). I have read that you should not prune determinate tomatoes because it will stunt them and reduce their yield. However, I pruned my determinate 'Celebrity' and they are over 5 feet tall and have plenty of tomatoes. Be careful not to remove leaf branches, as the foliage is needed to protect the tomatoes from sunburn and to produce nutrition. Early in September, pinch out the stem tips. This allows the plants to expend their energy on ripening fruit instead of forming new ones that won't have time to mature.

Water the plants early in the day and at ground level to prevent spores from splashing upward. Make sure that your plants get an inch of water per week. Put a 1 to 2 inch layer of compost or other organic mulch around the plants to hold in moisture and keep out weeds. Use a liquid fertilizer as a starter solution; however go lightly with nitrogen in subsequent applications. Nitrogen encourages foliage growth, while phosphorus promotes more and larger fruit.

Blossom end rot is caused by a calcium deficiency, but do not add calcium as our soils have plenty. Keep the soil evenly moist so the plants can take up the mineral and avoid damaging the roots when cultivating or late staking. The black spot may be cut out and the rest of the tomato is fine to use for slicing.

Harvest the tomatoes when they are fully colored. Leave them on the vine for an extra 5 to 8 days to enhance the flavor. Do not refrigerate your tomatoes. While sun and heat produce flavorful fruits, anything below 55 degrees is a sure way to kill flavor.

Soon frost will be predicted. Extend the harvest by covering the plants at night with a sheet and removing it each morning. If you use floating row cover fabric it can be left on through the fall. Before a killing frost remove all the green tomatoes and spread them out in a room at 55 to 72 degrees to ripen. Fall cleanup is important to get rid of any leaves with disease spores and it is best to rotate next year's crop to a new area.

To some gardeners the most important thing is to have the first tomato in the neighborhood or to have the largest one. To get the earliest tomatoes they seed their plants inside and use wall o' waters outside. There are actually contests for the largest tomatoes and winners have been over 7 pounds. The champion growers start with large tomato varieties and prune to one stem and eventually to one tomato per plant.