Over the weekend, we had a volunteer work day at the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace, one of our community gardens. We helped with weeding and mulching the garden. Part of our task was to create rustic tomato supports that would represent the time period in which Pearl S. Buck was living in this home.  We did this with scrap wood lashed together with twine.

All of this work with tomatoes made us realize that, with all of the wet weather here in Pocahontas County, the likelihood of tomato blight is much higher.  We thought it may be beneficial to provide some information about taking care of your tomatoes, not only to improve your yields, but to prevent the likelihood your tomatoes will contract a blight.

There are three main types of blight that effect tomatoes: early blight, late blight and Septoria (tomato leaf blight).

According to WVU extension agent, Greg Hamons, WV has had a confirmed case of late blight already.  The best treatment for all types blight is prevention.  Crop rotation, planting in raised containers, minimizing soil splash on leaves while watering, and minimizing the amount of time leaves are wet are all important in prevention. We recommend an application of an organic fungicide, such as a copper salt solution, two weeks before blights typically appear in your area or when there is a forecast of extended wet weather.

Unfortunately, it is sometimes impossible to keep the fungi that cause blight away from your tomatoes. The first step is to remove any leaves that look to be affected by the fungus.  Do not leave any affected leaved in or around your garden, as they can still spread the disease even after being removed. You can then use copper fungicide every 7 – 10 days as needed.  Following heavy rains, it is appropriate to apply more fungicide even if it has been fewer than 7 days.

Pruning your tomato plants is a great way to ensure you have the largest and healthiest fruits possible.  It can also help to protect your plants from insects and disease by keeping low hanging branches off of the ground and providing adequate ventilation to keep leaves dry. Pruning should not be done until your tomato plant has around 8 main stems or 14 if you are growing cherry tomatoes.  This will ensure that there is adequate space for a high yield of healthy, full sized tomatoes.  If you are pruning late in the season, it is fine to have more than this number of stems–don’t butcher your plants to meet guidelines.  If you are trellising your tomatoes, you will need to prune much more vigorously.

After you have determined your tomato plant has an adequate number of main stems, you need to identify what are called “suckers”.  Suckers grow out at a 45 degree angle where main stems and branches meet. When small, these “suckers” can be pinched off easily by hand.  When they become more developed you should use pruners to avoid damaging the plant.

It may also be beneficial to remove lower branches when they begin to yellow or touch the ground.  These branches will sap the nutrients from healthy fruit bearing branches and can expose the plant to insects and disease harbored in the soil Towards the end of the season it may be beneficial to top, or remove the upward growing main stem.  This will ensure that all of the energy will go out to the fruiting branches to ensure a late harvest rather than using energy to continue growth upward.

Another issue unrelated to blight you may encounter are tomato hornworms.  These are the larval stage of the hawkmoth.  Eggs from these moths are hatch and emerge in late spring.  They will eat almost entire leaves, stems and immature fruits on you tomatoes, peppers and eggplants.  These critters can defoliate entire plants if you do not catch them early enough.  Since hornworms are so large, it is easy to pick them off and throw them in some soapy water.  You can also till the soil in early spring or late fall to bury or destroy the eggs and pupae residing in the soil.  If you see a hornworm with white sacs all over its body, do not kill it.  These aren’t hornworm eggs, rather the eggs of a wasp that parasitizes hornworms which is a good thing!

Hornworm photo courtesy of Katie Hobson http://www.gardenpunks.com

Tomatoes are vining plants; therefore they will not grow upward willingly when they begin to have weight.  By supporting plants you are helping to keep your fruits and plants off the ground you are helping to prevent disease in your plants and fruits.  We are following David Cooke’s lead and recommending the  “Florida Weave” to support your quickly growing tomato plants.  This simple technique will allow you to support numerous tomatoes grown in rows with only two stakes. When you plants are still young and manageable, around 2 feet tall, place stakes on each end of your tomato rows.  Using some sort of heavy twine, tie a knot around the first stake and begin to weave the twine between your tomato plants.  Wrap the twine around the other post and weave in the opposite direction and tie the twine off at the same place you began.  This sounds like a pretty complicated process, but thanks to our friends at www.gardenbetty.com, a simple diagram shows how to accomplish this.

Florida Weave

Florida Weave

The technique in the bottom photo can be used if you have huge rows of tomatoes, so the technique in the top picture should be satisfactory for most.  Continue to add more weaves up your stakes as your tomatoes grow taller and need more support.  You are essentially sandwiching your plants between the twine for support.

by- Eric LeFevers