Banish Blossom Rot & Save the Salsa!

Ripe tomatoes in greenhouse

Are you celebrating opening day this week? Baseball? No. No. No. Farmer’s market opening day, silly!  Our local market officially opens for the season this Saturday.

It’s a day I look forward to all winter long. Time to start planning the garden, and deciding which veggies I’ll put in this year.

Tomatoes, however, are a no-brainer. I’ve planted about 18 vegetable gardens of my own over the years.  And tomatoes are always the stars of the show.

If there is a mistake to be made in planting tomatoes, I have made it.

I’ve started tomatoes from seed, and experienced long, leggy seedlings that grew too thin and sideways, because I didn’t have a light source directly above, and didn’t rotate the seed tray enough.

tomato plants

My go-to tomatoes are Early Girl, Roma, San Marzano, Brandywine and Sweet 100s.

I’ve lost young tomato plants I started indoors, because I neglected to harden them off, by gradually introducing them to the outdoors for hours at a time, then bringing them back in.  These tender young plants need time to adjust to the elements – wind, direct sun, and temperature fluctuation. Truth be told, I just buy started plants at the farmer’s market now.

I’ve made the mistake of planting THREE cherry tomato plants (Sweet 100s are a fave) and ended up with eight billion of the sweet little nuggets of tomatoey goodness – more tomatoes than any one family could eat in a lifetime.

Close up of cherry tomatoes growing in a vegetable garden

But most distressing for me are the common problems that tomato-growers everywhere have experienced at one time or another that occur once the tomatoes start to bear fruit. By that time, it’s almost too late to salvage the plant for the season, and all that nurturing was for naught.

So rather than wait to diagnose tomato troubles mid-season, this year I decided to do some research to head them off at the pass. Stop blight, blossom rot and cracking before they have a chance to take root. Here are some of my top tomato tips:

  1. I have a relatively big garden for a small suburban backyard. It’s approximately 40 feet long. There are a couple of reasons why this is important. First, plant spacing. Adequate spacing between plants prevents the leaves of one plant from touching those of another. Not only does this allow air to circulate, but it prevents disease and pests from easily transferring from one plant to another. Secondly, I rotate my crops. Diseases can stay in your soil from year to year, so I try not to plant my tomatoes at the same end of the garden, or in the same row for consecutive years. Note: Planting tomatoes in a large pot on a patio is a fantastic option for apartment dwellers. I’ve done this, too. You’ll be surprised at the number of tomatoes that one well-cared for plant will produce.
  2. Have you ever had your soil checked? This isn’t an absolute necessity. But it takes the guesswork out of whether your tomato plant is getting the nutrients it needs to thrive. I like to add well-composted, aged manure directly to the soil I’m planting in.
  3. Plant tomatoes deep. A good rule of thumb is 2/3 of the plant should be underground. Planting tomatoes deep will help establish a stronger root system which helps them to survive hot weather and support more fruit.
  4. Support your plants. My grandpa always used 2-inch wood stakes and tied the stems to the stakes with one-inch strips of his old t-shirts. They sell special spongy ties now, but the t-shirt trick is more economical. I use tomato cages myself. I found some round cages that are powder-coated in rainbow colors that make me happy and brighten up the garden. They’re thick and sturdy enough that I don’t have to replace them every year like the other thin or collapsible cages.
  5. Mulch! Mulching around the base of your tomato plants will prevent a variety of the most common tomato maladies. Not only does mulch help conserve moisture, but it also helps prevent the spread of disease. Straw works great as mulch, but there are a variety of other mulches available at your local garden center.
  6. Water! Almost every tomato problem you can name from cracking to blossom rot stems from uneven watering.
Cracked tomatoes

Cracking from uneven watering

Cracking for instance develops as a result of uneven watering, or a period of drought followed by over-watering. The skin can’t stretch to accommodate the fluid build-up, and splits.  The tomato becomes like an over-filled water balloon.

Blight is a fungus that shows up as those dark concentric circles on yellowed leaves, which can occur from wet leaves. Sometimes simply removing damaged leaves is enough, but if the weather won’t comply, you’ll need to remove the whole plant.

Blossom Rot

Blossom rot – Add more calcium

Blossom rot is another problem brought on by drought stress and inadequate watering resulting in a lack of calcium in the soil. The calcium doesn’t move up through the plant quickly enough and the tissue on the blossom-end, turns black and breaks down. You can spray tomatoes with a calcium solution as a stop-gap measure.

A good rule of thumb is to water regularly, but sparingly. Your tomato plants need approximately 1 – 1 ½ inches of water a week. A good soaker hose with a timer is your best bet.

Finally, tomatoes degrade and lose flavor if left too long on the vine or exposed to temperature of 40 degrees or less. You can tell a ripe tomato by a green gel around the seeds. Once the gel turns clear, the tomato is overripe and the flavor diminishes.  Store your ripe tomatoes on the counter to keep them ripe and flavorful as long as possible.

Did you know that adding Epsom salts to amend the soil results in larger, tastier yields? Have you tried adding coffee grounds, egg shells or fish scales when planting your tomatoes? If you have any tried and true tomato tips, I would love to hear them. Please share in the comments!

Smart Perks Blogger, Melanie B, will be up at 6 a.m. on Saturday to get her parking spot at the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market.

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