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My Management for Growing Tomatoes in the South

Hello my name is Bill Yoder and I am a tomato grower located in the southeastern U.S, growing for market, local restaurants and also trialing for different breeders. I have trialed over 2,000 varieties in the past 18 years, growing roughly 700 plants each season, most of which are heirlooms or “created heirlooms”, with very few hybrids. The local summer climate is hot and humid with abundant rainfall.

The soil in my region is heavy clay-laden. Annual additions of compost or rotation of cover cropping are my methods for improving drainage as well as nutrient replenishment. I also add organic fertilizers and mineral amendments in the early years. The ph is generally low. I must account for this in my arsenal of soil amendments. I focus on calcium and magnesium levels as these are critical factors for tomatoes.

I have high soil disease pressure for both verticillium and fusarium wilts. I must rotate my plantings to avoid the further buildup of these diseases. In my experience, a 3-year rotation results in a 50% success rate on subsequent plantings. A 5-year rotation results in an 80% success rate.

Other diseases that I routinely experience are early blight and septoria leaf spot. I must apply foliar treatments at the first sign of disease and remain vigilant in my routine. I grow organically, so I choose products that fit my approach.

Another growing challenge is the management of blossom end rot (BER). For me, this occurs once temperatures are consistently above 90 degrees and accompanied by a rainy period. Many folks experience BER due to a dry period or an interruption in the watering cycle. However, a rapid growth spurt brought on by high temperatures and abundant water always triggers this condition. I apply very little nitrogen during the growing season in order to prevent rapid growth spurts. I am careful about the form of nitrogen that I use. The biggest problems reported from my plant customers are either BER or lack of fruit set. Both of these are usually attributed to the customer’s usage of a high nitrogen fertilizer.

Pest challenges consist mainly of aphids in the spring, hornworms, and fruitworms in the summer. I am most successful at controlling worms if I start spraying early in the season, at the first signs of worms. Spraying earlier in the season is also more effective because there is not as much foliage to contend with, making it easier to apply an even and thorough application.

The biggest pest problem that I contend with now is spider mites. They are most troublesome in the greenhouse where I grow many dwarf varieties. I have not been successful at controlling the mites. I plan to begin spraying much earlier in the season this year to attempt to eliminate them before their population explodes.

Summertime rainfall usually occurs as a result of late afternoon thunderstorms. Many storms drop too much water at one time to the detriment of ripening fruit. This can cause a large amount of cracking in tomatoes resulting in unmarketable fruit. In recent years, I have increased my use of landscape sheets as a mulch. It provides the benefits of both weed control as well as water management. I run drip hoses underneath the sheets as a source of water.

Fertilization occurs on an as-needed basis. I usually fertilize at plant out and then 2 times during the growing season. An organic product formulated for tomatoes is the standard.

I support all tomatoes (except dwarf varieties) using a trellis system. Some pruning is done, especially the first 12 inches or so of the plant. I usually prune to 3 or 4 laterals unless I am trialing a variety.

This is the foundation of my growing practice for in-ground plantings.

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