Published on 03/18/98

Tomatoes Popular in Georgia Vegetable Gardens

The tomato was once a garden curiosity. But it can be grown in many areas under many conditions. And people get a great deal of satisfaction from growing them.

Tomatoes are now grown in almost every home vegetable garden in Georgia. They aren't hard to grow if you're willing to put in the necessary time and effort. Here's how to grow the best.

Select a Good Site. Sunlight is critical. Tomatoes require a great deal of it (8 hours), especially for setting fruit. If you have to put the garden near shade, place it so the plants have a southern exposure, so they can get direct sunlight for the greatest time. Tomatoes also need well-drained, porous soil that's easy to work.

Add Organic Matter. All soils can benefit from added organic matter. Where soils are very sandy, it's vital to add plenty of organic matter to help retain moisture and fertilizers. Organic matter also supplies the plants with additional nutrients. Manure, peat moss and compost are all good sources of organic matter.

Add Lime. Georgia soils are naturally very acid and require liming to raise the pH. Tomatoes grow best when the pH is about 6.2. You will likely have to add lime to raise it that high — a soil test will tell you how much. Use finely ground dolomitic limestone. It's a good source of magnesium, which is often deficient in our native soils.

Fertilize. If you're starting in a new location, 5 pounds of 5-10-15 should be enough if the pH is right. On older sites, you might want to change to 5-10-10 or 10-10-10 at about 2 to 4 pounds per 100 square feet. Apply fertilizer, lime and organic matter to the soil, then rototill it to 8-12 inches.

Use Healthy Plants. Whether you grow your own plants from seed or buy plants already started, be sure they're healthy and in good condition to transplant. They should be stocky, medium-sized (about 6 inches high), relatively young and free of diseases and insects, with a good green color.

Wait to Plant. Unless you have some way to protect them from frost, don't plant tomatoes until all danger of frost has passed. Don't plant before April 10 north of Macon. The soil temperature is too cold for good results before then.

Space Right. Spacing tomatoes right is important. As a rule, space rows 3 to 6 feet apart. You may go as close as 2 feet if the tomatoes are staked or when planting dwarf varieties. In the row, space plants so each has at least 9 square feet.

Stake. It's imperative to stake tomatoes to reduce problems with fruit rots common to all Georgia soils. You can buy wire tomato cages or use wooden stakes.

Mulch. Mulches cover and cool the soil, minimize evaporation, reduce the chances of disease and reduce weed growth. Several types can be used in the vegetable garden, including newspaper, black plastic, straw, sawdust, wood shavings and grass clippings.

Sidedress. Because tomatoes are heavy feeders, sidedressing with a small amount of fertilizer will be worthwhile during the growing season. But don't overfertilize. That can cause plants to grow fast, but will also make the flowers drop without producing fruit.

Harvest with Care. Pick tomatoes twice a week as they ripen. Remove all rotten and damaged fruit to protect the healthy ones. Just before the first fall frost, pick the mature green fruit to ripen inside. Tomatoes ripen best at 65 to 70 degrees. Below that, they won't taste good, and above that, they soften. (You can hasten ripening by placing green tomatoes in a bag with a ripe banana!)

Wayne McLaurin is a professor emeritus of horticulture with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.