When it comes to successfully growing tomatoes, it’s all about the dirt.
Three area experts said one top tomato-growing tip is to check the pH level in the soil.
“The pH of the soil is one of the most, if not the most, important piece of the puzzle of growing anything,” Roberts Family Blueberry Farm owner Terry Roberts said.
Tomatoes are one of several crops Roberts grows at his Clermont farm.
Gainesville resident Mary Bogle, who has turned her backyard into a garden sanctuary, agrees with him.
“It is so important to mend the soil to produce a good harvest,” she said. “Till your garden and add Miracle-Gro garden soil to produce a good harvest. You can also add (Dolomite) lime to the soil to sweeten it.”
Robin Friedman, the Master Gardener coordinator at the University of Georgia Extension in Hall County, recommends tomato growers have the soil pH levels between 6.2 and 6.8.
The UGA Extension Office can test the levels and inform gardeners on making adjustments.
Roberts said it is more common for Northeast Georgia gardeners to lower the pH level in soil for tomatoes. He suggests mixing a quarter to a third of a cup vinegar with a gallon of water to lower pH.
Before planting tomatoes outside, Friedman said to make sure the soil is loose and has a lot of organic matter in it, such as compost.
Bogle saves egg shells and vegetable peels for compost.
“I add nutrients back into the soil, making it rich,” she said. “That’s how my garden thrives.”
Next, choose a sunny location as tomatoes need six to eight hours of sunlight a day. This time of year, seeds can be planted directly into the soil or started indoors four to eight weeks ahead of time.
“If doing it indoors, you’ll want to use a planting medium that is a little different than the soil outside,” Friedman said. “Transplant it (outside) after its second leaf grows.”
If you pick a tomato plant from a nursery, it can go in the ground as long as the soil temperature is about 70 or 80 degrees. Friedman noted soil temperature is not the same as air temperature.
“A unique thing about tomatoes is you plant them deeper than other vegetables,” she said.
Tomatoes have deep roots, which are important to keep in mind when watering and fertilizing them.
“If you don’t water deeply, you won’t get to the roots. The roots need to be deep,” she said. “If you only put water at the top, the roots will not go down and get deep.”
Friedman said gardeners should water tomato plants infrequently. One of the most common problems she sees is over-watered tomatoes.
Friedman uses a PVC pipe an inch in diameter partially buried in the ground to bring water and nutrients to the plant’s roots.
“I put the PVC pipe into the ground near where I want the plant,” she said.
Next, she ensures the cylinder is clear by putting it in and taking it out if the ground several times. The pipe should be about 18 to 24 inches long and be buried with 4 inches sticking out of the ground. Then she advised putting mulch around the pipe on the ground.
She said not to water the plant if it leaves standing water on the plant’s leaves. It will increase the chances of insects and disease.
Pruning is another important part of growing a tomato plant.
“We don’t want growth (of the plant), we want fruit,” Roberts said. “So you reduce the size of the plant and get better fruit. Pruning is real important.”
Removing suckers, or side shoots, that grow between the stem and already existing branches will keep the plant from becoming too big.
“They don’t put any fruit on ... You don’t want that,” he said.
It’s also important to trim leaves touching the ground as they pick up diseases, Roberts said.
MULCHING AND STAKING
“Mulching is the key to life,” Friedman said.
After a tomato plant is rooted, place mulch about 3 to 4 inches deep around it.
Friedman said mulch will help maintain moisture in the soil, keep nutrients in the ground and keep pests away.
Bogle also suggests staking tomato plants with tomato cages and stakes.