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Tomatoes - Lycopersicon esculentum - Perennial

Tomatoes were probably originally confined to the Peru-Ecuador area, from which they spread northward in pre-Columbian times to Mexico, where they were first domesticated. The Spanish explorers carried the plants to Southern Europe, where they were eaten for a long time before being utilized by the people of Northern Europe and the United States. For many years, they were considered poisonous and were grown only for ornamental purposes under the names "tomatl", "love apple", or "pomme d'amour". Today 95 percent of all American gardens grow tomatoes; they are the most popular garden vegetables in Arkansas.

Tomatoes are easy to grow. A few plants will provide adequate harvest for most families. The tomato plant is a tender, warm-season perennial that is handled like an annual for growing in summer and fall gardens.


Varieties

Hundreds of varieties of tomatoes are now available for the home gardener. They range widely in size, shape, color, plant type, disease resistance, and seasons of maturity. Catalogs, garden centers, and greenhouses offer a large selection of tomato varieties, and selecting the best one or two varieties can be extremely difficult. Choose the varieties best suited for your intended use and method of culture.

- Floradel - 80 days to maturity. Resistant to fusarium wilt. Large red fruit, crack resistant, good yield and quality.

- Better Boy - 72 days to maturity. Resistant to fusarium and verticillium wilt and root knot nematodes. Bright red, globe-shaped fruit, vigorous plant growth with good fruit protection.

- Floramerica - 76 days to maturity. Resistant to fusarium wilt and verticillium wilt. All-America winner, large fruited red hybrid determinate plants.

- Ozark Pink - 75 days to maturity. Resistant to verticillium wilt and fusarium wilt. 1988 release by Ark. Agri. Exp. Sta.; smooth pink fruit, crack resistant; similar to Traveler 76.

- Mountain Pride - 77 Days to maturity. Resistant to fusarium wilt and verticillium wilt. Hybrid, determinate vine, deep red fruit, crack resistant.

- Celebrity - 70 days to maturity. Resistant to verticillium, fusarium TMV and nematodes. Crack resistant, determinate, large firm fruit. All-America winner.

SMALL FRUITED:

- Large Red Cherry - 72 days to maturity. Good quality, small round fruit.

- Sweet Chelsea - 65 days to maturity. Resistant to fusarium/verticillium wilt, nematodes and TMV. Produces excellent quality 1" diameter red fruit. Hybrid, large cherry type fruit, sets in heat.

- Container and patio varieties - These tomatoes are popular for use in containers or hanging baskets in garden or patio locations where space is limited. Their ornamental value is considered more important than fruit quality. They have red fruit and are not suitable for pruning. Patio (hybrid), Pixie (hybrid), Salad Top (cherry type), Small Fry (hybrid, cherry type), Tiny Tim (cherry type), Toy Boy (hybrid).


When to Plant

Transplanting tomatoes gets them off to the best start and saves several weeks of growing time. Start plants in the hot house or cold frame five to six weeks before the first frost-free date. Some gardeners transplant their tomatoes soon after the soil is prepared for spring gardening when there is a high risk of damage from freezing. In this case, be prepared to cover early set plants overnight to protect them from frost. There are many different ways to protect young tomato plants. Some of these methods include hot caps, floating row covers, and water-filled plastic cones. For best results, plant when the soil is warm, soon after the frost-free date. Plant development, not the age of the plant, determines when tomatoes bear fruit.

Late plantings may be made in mid-summer for fall harvest and early winter storage of tomatoes. These plants have the advantage of increased vigor and freedom from early diseases. They often produce better quality tomatoes than late picking from early spring plantings. Time late plantings for maximum yields before killing frost arrives in your area (about 100 days from transplanting for most varieties).

The space required depends upon the variety and method of culture.  Space dwarf plants 12 inches apart in the row, staked plants 15 - 24 inches apart, and wirecage or groundbed plants 24 - 36 inches apart.


Care

Apply starter fertilizer solution when transplanting. Hoe or cultivate shallowly to keep down weeds without damaging roots. Mulch is recommended, especially for gardeners who wish to maintain their plants for full-season harvest. Black plastic or organic materials are suitable for mulching.

Water the plants thoroughly every seven to 10 days during dry periods. Plants confined in containers need daily watering. Sidedress with nitrogen fertilizer (ammonia nitrate) at the rate of one pound per 100 feet of row (equivalent to one tablespoon per plant) after the first tomatoes have grown to the size of golf balls. Make two more applications at three and six weeks later. If the weather is dry following these applications, water the plants thoroughly. Do not get fertilizer on the leaves.

Many gardeners train their tomato plants to stakes, trellises, or cages with great success. All varieties are not equally suitable for staking and pruning.


Staking and Pruning Methods

Wire cages placed over small tomato plants will hold the vines and fruit off the ground. Short cages (2 2/1 to 3 feet high) usually support themselves when the wire prongs at the bottom are pushed into the ground. Taller cages require a stake, post, or wire for support. Large (6" x 6") mesh wire permits easy harvesting. Tomato plants must be tied to supporting stakes or to a trellis because, unlike cucumber plants, they do not support themselves with tendrils. Loop ordinary soft twine, cord, or cloth loosely around the main stem and tie it tightly to the stake. Tying the stems too tightly will injure them.

You may wish to prune staked or caged tomato plants to stimulate early maturity. Be sure that your variety is suitable for pruning. To prune the plant properly, remove the shoots (suckers) when they are one to two inches long. The shoots develop in the axil of each leaf (the angle between the leaf petiole and the stem above it).

Breaking off the shoots by hand is preferred to cutting them. Bend the shoots in opposite directions until they snap. Prune the plants every five to seven days. Be careful not to prune the developing flower clusters that grow from the main stem or to pinch off the growing tip (terminal) of the plant. Remember, the more severely you prune the foliage, the more you limit plant growth (including root development). Double-stem or multiple-stem pruning systems sacrifice some of the earliness and fruit size for less risk of cracking, blossom-end rot, and sunburn.

When pruning to two stems, remove all of the shoots (suckers) when they are 1 to 2 inches long, leaving only the first shoot below the first fruit cluster. This is the best shoot to develop into a second stem.


Harvesting

Tomatoes should be firm and fully colored. They are of highest quality when they ripen on healthy vines and when daily summer temperatures average about 75 degrees F. When temperatures are high (air temperature of 90 degrees F. or more), the softening process is accelerated and color development is retarded.

During hot summer weather, pick tomatoes every day or every other day. Harvest the fruit when it has a healthy pink color and ripen it further indoors (at 70 to 75 degrees F.). Harvest all green mature fruit in the fall on the day before a killing frost is expected. Wrap the tomatoes individually in paper and store at 60 to 65 degrees F. They will ripen slowly during the next several weeks. Immature green tomatoes may be harvested and used for frying or processed for relish, pickles, etc.


Common Problems

Insects: Tomato hornworms are large (two to three inches long when fully grown), green worms with white stripes on their bodies. A horn protrudes from the top, rear end of the worm. Tomato hornworms feed on the leaves and fruit, and several worms on one plant can quickly defoliate it. They are difficult to see when small. Hand pick the worms or use a suggested biological insecticide.

Tomato fruit worms are almost sure to be found in the garden. The moth lays the eggs in the terminal (top growth of the plant), then the larvae (small worms) hatch and make their way to the fruit. Once the larva is inside the fruit, it's too late to save that fruit. Use the recommended insecticide every seven days.

Diseases: Verticillium and fusarium wilt are seedborne diseases that cause yellowing of the leaves, wilting, and premature dying of the plant. These diseases will persist in gardens where susceptible plants are grown. Once they build up, the only practical control is the use of resistant (VF) varieties.

Early blight is characterized by dead brown spots that usually start on the lower leaves and spread up the plant. Upon close inspection, you can see concentric rings within the spots. Although early blight is most severe on the leaves, it sometimes occurs on the stems; it can cause defoliation. You may need to use fungicide sprays to achieve high yields and quality fruit. Some varieties are more tolerant of early blight than others. Remove diseased leaves from the garden and dispose of them.

Septoria leafspot is characterized by numerous small black spots on the leaves. The center of these spots later turn white, and tiny black dots appear in the white center. The disease starts on the bottom leaves and may become severe in wet weather. Use suggested fungicides for control.

Physiological disorders: Blossom-end rot, a dry, leathery rot of the blossom end of the fruit, is common in home-grown tomatoes. It is caused by a combination of calcium deficiency with wide fluctuations in soil moisture. Severe pruning causes stress to the plants that increases the incidence of blossom-end rot. Some tomatoes are much more susceptible to this condition than others. Mulching and uniform watering will help prevent blossom-end rot.

Poor color and sunscald occur when high temperatures retard the development of full red color in tomatoes exposed directly to the sun. Sunscald appears on the fruit during hot, dry weather as a large, whitish area. It becomes a problem when foliage has been lost through other diseases, such as early blight.

Diseases: early blight, septoria leafspot, verticillium and fusarium wilts, late blight, tobacco mosaic virus, bacterial spot, tomato spotted wilt virus.

Insects: flea beetle, hornworm, stink bugs, Colorado potato beetle, fruitworm, aphids, mites, whiteflies, cutworms

Other Pests: nematodes

Cultural: blossom-end rot, irregular soil moisture or calcium deficiency; poor color, yellow spots or large whitish-grey spots, sunscald from lack of foliage cover; leaf roll; fruit cracking, irregular soil moisture; Black Walnut wilt, caused by roots of tomato plants coming in contact with roots of black walnut trees


Storage

Days to Maturity: 55-105

Harvest: Harvest fully ripened but still firm; most varieties are dark red. Picked tomatoes should be placed in shade. Light is not necessary for ripening immature tomatoes. Mature green tomatoes may be picked before the first killing frost and stored in a cool (55F), moist (90% RH) place. When desired, ripen fruits at 70F.

Approximate Yield: (per 10 feet of row) 15-45 lbs

Amount per Person: 20-25 lbs for fresh use; 25-40 lbs for canning

Storage: Green tomatoes - medium cool (50-70F), moist (90% RH) conditions; 1-3 weeks. Ripe tomatoes - cool (40-45F), moist (90% RH) conditions; 7-10 days.

Preservation: Can or freeze as sauces or in chunks (whole or quartered), peeled.


Questions & Answers

What causes the lower leaves of my tomato plants to roll up?

Leaf roll (curling of the leaflets) is a physiological condition that occurs most commonly when plants are trained and pruned. It does not affect fruiting or quality, and it is not a disease. Leaf roll is a common genetic tract in some varieties such as mountain delight and mountain spring.

What is a tree tomato?

The tree-like plant sold as a "tree tomato" is Cyphomandra, betacea, also called Tamarillo, a different species from garden tomatoes. it is a woody tree that grows eight feet or more in height and bears fruit after two years. The tree tomato is a tropical plant, and will not overwinter outside under Arkansas conditions.

What causes small, irregular cloudy-white spots just under the skin of my tomatoes?

The spots on green or ripe fruit are caused by the feeding of stink bugs.

What causes the flowers to drop off my tomato plants?

During unfavorable weather (night temperatures lower than 55 degrees F. or above 70 degrees F. and day temperatures above 95 degrees F. with dry, hot winds) tomatoes do not set and the flowers drop. The problem usually disappears as the weather improves.

What cause the young leaves of my plants to become pointed and irregular in shape? I noticed the twisting of the leaves and stems after spraying the plants for the first time.

Judging from your description, it seems likely that your tomato plants have been injured by 2, 4-D or similar weed killer. Never use the same sprayer for weed control in your vegetable garden that you use in your lawn. Drift from herbicides originating one-half mile or more away can also injure your tomato plants.

When should I start my seed indoors to produce tomato transplants for my garden?

Depending upon temperature and how the plants are grown, it takes from 6 to 8 weeks to produce a healthy, 6-inch tall transplant to set out in your garden. The plants should be grown in a warm area and receive 6 to 8 hours of sunlight daily or tall, poor quality, leggy plants will result.

How do you select good transplants at nurseries or garden centers?

First, select the right variety, look for plants that appear healthy, dark green in color, and do not have any spots or holes in the leaves. The ideal tomato transplant should have five leaves and no flowers. Avoid tall, spindly plants with weak stems and leathery purple leaves.

How often should my tomatoes be fertilized?

It is necessary to fertilize the garden before planting tomatoes. Apply the fertilizer again when fruit first sets. From that point on, an additional fertilization (sidedress) every week to 10 days is recommended. Plants grown on sandy soils should be fertilized more frequently than those grown on heavy, clay soils. A general sidedress fertilizer recommendation is one to two tablespoons of a complete fertilizer scattered around the plant and worked into the soil. If using a fertilizer high in nitrogen such as ammonium nitrate, reduce the rate to one tablespoon per plant.

Should tomato plants be staked, caged or left unsupported?

Plants with foliage and fruit supported off the ground will produce more than unsupported plants. Caging has several advantages. It involves less work than staking. Once the cage is placed over the plant there is no further manipulation of the plant - no pruning or tying. The fruits are simply harvested as they ripen. In some areas, staking and pruning of the plant to a single or multiple stem results in sunburn when the developing fruit is exposed to excessive sunlight. Caged tomato vines produce more fruits of a smaller size, where staked and tied plants produce less fruits which mature earlier and are larger. Plants need to be raised off the ground to reduce disease and insect problems.

My tomato plants look great. They are dark green, vigorous and healthy. However, flowers are not forming any fruit. What is the problem?

Several conditions can cause tomatoes to not set fruit. Too much nitrogen fertilizer, nighttime temperatures over 70 degrees F., low temperatures below 50 degrees F., irregular watering, insects such as thrips or planting the wrong variety may result in poor fruit set. Any of these conditions can cause poor fruit set.

Are there really low-acid tomato varieties?

There are some varieties that are slightly less acidic than others. Some yellow-fruited types are slightly less acidic than the normal red varieties. Flavor differences which exist between varieties are not because of differences in acid content, but balances of the sugar to acid ratio. In general, cherry tomatoes are higher in both sugar and acid levels.

What does determinate mean and can you tell if a tomato is determinate by looking at it?

Determinate means the plant will stop growing and be smaller. A determinate vine is distinguished by a repeating pattern of two leaves followed by a flower or fruiting cluster. After 6 or 7 clusters the plant will stop growing. An indeterminate vine has a repeating pattern of three or four leaves, then a cluster and keeps growing.

Can I save seeds from my tomatoes from next season's plantings, and if so how?

You can save seed from tomatoes if the variety is not a hybrid. Hybrid tomatoes do not come true from seed. The plants and fruits from seeds saved from your home garden may or may not resemble the parent. However, for true breeding or open pollinated varieties, such as Ozard Pink, it is easy to save seed. To save seed from tomatoes or any other home vegetable fruit crop, leave the fruit on the plant until it is mature, pull it, squeeze juice with seed into a glass, let this ferment for several days adding water if needed. Rinse the seeds two or three times to remove debris. Seeds will settle to the bottom. After rinsing the seeds, blot them and place them on newspaper to dry. Store the seeds under cool, dry conditions.

When caging tomatoes, how large should the cage be?

The diameter of the cage should be at least 18 to 20 inches at the top. Smaller cages often restrict plant growth and reduce yields. Height of the cage will vary but generally 3 1/2 feet is sufficient for the recommended varieties. However, if vining types such as Better Boy, Cherry or Grande, are used, a cage 5 feet in height is preferred. Regardless of variety, the 3 1/2 feet tall cage is sufficient for most fall garden tomatoes.

How do you stake tomatoes?

Staking involves pruning the plant to either one or two main stalks. Tomatoes grown without support develop a bush shape. The small suckers which develop between the axil of the leaf and the stem are removed to develop a vine structure rather than a bush. A wooden stake of 1-inch diameter and 6 feet long is driven into the ground beside the plant and allows it to be loosely attached to the stake as it grows. Do not damage the root system when inserting the stake in the ground. The plant can be attached to the stake with twist-ties, soft string, strips of cloth or panty hose. The plant is sufficiently supported if it is attached to the stake at 12- to 14-inch intervals. Continued to remove suckering to prevent the plant from developing more than one or two central stems. If a double-stalk plant is desired, leave the sucker produced below the first flower cluster since it will be the most vigorous.

What causes a tomato to crack? Is there anything I can do to prevent it?

Cracking is a physiological disorder caused by soil moisture fluctuations. When the tomato reaches the mature green stage and the water supply to the plant is reduced or cut off, the tomato will begin to ripen. At this time the skin around the outer surface of the tomato becomes thicker and more rigid to protect the tomato during and after harvest. If the water supply is restored after ripening begins, the plant will resume translocation of nutrients and moisture into the fruit. This will cause the fruit to enlarge. Thus, skin splits around the fruit and results in cracking. The best control for cracking is a constant and regular water supply. Apply a layer of organic mulch to the base of the plant as this serves as a buffer and prevents soil moisture fluctuation. Water plants thoroughly every week especially when the fruits are maturing. Some varieties are resistant to cracking and we try to recommend these varieties.

What could cause the leaves of my tomatoes to turn brown along the edges?

Leaf-burn or scorch generally indicates root injury, quite often caused by heavy amounts of fertilizer applied too near the roots. This injury often results in browning and dieback of the ends and margins of the leaves.

About the time my tomatoes ripen and turn red, I lose at least half my crop to bird damage. What can prevent this?

Bird damage is common, and one control method which works quite well is to take old nylon stockings and cut them into pieces 10 to 12 inches long. Tie a knot in one end of the stocking and slip the open end over the entire cluster of tomatoes. Secure the end above the tomato cluster with a rubber band or twist-tie. Birds will not be able to peck through the nylon. Slip the stocking off the cluster and harvest the ripe fruit and replace it to protect later-ripening fruit. Also, birds damage fully mature fruit more readily than breaker fruit. Harvest in breaker stage. Other methods include using mylar tape over the plants, strips of aluminum foil, and balloons that resemble owl's eyes.

What causes the black spots on the bottom of my tomatoes?

Blossom end rot, caused by improper moisture and calcium deficiencies. Check that the soil pH is above 6.0. Maintain uniform soil moisture as the fruit nears maturity. Remove affected fruit. Use Calcium Nitrate to fertilize the plants.

What causes some of my early tomato fruit from the spring garden to be oddly shaped and of poor quality?

This condition is usually caused by low temperatures during bloom and pollination. Fruit that set when temperatures are 55 degrees F. or below often are odd-shaped and of poor quality. The blooms these tomatoes develop from often are abnormal because of temperature conditions and grow into abnormal, odd-shape fruit. Another name for this disorder is catfacing.

Should you allow tomatoes to become fully ripe and red on the vine before harvesting?

Generally, yields will be increased by harvesting the fruit at first blush of pink instead of leaving them on the plant to ripen fully. A tomato picked at first sign of color and ripened at room temperature will be just as tasty as one left to fully mature on the vine. Picking tomatoes before they turn red reduces damage from birds.

If tomatoes are picked green or before they are fully mature, how should they be handled to insure proper ripening and full flavor?

Never refrigerate tomatoes when picked immature. Place them in a single layer at room temperature and allowed them to develop full color. When they are full ripe, place them in the refrigerator where they will store for several weeks. Those handled in this manner will be of high quality and full flavor.

What is a husk tomato?

Husk tomato is Physallis, also called Ground Cherry. It is grown the same way as regular tomatoes and produces a fruit the size of a cherry tomato. The fruits are produced inside a paper-like husk which, when ripe, turns brown and the fruit drops from the plant. If left in the husk, the fruit will keep for several weeks. Like tomatoes, they are sensitive to cold weather and should be set out from plants after all danger of frost in the spring. Space the plants 1 1/2 feet apart in rows at least 3 feet apart. The ripened small fruit can be used in pies, jams or may be dried in sugar and used like raisins.

I have the best tomato crop I have ever had, but the large tomatoes are falling off the vines. Even the ones that stay on the vine are jarred off easily. What is the problem?

Cool fall temperatures cause the abscission zone, the area where the tomato is attached to the plant, to weaken and the heavy fruit subsequently falls. Gather fallen tomatoes as soon as possible, wipe them clean and store them in a warm place to ripen.

I have large translucent areas on my tomato fruit. What's going on?

This is an environmental problem. The translucent area is caused by sun scald. Heat from direct intense sunlight destroys the color pigments of the tomato. This damage does not make the tomato inedible, but it is unsightly.

Can I propagate tomatoes for the fall garden from existing vines?

If necessary, use suckers or layering (cover with soil until roots appear) of existing vine. Do this several weeks before the determined recommended transplanting date for fall tomatoes, and use early tomato varieties. This is not a generally recommended practice. This practice does not work well with indeterminate varieties.

How do you tell when a green tomato harvested early to prevent freeze damage will ever turn red and ripen?

This can simply be done with a sharp kitchen knife. Harvest a tomato typical of the majority of green tomatoes on your plants. Look at size but pay particular attention to fruit color. Slice through the center of the tomato. Closely examine the seed within the fruit. If the seeds are covered with a clear gell which cause them to move away from the knife, then that fruit will eventually turn red and ripen. If the seeds are cut by the knife then those fruit will never properly ripen. Compare the color and size of the tested fruit when harvesting tomatoes on your plants. Most similar fruit will eventually ripen and turn red.

Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable?

The tomato is a legally-declared vegetable as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States. A vegetable is a herbaceous (non-woody) plant or plant part which can be eaten without processing and is usually consumed with the main meal. However, botanically it is the fruit of the plant.

The foliage on my tomatoes is infected by irregularly shaped spots which cause it to turn yellow and drop off. This occur in all seasons and is on the top as well as the bottom leaves.

Several types of leaf spots will attack tomatoes. Septoria leaf spot is seen quite often and can be controlled with a fungicide spray program. Begin the spray program early in the life of the plant.

The leaves on my tomato plants are distorted. Why?

This is caused tobacco mosaic virus. If the virus is severe, remove the plants to prevent spread to other plants. Working around the infected plants can spread the virus to nearby healthy plants. Many viruses are insect transmitted, so carry out a good insect control program on tomatoes. Cucumber mosaic virus causes symptoms similar to 2-4-D injury.

My tomato plants are stunted and have a pale yellow foliage. The root system has knots or swellings on the roots.

These are root knot nematodes. Some varieties such as Celebrity and Better Boy resist this problem. It is best to use only nematode resistant varieties. Nematode resistance is indicated by the letter N after the name. Example: Celebrity VFN.

My tomatoes were healthy during the spring and early summer, yet after a recent rain, they wilted and died very rapidly. I found a white fungal growth at the base of the plant.

This is southern blight. It is a soilborne fungus that lives on organic material in the soil. Deep burial of undecomposed organic material in the soil will reduce this problem. Control foliage diseases of tomato plants because the fallen leaves around the base of the plant will feed the fungus, and it will build up this area and cause damage later. Crop rotation will also reduce the incidence of southern blight.

My tomato plants wilted rapidly. When I cut the stem open, I found a brown ring around the inside.

This is Fusarium wilt caused by a soilborne fungus that attacks tomatoes and other crops. It is controlled only through the use of resistant varieties. Most commercial tomato varieties are resistant. Before you plant a variety, make sure it is resistant to Fusarium wilt. This resistance is denoted by the letter F after the name. Example: Celebrity VFN.

What do the letters "VFN" associated with particular tomato varieties indicate?

VFN indicates the tomato variety is resistant to three types of diseases: Verticilum wilt, Fusarium wilt and nematodes. Many of the new hybrid varieties are VFN types.

The lower foliage on my tomatoes is beginning to turn yellow and drop. The leaves have circular, dark brown to black spots.

This is Alternaria leaf spot or early blight, a common problem on tomatoes and causes defoliation, usually during periods of high rainfall. Plant tomatoes on a raised bed to improve water drainage and spaced them enough so air can move and dry the foliage and prevent diseases. Follow a spray program using a fungicide beginning when the fruit is set and continuing at 1 week intervals during the growing season until harvest.

My tomato fruits have small yellow specks on the surface. When the fruit are peeled, those yellow specks form a tough spot that must be cut off before eating the tomatoes. What's wrong?

The yellow speckling is caused by sucking insects such as stinkbugs or leaf-footed bugs. Early control of sucking insects that feed on the fruit is helpful in alleviating the problem.

We planted tomatoes in our small garden. They are loaded and are the best tomatoes we have ever had; however, there are some small holes near the stem end of the tomato. When we cut the tomato open, there is a small worm inside. What is it and what can we do?

Your fruits have been invaded by the tomato pinworm. They usually do not damage all fruit and can be controlled only by a preventive insecticide spray every 7 to 10 days. When the damage is evident, it is too late to do anything about it.

What causes my tomato leaves to turn yellowish and fall off?

Many conditions may cause these symptoms including spider mites, diseases and nutrient deficiencies. Examine the underside of the leaves for small red to greenish mites. If mites are found, treat with two to three applications of an insecticides at 5-day intervals.


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This page was last updated on November 16, 2002