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Learning to Grow: Protect tomatoes this summer

Published: Friday, May 17, 2013 5:17 p.m. CST

I recently attended a telenet presentation at the University of Illinois Extension Office. This program, “All About Tomatoes,” was presented by Elizabeth Wahle, an extension educator. I wasn’t sure I would learn anything new about tomatoes. I was wrong!

It is disappointing when tomatoes end up with a problem defined as “cracking.” This problem is caused by environmental stress, fluctuations in the moisture of the soil, a lack of good leaf cover, and fluctuations in air temperature. It can help to place mulch or straw around the soil to help keep the temperature even and the soil moist.

When there is a lack of leaf cover, tomatoes may end up with sunscald. Part of the fruit becomes tough and dries out. Your tomatoes will not get a sunburn if they are protected by their own leaves or a shading material. Tomatoes with cracking, or sunscald, may not appear attractive; however, they are safe to eat. Simply cut off the affected part and consume the remainder of the tomato.

Gardeners occasionally report healthy tomato plants, green and lush, with no fruit growing on them.  The cause of this problem has many possibilities. Warm day and night temperatures can reduce flower production. Also, when night temperatures dip below 55 degrees, plants may drop their flowers. 

The best night temperature range for setting fruit is between 58 and 68 degrees.  Daylight temperatures above 90 degrees with low humidity, can cause flowers to drop.  Small or overgrown plants may remain vegetative...green leaves, no fruit!  Too much light interferes with the setting of the fruit. As Miss Wahle said, “turn off the porch light!”  

Pay attention to the temperature. The best time to plant tomatoes outdoors is two weeks after the last frost date. Select a different location in your garden for your tomatoes each season. Raised beds provide ideal drainage. A tomato cage, or trellis, protects the plant. Water with care to avoid splashing the fruit.

Should you find a big fat tomato worm feeding on your plant, escort him from the garden.

Wishing you all a bountiful tomato harvest!

• Catherine Harrington is a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener for Kane County. Call the extention office at 630-584-6166 to learn more.

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