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Young buds on a tomato plant. Photo: <a href="">lord bute</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Young buds on a tomato plant. Photo: lord bute, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

TLC for struggling tomatoes

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Tomatoes love sun and warm temperatures. Both have been in very short supply this growing season, and there are more cool days and nights in this week's forecast. In their weekly conversation, Cooperative Extension horticulturist Amy Ivy tells Martha Foley the dreary-looking young tomato plants WILL flourish, once the weather changes, but it's important to do what you can to make sure they have some care and feeding in the meantime.

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Martha Foley
News and Public Affairs Director

With overnight temperatures still into the forties, it’s not ideal growing conditions for the tomatoes in the garden. When the weather shifts, the tomatoes will make up for the lost time. However, gardeners need to build support structures for their tomato plants now to ensure a healthy and more manageable crop later. If gardeners provide a structure now, then the tomatoes can be trained early on to ensure a more manageable crop later.

First, home gardeners should determine whether they are dealing with determinate or indeterminate tomatoes to provide the more effective support system for the tomatoes. Most tomatoes are indeterminate, which means they continue to grow and produce flowers and fruit. However, indeterminate tomatoes need more support. The best method of training indeterminate tomatoes is to remove suckers from the side shoots. Home gardeners should leave two or three of the strongest stems and remove the weaker stems that can divert the energy of the plant.

Supporting the main stems with a stake or a trellis will ensure a more manageable crop. Using a snow fence to guide the tomato plants makes for great air circulation. The main stems can be tied to the snow fence. Often, a strong shoot will diverge, but this can be managed with an extra stake.

Determinate tomatoes do not grow as big as indeterminate tomato plants, so they don't need as much support. Home gardeners need to be cautious of varieties that have a wild growth pattern, such as brandywine and cherry tomatoes. The best support for determinate tomato plants is to place several stakes in a circle around the outside of the plant, with twine around the stakes to create a close structure. As long as the home gardener directs the growth of the tomato plant early, the plants will grow properly.

Tomato plants benefit from nitrogen based fertilizers, but they are water soluble and can be leached away. Gardeners who prefer to use organic treatments can use grass clippings or extra rotted manure. Unfortunately, organic fertilizers need warm temperatures to be active and released. The cool temperatures we are experiencing are adding to the struggle. Don’t fertilize immediately before rainfall. Applying after a rainy period provides the most benefit.

Epsom salts with magnesium will help tomato plants blossom. You can purchase them at your local drugstore.  Adding about a tablespoon of epsom salts to a watering can may help with blossom retention. However, epsom salts do not make or break the growth of the plant, nor will it replace nitrogen. Nitrogen is the most essential nutrient for tomatoes right now.

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