2022 has been a good tomato growing year for many Panhandle gardeners, myself included. It would have been difficult to have better climatic conditions to aid a terrific tomato harvest. After enduring a late frost just before Easter, the Panhandle then experienced two mild months in April and May that combined with nearly a month of dry weather during fruit development to deliver an excellent fruit set season with minimal disease and insect pressure. However, despite the favorable growing conditions, I have talked with several gardeners that once again struggled to yield a good crop of fresh garden tomatoes. Why is that? With the Panhandle tomato home gardening season nearing its conclusion, now is a perfect time to revisit 3 of the most common mistakes that prevent an excellent harvest!
Not Starting Early – Since Memorial Day, the rain and heat have really ramped up. These hot, wet conditions are perfect for developing tomato plant problems like fungal and bacterial diseases, not to mention the fact that tomato plants will stop setting fruit once nighttime temperatures rise above 75 F. While spraying fungicides preventatively can certainly help decrease disease incidence, the absolute best thing a gardener can do is try to get ahead of the disease-bringing heat and humidity by starting plants early when more favorable growing conditions prevail. So, what is early? I try to have tomato transplants in the ground by March 15 or soon after*. If you plan to grow plants from seed, they should be started indoors mid-January for planting outdoors in mid-March. Most tomato varieties take between 60 and 80 days to mature after planting, so a mid-March planting date normally yields harvestable tomatoes by the middle of May, comfortably beating the June disease deadline. *Planting early means protecting plants from occasional late frosts. Be prepared!
Not Scouting Your Plants – Pest and disease problems are a lot easier to manage if caught early and the best way to do that is to spend time with your plants. If you scout (just walking by and giving plants a short inspection) daily, you’ll learn what tomato plants and the beneficial insects that hang around all the time are supposed to look like an and be able to spot abnormalities and bad bugs when they occur. While tomato diseases and pest outbreaks can certainly cause a lot of damage in a short amount of time, they don’t reach disastrous levels immediately – be vigilant and catch them early!
Not Fertilizing and Watering Correctly – It takes a lot of energy for a tomato plant to grow a nice, bushy plant AND yield an abundance of America’s favorite vegetable (or fruit, depending on who you ask). To produce that necessary energy, gardeners must ensure plants receive adequate nutrition and water. Here’s my general prescription. At planting, apply a general purpose, slow-release fertilizer according to the label rate (for example, Osmocote, Harrell’s, or similar) and gypsum (a calcium supplement that helps prevent blossom end rot) at one pound per hundred square feet of garden. Then, supplement later in the season with a quick-release general purpose fertilizer sufficient to drive growth and fruit development. Watering is more of an ongoing concern. For the first couple of weeks of the tomato plant’s life, you can get by with watering once a day or every other day. As the plants get larger and the days get hotter however, watering twice daily is often needed to prevent wilting down in the heat of the day. Allowing tomato plants to wilt, even for a little while, is an excellent way to encourage blossom end rot and a subpar harvest!
When tomato season rolls around in 2023, remember to start early, scout often, and water and fertilize correctly. Follow those few tips and you’ll be well on your way to a great harvest in 2023! For more information about growing tomatoes or any other horticultural or agricultural topic, contact us at the UF/IFAS Calhoun County Extension Office at 850-674-8323 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy Gardening!