Tomatoes are the most frequently grown plant in Arkansas gardens.
According to Beth Phelps, Pulaski County staff chair for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, the key to growing healthy plants that yield high-quality tomatoes is a sunny location and even moisture in the soil.
"You have to keep the soil moisture even. You'll face root rot if your soil is too wet and cracked fruit if it's too dry," she says.
Another danger where inappropriate moisture is concerned is blossom-end rot, which describes a dark and leathery bloom that's sunken in. This occurs, Phelps says, as a result of a lack of calcium in the plant.
When watering, Phelps reminds gardeners to water only the soil around the base of the plant, not the foliage.
"Dirt splashing on leaves is a quick way to get early blight, which is a fungal disease," she explains. "Mulching at the base of the plant to keep dirt from splashing, as well as not watering the leaves, helps prevent early blight."
Phelps says early blight can be treated by spraying with a labeled fungicide such as Dacinol or Maneb.
Phelps advises setting spring plants out when the danger of frost is lifted, usually around April 10, though plants can be set out earlier if caution is taken to cover and protect them should a frost occur.
"The advantage to putting plants out earlier is essentially the production of more fruit--tomatoes will only set up blooms when nighttime temperatures are below seventy degrees," she said.
For this reason, Phelps advises planting new tomato plants in early July for harvesting tomatoes in the autumn.
"Regardless of when you plant, it's important that you work in some organic matter to the soil, and fertilize regularly with your choice of fertilizer," she says.
"Growing tomatoes in containers is also popular, and a clever way to avoid soil-borne nematodes and other disease in established, non-rotated garden plots," Phelps says. Select a mid-size container, fill with potting soil as it's a disease-free light mix designed to drain well and place your plants in an area that receives full sun," she says.
Phelps says a tomato can be harvested on the shelf as soon as it begins to show color. If it's harvested green, the sugars have not begun changing in it, and it will remain hard and green.
Ripening can be expedited by placing a ripe banana in a paper sack of semi-ripe tomatoes.
"The banana will release ethylene and speed up the ripening process," Phelps says.
For more information on growing tomatoes, contact your county extension agent. The Cooperative Extension Service is part of the U of A Division of Agriculture.