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Although they can be easy to grow, there are some tricks to making sure plants stay as healthy as possible as you patiently wait to harvest those first ripe fruits of your labor.
Giving tomato plants the proper care at planting time is one of the most important steps for ensuring a satisfying harvest. But even with the best initial care, tomato plants need on-going attention to keep them as healthy as possible as you prepare for the bounty.
From the very start, keep an eye out for leaf spot or leaf curl anywhere on the plant. With some varieties, leaf curl is more common and not always an indication of a problem. Sometimes itís a natural response to minimize exposure to more sun that the plant can support. But it can be a harbinger of more serious problems. And leaf spots are always a sign of trouble. The best action is removal of any leaves or branches with signs of spotting. Another sign of trouble are yellowing leaves. Unfortunately, many diseases common to tomatoes look similar. Some are preventable, some are treatable, and yet others are neither, such as a virus.
The best proactive, natural measures for disease avoidance of most plants including tomatoes, is to have a 2 - 4 inch layer of mulch around the base of each plant. Mulch can prevent soil-borne disease from splashing up onto foliage from irrigation or rainwater. To minimize the amount of water on foliage, irrigate your plants with soaker hoses or drip irrigation placed under mulch. At the very least, if irrigating by hand, do so only at the base of the plant. If you must water from above, as with a broadcast sprinkler, do it early in the day so the foliage has plenty of time to dry out. Foliage that is wet for too long can promote disease.
Keep a good amount of compost worked into the top few inches of your soil around the plants. In addition to being a great natural source of nutrients, compost has disease-fighting properties. Yet even with proactive vigilance, tomatoes, especially non-hybrids, can be susceptible. Preemptive measures are still your best defense to avoiding problems. By mid-season, make sure your plants have plenty of sunlight and air circulation around all the foliage. If a plant is too dense, cut back some of the branches, especially any that have signs of disease: spotting, discoloration or curling.
There are a number of pests that attack tomato plants. One of the most common is the tomato hornworm. You know you have this pest when you find much of the foliage eaten within a short period. Another sign of the hornworms presence is the droppings they produce. They usually appear at the base of the plant and look like small black soccer balls.
Control is simple. Once you locate this well camouflaged creature, handpick and toss them out of the garden where a bird is sure to find it. Another method of control is B.t (Bacillus thuringiensis). It is a biological control that wonít harm beneficial insects, pets, or people so itís safe to use in an organic garden. You can find this in a canister at most nurseries and garden centers. A favorable aspect to this control is that it is selective, specific only to caterpillar larvae such as the hornworm. But use with discretion. B.t is effective against all caterpillar larvae, including butterflies. Apply a dusting of this powder to your plants once you notice a problem and reapply if rain washes it off. Yet I still find picking them off the plant is just as effective and the most environmentally friendly option.
To promote faster growth and concentrate the plantís energy into the main branches and fruit, snap or cut out the small suckers that grow from the crotch of many branches and the main stalk. You should also remove all branches and foliage below the lowest forming fruit.
As tomato plants grow, they need support. Make sure to provide staking or support to keep plants from falling over and breaking. An upright, supported plant also provides better air circulation and sunlight, which means a healthier plant and a better harvest. If you find that the plant is growing too tall to manage, you can cut the top off. Be sure to make a clean cut, just above a side branch.
Visit your garden often and pay attention to the changes in your plants. The key minimizing any problem in your garden is to be proactive and quick to respond to signs of trouble. The result will be healthy plants and a bountiful harvest, without the use of chemicals.