Growing tomatoes: beginning management

By Grant McCarty
Local Foods and Small Farms Educator, University of Illinois Extension

In the last couple of weeks, you’ve probably planted your tomatoes. Tomatoes are a crop that typically are planted in our area after Mother’s Day but some years the evening temperatures are still too low. This late in May we should be able to plant them. Tomatoes are one of those quintessential summer crops; but they can sometimes be a nuisance to grow based on their diseases, insects, and management. As you plant your tomatoes, there are a couple of beginning management practices you need to consider.

When you transplant tomatoes, you should fertilize them. A 10-10-10 or other fertilizers can provide the transplants the nutrients that they need. As tomatoes begin to grow, you’ll also notice a “sucker” in between the first main stem of your plant. If you are growing heirloom tomatoes, this sucker should be removed below the first flower cluster as its taking away energy from the plant.

To know which sucker to remove, you need to wait until you are able to determine the flower cluster. An internet search can provide clarity on this task. Determinate tomatoes, those that reach a set height, do not need to have the sucker removed.

Tomato plants benefit greatly from mulches. Straw, plastic, and other mulches can keep moisture in and allow for the plant to thrive. Fluctuations in soil moisture can lead to Blossom End Rot which can be combated by using mulch. Mulches can also be used to keep water from splashing up on the tomato leaves and spreading disease.

Tomatoes need to be trellised and trellising systems vary greatly. Some people will grow tomatoes with a tomato cage. Others insist on staking tomatoes each season and using string/wire. Some growers will set up their own permanent trellis system. Whichever you decide, think about what is going to work best for you. If you are planting a determinate tomato plant, a tomato cage may be your best solution. If you are planting numerous heirloom tomatoes in a row, you might consider staking and trellising them. It all depends on what type and how many you are planting.

With good beginning management strategies in place, you’ll be on your way to good yields. Next week we’ll discuss more tomato issues.

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