The heat and drought that plagued us last summer took its toll on the vegetable crops and lots of folk e-mailed wanting to know what was ailing their tomatoes.
In most cases the problem was water. Water is key to growing tasty tomatoes. Because a tomato is 95 percent water, the quality of the fruit (technically they're berries) depends on the plant's supply of water. The happiest tomato is one that gets sufficient water in a continuous supply.
Plants that are water-stressed may produce tomatoes that look red and ripe on the outside, but are hard and green on the inside.
Blossom end rot, too often blamed on a lack of calcium in the soil, is also caused by an inconsistent water supply. The soil may have a sufficient supply of calcium, but insufficient water will make it unavailable to the plant.
Over-watering can bring on disease and prevent fruit set, so it's important to keep track of how much and how often you water. Between you and Mother Nature, your tomatoes should get 1 inch of water a week. In a heat wave, I increase the amount to 1 1/2 inches. Also, the amount of water needed may increase as the season wears on and the tomato plants grow in size and begin to bear fruit. Tomatoes are deep-rooted plants so the soil should be moist to a depth of at least 6 inches. If in doubt, plunge a shovel in the ground and check it. A wilted tomato plant in the heat of the day does not necessarily indicate a need for water, so check the soil before you douse the plant.
It's better for the tomatoes to receive one or two deep waterings weekly rather then a light daily shower. Light watering encourages shallow roots, making the plants more susceptible to drought.
To keep track of how much water Mother Nature contributes weekly I installed a rain gauge and I check it when it rains.
When watering by hand, using a long-handled watering wand will allow you to direct the water to the base of the plant. If you overhead water, as the plant grows in size, the leaves act like an umbrella and intercept and catch the water, redirecting the flow to the drip line.
If you have a lot of tomatoes consider installing a soaker hose along the base of the plants. The slow drip allows the water to seep into soil and avoids runoff. To measure how much water is coming out of your soaker hose, bury a few empty tuna cans under the stretched out hose. Keep track of the time it takes to fill them to the depth of an inch. If it takes an hour you now know how long to run your soaker hose system to get that all-important inch of water.
Mulching with an organic material helps the soil retain that constant supply of moisture that prevents compaction and keeps a surface crust from forming. A soft, crumbly soil surface allows both air and water to move more easily through the soil.
Another concern of tomato growers is the issue of pruning. Commercial growers often prune out suckers, the small shoots that grow at the point where the branches meet the stems. They do so in the belief that the suckers drain energy from the plant. I think Mother Nature puts suckers on tomato plants in order to shade the fruit from the hot afternoon sun. Tomatoes develop yellow spots and shoulders when they suffer from sun scald.
If you decide to prune the suckers, do so when they are tiny and can be easily pinched. Cutting large suckers leaves large open wounds that weaken the plant and can spread disease.
Finally, don't get too generous with the fertilizer. I give my tomatoes a dose of slow release organic fertilizer along with a shovelful of compost at planting time. Then every couple of weeks I give them a shot of compost tea. But the fertilizer stays in the barn.
If you think that's not enough, consider the successes of world record holder Charles Wilber. Using nothing but homemade compost and compost tea, this tomato fanatic and Guinness champion harvested a record-breaking 342 pounds of tomatoes from a single plant. Wilber's award winner, a cherry tomato plant, grew 27 1/2 feet high. He had to build a scaffold to harvest his crop. In his book, "How to Grow World Record Tomatoes: A Guinness Champion Reveals His All-Organic Technique" (Acres U.S.A. $14.95 (800) 355-5313), Wilber spills the beans and reveals all his secrets including setting up a special irrigation system. Wilber agrees water is also key to growing great tomatoes.