Published on 06/14/99

Tender Garden Care Has First Homegrown BLT Almost Here

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Remember how great that first bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich was last year?

The bread was toasted just right and slathered with mayonnaise. Then came bacon cooked to perfection, leaf lettuce just picked from the garden and the final crowning of your first homegrown tomato -- sliced ceremoniously, piled high with some hanging over the edge of the sandwich. With a glass of iced tea and chips on the side, it was close to heaven.

Well, the makings of that sandwich are within your grasp right now in the garden. Please handle the tomato plants carefully in anticipation of "The Day."

Tomatoes are 95 percent water

Make sure your garden gets 1 inch of water per week. (In excessively hot weeks, make that 2 inches.) If you get a half-inch of rain on Tuesday, give the garden a half-inch later in the week.

Water early in the day to cut down on evaporation losses and to give your plants plenty of time to dry out, too. Wet foliage overnight may help trigger some diseases.

With drip irrigation or soaker hoses, which deliver water right at the soil surface and not on the leaves, you can water almost anytime.

Watch the fertilizer!

Tomatoes need it, but they need it in the right amount and at the right time. You should be side-dressing now, and timing is critical.

The fertilizer you put out originally was enough to carry the plant until the first fruits "set" and the little tomatoes are the size of a dime to a nickel.

Then, and only then, you should side-dress with more fertilizer. If you put out more fertilizer sooner, the plant will slough off the blossoms. It will grow vegetatively and not reproductively -- it won't produce tomatoes.

Mulch and stake

Keep diseases down by placing the plant up on stakes or cages, and mulch around the plant to place a barrier between the plant and the soil. Mulch will also keep the soil moisture more uniform, which helps the tomato plant grow best.

Mind pests and diseases

Keep a lookout for insects and diseases. Check your plants as often as you can -- at least two or three times a week. Get down on the bugs' level and look at the underside of the leaves. This is where the insects hide and do their damage.

If you keep these points in mind as you tend your garden, the "Day for That Sandwich" will come.

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