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Soil and watering are critical to healthy tomato plants

Every year as I work at the information booth at the Jackson County Master Gardeners Spring Garden Fair, I see a parade of tomatoes being carried out the door, and I am often tempted to stop people and ask, "Do you know how to care for this innocent plant once you get it home?

"Are you prepared for it? Or will you just put it in the ground today and wonder why it doesn't thrive?"

Because I can't really accost people walking by, the educator in me is compelled to hope that some of the purchasers of young tomato plants will read this column and pick up a few tips.

Tomatoes are a tropical vine. They don't relish cold or wet feet or cool nights. Two major tomato problems can be avoided if the soil in which you are planning to put your plant is at least 65 degrees. Soil temperature is much cooler than air temperature, so be sure to check with a soil thermometer.

Blossom end rot, which appears as a firm, black or brown patch at the blossom end of the tomato, is caused by the plant being unable to take up adequate amounts of calcium from the soil to make strong cell walls. This does not necessarily mean your soil is lacking in calcium — the plant just can't make use of it, and cold soil is a major factor. Poor watering practices, such as the drought-and-drown method, may help cause this disorder, too, but cold soil is a major culprit.

Planting in soil that's too cold also causes stunting, or failure to thrive. While the plant may eventually recover, it will grow and produce much better if conditions are favorable from the start. Many gardeners often try to give boost a stunted plant by dousing it with high-nitrogen fertilizer, which is exactly the wrong thing to do. Too much nitrogen causes too much lush green growth — "all plant and no fruit" — and is an invitation to unwanted insects.

"Hardening off" is the process of gradually getting the plant used to the outdoors. If it has been living in a greenhouse, take about a week to put it outdoors in filtered sun for a while each day, bringing it in at night. This will help reduce transplant shock for the new plant.

Before planting, clip off most leaves (plus any small fruit or blossoms), leaving just a few pairs of leaves at the top. Then plant it deep, with the leaves just sticking out of the ground. Roots will form along the hairy stems as the plant grows.

If your plant is tall with a long stem, you can dig a trench, lay the plant on its side and cover the stem. Within a few days, the top of the plant will right itself, and you won't be able tell which tomatoes were planted vertically and which were lying down.

It is not necessary to fertilize at planting time, although some people swear by a spoonful of Epsom salts or bone meal in the planting hole.

When you set your plants out, it's also time to install a watering system and a sturdy cage for support. My favorite method for watering is to set an empty gallon milk jug with 3 or 4 holes punched in the bottom next to each tomato plant. The jug can be filled with a garden hose as needed, and the water will trickle out the bottom. Check your soil before watering each time. In very hot, dry weather, the jugs may need to be filled daily. With young plants, perhaps only a couple of times a week will do.

Many people inquire about raising tomatoes in a pot. This can certainly be done, but be sure to choose a variety bred for life in a pot. They will also need more water and plant food, as the source for those items in a pot is you.

Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. Email her at diggit1225@gmail.com.