Boy has it been dry lately! With summer temps reaching well above 90 degrees and the rain being scattered, there are a lot of gardens in Alabama that are taking a beating. The number of calls over the last few weeks have really gone up, mostly about problems in the vegetable department, tomatoes always being the “problem child” in the home garden. When summer temperatures start rising, so does the stress on plants, so proper watering is critical to reduce the overall strain on plants. As I commonly tell my callers, healthy plants are happy plants and happy plants make happy gardeners!
So, how much water is enough water? The best answer is “That depends on ......” Every environment is different, starting with the location of the garden. Is the soil sandy, full of loam, or is it just that Alabama red clay? How much sun does the garden get throughout the day? Are the plants mulched in the ground or sitting on the patio in pots? All of these details must be considered before making the decision on how much water to throw to your plants.
Potted plants, particularly tomatoes, will most likely need water every day. Tomatoes that are in the garden may only need a deep, DEEP watering twice a week. Tomatoes are heavy drinkers and the fruit (or vegetable, but that is a different article) is composed mostly of water, often over 90%! That is a lot of water and a growing and productive tomato plant needs between 1 ½ to 2 inches of rain per week, or its equivalent. A lot of my callers get really wrapped up in the amount, but I emphasize that the amount isn’t necessarily the take home point, the management of that amount is what can make or break, quite literally, your tomato crop.
Tomatoes are most likely the pickiest of plants in the vegetable garden when it comes to water. Too much water and you will have a great big lush tomato plant with no fruit. Too little water and you will have a wilted and dried stick that once resembled a tomato plant. As I mentioned before, managing the water, or more specifically the soil moisture is key to producing the best tomatoes. Letting plants get dry, wet, dry, wet, dry and wet again is the best way to cause the physiological disorder that we call blossom end rot, or BER. BER is one of the most common complaints that I have for tomatoes. BER is not a disease, but is caused by a calcium deficiency. Calcium can be present in the soil, but if there is not enough consistent water to carry that calcium from the soil, through the roots and up to the fruits, BER can occur. Though there are products that are made to boost calcium levels in the soil, proper water management will often prevent a lot of the problem.
In addition to blossom end rot, tomato plants exposed to dry, then wet conditions often produce cracked tomatoes. Now, some varieties are known to crack across the top of the tomato near the stem, especially some of those heirlooms that are so popular. The cracks that I am writing of are those forming on the sides and bottom of the fruit. Rain, especially after droughty conditions, can cause developing tomatoe fruits to grow rapidly, causing the skin of the fruit to crack. Pulling almost ripe tomatoes before or right after a heavy down pour can prevent this from happening.
So, how can you maintain moisture around the plants in the garden? The best solution is to use an organic mulch. Mulching in the vegetable garden is beneficial in more ways that I will tell in this article, but disease management, weed control and maintaining moisture are the big three that I will mention. A thick, 2”-3” of organic mulch will do the trick. Pine straw, grass clippings (combo with other), compost, shredded leaves and most any other organic materials will suffice for mulch. A word of caution: if using grass clippings, hay or straw, be sure to ask about chemicals that were applied to the crop before harvest. Some herbicides have residuals effects that can cause problems for tomatoes. Another benefit of organic mulches is that you can leave them in place and just add more next year, leading to rich, loamy soils that stabalize soil nutriotion and support beneficial biological organisms that encourage plant growth.
With a little preparation, mulching and knowledge, you can help your tomatoes and other vegetables survive through the dry, hot summer that we all love, leaving you with a bountiful harvest of home grown veggies. For more information on mulching, tomatoes, or all things home and garden, contact your local Extension office or visit www.aces.edu .
Written by Hunter McBrayer, Urban Regional Extension Agent, of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). He is housed at the Marshall County Extension Office, which is based at the Marshall County Courthouse in Guntersville, AL.
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