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Thursday, September 19, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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In the Garden: Proper staking, consistent watering key to best tomatoes

Sungold is one of the easiest, tastiest and most prolific cherry tomatoes to grow in Inland Northwest gardens. (Susan Mulvihill/For The Spokesman-Review)
Sungold is one of the easiest, tastiest and most prolific cherry tomatoes to grow in Inland Northwest gardens. (Susan Mulvihill/For The Spokesman-Review)

Have you harvested your first ripe tomato yet? Mine are still green and hard, but that hasn’t stopped me from dreaming of how delectable they’ll be when the time comes.

For many gardeners, the most challenging aspect of growing tomatoes is planting them at the right time in the spring so they won’t get nailed by an unexpected frost. But now that they’re happily growing, this is the time to be diligent in caring for them.

Tomato plants should be supported with sturdy cages or stakes or a vertical structure such as a gate panel or wire grid. If they are allowed to sprawl all over the ground, problems can arise.

For one thing, it’s easier for critters like slugs or field mice to take bites out of your much-anticipated fruits. In addition, it’s harder for tomatoes to ripen without the good air circulation and sun exposure that upright staking provides. Check your plants frequently to make sure they stay within the confines of their supports.

Regular watering is the key to producing an abundant harvest. Irregular watering – especially when summertime temperatures really heat up – stresses the plants, with the result being black lesions on your tomatoes. This is called blossom-end rot, and it’s not pretty.

When water is scarce, the plants go into survival mode by pulling the calcium out of the developing fruits. While the plants usually survive this gardener-induced problem, the resulting tomatoes definitely wouldn’t win ribbons at the fair.

In an effort to prevent blossom-end rot, some folks add calcium or eggshells to the soil in their tomato bed before planting. Unfortunately, research has shown that irregular access to water is the main culprit in causing blossom-end rot. I used to think certain tomato cultivars were resistant to this problem but recently learned that’s not the case, either.

In the long run, the best thing a gardener can do is consistently provide their tomato plants with water, check the amount of moisture in the soil, and adjust the amount of time the plants are watered as needed.

The two main insects one might find on their plants are hornworms and stink bugs.

Hornworms are the larval stage of the hawk or sphinx moth. These moths are often referred to as “hummingbird moths” since they resemble those tiny birds while seeking nectar in flowers at dusk. Even after learning they are responsible for producing hornworms, I’m still fascinated by them.

Once their green caterpillars with the stinger-like hind end hatch, their one and only goal is to defoliate as many tomato branches as possible and chew large holes into your tomatoes. Monitor your plants regularly for worms, chewed leaves or dark droppings on the ground below the damaged areas. Find the culprit and dispose of it.

Stink bugs pierce the skin of tomatoes, leaving golden spots on the surface. These shield-shaped insects are either green or brown and cause a lot of damage to agricultural crops. Whenever I spot them, I knock them into a container filled with water and dish soap. The soap coats their bodies, making it impossible for them to fly back out.

These are the main types of problems gardeners might see on their tomatoes, but, for the most part, the plants are easy to grow in this region. Your reward for a little vigilance is a tasty harvest no supermarket tomato can even come close to matching.

Susan Mulvihill is co-author, with Pat Munts, of “Northwest Gardener’s Handbook.” Contact her at susan@susansinthegarden.com. Watch this week’s “Everyone Can Grow a Garden” video on youtube.com/c/susansinthegarden.

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