How to Plant a Tomato

— Written By and last updated by Audrey Mercer
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It’s spring and time to think about those gardens. Often, the first crop that home gardeners think about is tomatoes. However, this is probably the number one crop that the Pamlico Cooperative Extension office receives complaints about.

So, to help address these issues here are a few suggestions for planting tomatoes.

  1. Check your soil pH. Soil pH levels affect the availability of nutrients that plants can utilize in the soil. If your pH is to low, some nutrients become less available to the tomato plant and growth is affected. A soil test sent to the NC Department of Agriculture is advisable. Test results will give you recommendations for corrections to soil pH and to the required fertilizer.
  2. Choose a sunny location with access to water. Tomatoes and most other vegetables require sunny conditions and good soil moisture to grow. In a pot on a shady deck is not ideal. These conditions might work for small fruited varieties, but large tomatoes will be difficult to grow. Just remember the larger the tomato, the more sunlight, space, and water your plant will need. However, also remember that tomatoes are not aquatic or desert plants.
  3. Learn from last year. Often we get questions about why did my tomatoes not produce last year? Unfortunately, there are simply too many considerations. Disease, fertility, nematodes, poor variety choice, lack of water, etc., all of these could have been contributing factors. If you plant tomatoes this growing season, don’t wait until December to investigate problems. Carefully inspect your plants and make notes of growth and concerns. Four common problems that are often contributed to tomato decline in Pamlico County are:
    1. Bacterial Wilt (Ralstonia (Pseudomonas) Solanacearum) –
      Jason Brock, University of Georgia,

      Jason Brock, University of Georgia,

      A disease that infects plants through their roots and survives for long periods in the soil. Plants often wilt on one side, but show no other symptoms (foliar spots, lesions, etc.). The stem and roots at the soil line may have dark streaking and bacterium will ooze from cuts. Rotating crops, choosing a new garden location, or purchasing resistant grafted tomatoes may help. Little can be done to treat the disease directly.

    2. Southern Blight (Sclerotium rolfsii) –
      Sclerotium rolfsii (southern blight) sign Yuan-Min Shen, Taichung District Agricultural Research and Extension Station,

      Sclerotium rolfsii (southern blight)
      Yuan-Min Shen, Taichung District Agricultural Research and Extension Station,

      A fungal disease that favors warm and humid conditions. General decline and wilting is noticed first, and a cankered discolored area may occur at the soil line. Often in moist conditions, a white “fuzzy” fungal mass with spherical mustard-colored sclerotia will form at the soil line. Rotating with corn and deep plowing that buries the top layer of soil may help. Again, choosing a different garden location would be beneficial.

    3. Tospovirus TSWV (Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus) symptoms Elizabeth Bush, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University,

      TSWV (Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus)
      Elizabeth Bush, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University,

      Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus –A virus that is spread by Thrip insects causing concentric patterns to appear on leaves and eventually the fruit. General decline and wilting are the first symptoms that most gardeners notice. The positive side of this disease is you can replant and there are numerous tomato varieties that have resistance to this disease.

    4. Blossom End Rot –  Not a disease but a physiological plant disorder created by the lack of calcium in the blossom end of fruit. This condition usually shows up on the first fruit that is set, and declines as the plant develops a larger root system. Proper soil pH, sufficient but not excessive nitrogen fertilizer, and uniform soil moisture are the best control measures.
      Elizabeth Bush, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University,

      Elizabeth Bush, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University,

      Foliar sprays containing calcium nitrate or calcium chloride can help reduce symptoms. Be careful when using these products as you can burn leaves. Typically, larger fruited varieties suffer greater blossom end rot in Pamlico County. Roma, cherry, and grape tomatoes receive far less complaints.

  4. Purchase healthy, stocky plants and utilize a starter fertilizer when planting. Most water soluble fertilizer that is labeled for tomatoes and vegetables will work. Remember to follow the label directions to reduce the chance of over fertilization.
  5. Tall transplants can be planted deeply or even laid on their side. Just don’t plant so deep that the root system stays at a level that is constantly wet. Soil water levels can be very near the surface and compacted soils can hold excessive amounts of water over long periods. Avoid tilling your garden when wet, as this will create those compaction issues.
  6. Tomatoes should also receive additional fertilizer during the growing season. The addition of fertilizer after plants have set fruit, and every 4-6 weeks thereafter will keep your plants moving along. Two to three tablespoons of 8-8-8 or 10-10-10 should suffice per plant.
  7. Keep plants watered. Under-watering and over-watering can lead to fruit drop, leaf curl, and blossom end rot. All of these decrease yield.
  8. Experiment with varieties. There are numerous varieties on the market and each has its merits and limitations. For Pamlico County, a nematode resistant variety is a good choice if you are on a sandy soil and have been growing in that spot for a few years. Overtime, nematodes will build up in the soil, diminishing growth. Talk with neighbors and see what has worked for them. You will probably notice that everyone has a favorite and what performs well in one garden may not be a top choice in another.
  9. Lastly, be careful about spending large amounts of money on a handful of tomato plants. If the occasional tomato every other week is all you need, the local farmers market or supermarket might be a cheaper alternative. Sometimes a quick analysis from the pen and paper can save you dollars, time and sweat.

Links of Interest:

NCDA Soil Testing

Clemson University Tomato Disease & Disorder Note

NC State University “Growing Tomatoes in the Home Garden”

2016 Southeastern U.S. Vegetable Crop Handbook (pg. 97)