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Gardening 101: Growing Tomatoes

(CBSDFW.COM) - If I had to pick the edible crop here in North Texas that creates the most conversation and debate over best practices, it would be growing tomatoes.

Ripe Cherry Tomatoes Close Up
While tomatoes are fruits—botanically classified as berries—they are commonly used as a vegetable ingredient. (credit: Getty Images)

When I lived in Nashville (over a decade ago now) growing tomatoes was easy, there was one season. Here in North Texas there are two.

If you pick the spring season, you race from the last freeze to the first heat wave to get your crop in. If you pick the fall season you are fighting for your plant's life through the worst of the summer heat in hopes that can survive for the fall bounty.

My success rate with tomatoes is low. I'm picking the fall season this year to try some yellow pear. But to harvest in the fall means to grow in the summer so in they go now.

You can help their survival rate with lots of water and mulch along with afternoon shade. The rewards are great; two years ago, I harvested some top-choice Roma tomatoes all the way into December. Those tomatoes made for some stellar spaghetti sauce that I put in the freeze to help me get through winter.

Given my track record, I shouldn't be giving ANY advice on tomatoes. But I have discovered that it is best not to use the same growing bed in back-to-back years. In fact, it is better to rotate spots every three to four years. This will help keep down the multitude of disease and pests that attack tomatoes on a consistent basis.

When this common fungal disease affects a tomato patch, it can systematically destroy the plant, killing the tissue of leaves, stems and fruits.

Blight spreads by fungal spores that are carried by insects, wind, water and animals from infected plants, and then deposited on soil.1 The disease requires moisture to progress, so when dew or rain comes in contact with fungal spores in the soil, they reproduce. When it rains, water hits the ground, splashing soil and spores onto the lower leaves of plants, where the disease shows its earliest symptoms.

Without intervention, blight can be detrimental, but tomato growers can take swift action to fight the disease. While there is no cure for blight on plants or in the soil, there are some simple ways to control this disease.

I save my eggshells and, when I have enough to cover a cookie sheet, put them in the oven over very low heat (225°) for about 20 minutes. This dries them out enough to crush them into a powder once they cool down. I then spread this powder over key plants including tomatoes just as the fruit is ready to ripen. This seems to help them fruit a little better.

The other thing I learned about trying to grow tomatoes is that they can't dry out. Ever.

You must be rather diligent on our watering. On hot days this means near daily watering. Make sure to water the ground below and keep the water off the leaves and fruit. Never have I grown a plant so quick to take on a fungus. These plants like hot, dry air but wet feet.

Good luck and send me pictures this fall of your crop!

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