Many gardeners swear by adding eggshells to each hole in which a tomato is planted to give the plants a boost of calcium. Blossom end rot is a common disease in tomatoes that occurs from a lack of calcium and the belief is that the eggshells will help prevent this from occurring. While eggshells do have a high amount of calcium that is necessary to keep the shell strong to protect the egg inside, the damage from blossom end rot occurs on the fruit when the soil has become too dry and the calcium is not able to be transported through the plant. A better solution for the problem of blossom end rot is to maintain a consistent watering schedule so the available calcium can reach the plant. Eggshells do make a good addition to the compost heap and can positively impact the calcium level. However, this is not a quick fix for problems with the tomato plants.
Companion planting is a strategy that allows plants to support each other. Tomatoes do well when planted near onions, marigolds and carrots, among others. Garlic is said to help prevent red spider mites on tomatoes. Many varieties of herbs can have positive effects when planted near tomato plants including better tasting fruit when basil is grown nearby. Remember to avoid planting tomatoes in the same location of the garden year after year if possible. The practice of crop rotation prevents soil-borne diseases from infecting crops year after year.
Tomatoes are categorized by growth habit as: determinate, indeterminate and semi-determinate. Indeterminate plants continue growing unless inhibited by disease or frost. They can easily fill a 4-foot by 4-foot space if allowed to grow naturally. These varieties have a vining growth habit and produce fruit throughout the growing season. Determinate plants produce a crop of tomatoes at one time of the growing season and then are done with fruit production. The growth of determinate varieties is also limited. Semi-determinate plants fall between the other two types in terms of growth habit. Though more compact than indeterminate plants, semi-determinate still produce fruit throughout much of the growing season making them a great choice for gardeners with limited space.
Indeterminate varieties require regular pruning to promote healthy growth. Without pruning, the weight of the numerous branches and fruit will cause branches to break and force the plant to lay down and continue branching. Pruning indeterminate varieties to one dominate stem directs the sugar production toward fruit development. This enhances the flavor and size of the fruit. Suckers are stems that grow between the dominate stem and leaves and should be pruned off the plant. What remains after a properly pruned indeterminate tomato plant is approximately four stems that branch out from the nodes above where the first fruit develops. Determinate varieties typically do not require pruning, but can benefit from staking or caging.
Keeping stems off the ground and allowing adequate air flow promotes healthy plants by reducing the risk of bacterial spread. Store-bought tomato cages are often too small for healthy tomato plants regardless of growth habit. Instead, you can create a cage using wire fencing that has openings wide enough for your hand. Cut a section of fencing about 4-feet long and shape it into a cylinder. Wire the cylinder closed. Place the wire cage around the tomato plant and support it with stakes pounded into the ground.
As the warmer weather approaches, tomato season is upon us. There are many opportunities to experiment with new varieties, planting combinations and soil amendments. Keep good notes to share with fellow gardeners along with the delicious harvest.
Cynthia Domenghini is an instructor and coordinator for K-State’s horticultural therapy online certificate program.