March 2006
Victoria County Master Gardener Association
Ground rules and tools

March 2, 2006
GAIL DENTLER - Victoria County Master Gardener

Even though this winter was warmer than most, I hope you were challenged to plan and prepare beds for spring planting. My garden tools have all been sharpened, changed out due to rust and new gloves have been bought.

Tomatoes are the first thing on my list to plant this spring. There are so many details that exist in planting tomatoes that I want to offer a few suggestions to help you produce a great crop of them.
The first tip is to select an area of your garden that receives a minimum of eight hours of sunlight a day. Tomato plants placed between tall shrubs, under trees or between buildings will not procure a great crop.

Secondly, good soil lends to maximum growth of the tomato crop. Even if you have poor soil, it can be improved by adding organic matter and proper fertilization. A dark, heavy clay or even a fine sand can be improved by working 3 to 4 inches of decomposed organic matter into the soil where the tomatoes are to be planted.

Consider how many plants you want. If only a few tomato plants are to be grown, a space of at least 4 square feet should be prepared for each plant.

The soil should be worked to a depth of at least 8 inches. Raised beds work well. Liberal amounts of organic matter and a small amount of fertilizer, such as 10-20-10 or 12-24-12, should be mixed into the soil where the tomato is planted.

When choosing plants at the nursery, select varieties that resist many of the common diseases. Look for "VFN" after a variety name. This indicates that it has resistance to verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt and nematodes. Some great varieties for this area are Celebrity, Merced, 444, President, Big Boy and Champion (a good warm weather producer). Solar Fire, a heat-tolerant variety, is being pushed in San Antonio. Growers indicate that the Merced variety may be in limited supply. Gardeners are encouraged to shop early for this one.

If you are looking for a small-fruited variety, Sweet 100 is a top producer. Dona, First Lady and Viva Italia (a paste type) are more varieties that are promising. When purchasing these plants, look for healthy, vigorous transplants.

Local nurseryman John Fossati said despite the recent cooler weather there should be an abundant supply of tomato plants the first of this month and into May. He also said there is such a large variety of tomatoes, growers produce what local gardeners ask for. He includes Beefmaster and Jackpot to those previously mentioned.

When the plants are set in the garden, use a starter solution to assure adequate fertility during the early stages of growth. Starter solutions can be purchased at local garden centers or they can be made by mixing one tablespoon of a complete garden fertilizer in a gallon of water. About one cup of the starter solution should be applied in the planting hole prior to planting. For best results, the transplants should be set in the garden late in the afternoon. The plant should be protected from harsh, cold weather for at least a week.

If they need protection, wrap the cages with row cover fabric or cover with a plastic milk carton.

Tomato plants should be staked, trellised or caged for best results. Anything that keeps the tomato off the ground will work. These plants will develop fruit rot when they touch the ground. Even spreading hay or grass clippings on the soil will help prevent diseases and conserve moisture. If you lack the garden space for growing tomatoes, plant them in 5-gallon containers. A variety of tomato that grows well in containers is Better Bush.

If only we could just grow tomatoes, but we know there is much work to do in our garden, so I wanted to pass along a checklist for March to help keep you on task.

Prepare beds for planting flowers and vegetables. This is a great time to start tilling in new organic matter to add to the existing soil. For every 100 square feet of bed area, work in a layer, several inches deep, of compost, pine bark or sphagnum peat moss, plus 5 pounds of balanced fertilizer.

Prune evergreens and summer flowering trees and shrubs. This should be completed by early March. Prune spring flowering trees and shrubs after they bloom. Dig up and divide summer and fall flowering perennials just before they initiate their spring growth. As azalea plants finish blooming, fertilize with 3 pounds of azalea fertilizer per 100 square feet of bed. Add pine bark or needles to the area.

One way to spruce up the patio area is planting hanging baskets of petunias and other annuals. Other landscape plants you can use to bring color to your beds are ageratums, cockscombs, coreopsis, cosmos, cleomes, marigolds, nasturtiums, petunias, phlox, portulacas, salvias, sweet alyssums, sunflowers and zinnias.

You can hear all about plant selection and gardening tips for spring planting at the Master Gardener Spring Gardening Symposium this Saturday, March 4, at the 4-H Activity Center located at Victoria Regional Airport. Registration begins at 8:30 a.m. The program ends at 2 p.m. Lunch will be provided. Speakers and printed materials, door prizes, gardening goody bags and opportunities for silent auction items and are all included for the $30 fee. Call the Extension office at 361-575-4581 for availability this Saturday.

Note two other items on your spring gardening calendar. The Master Gardener Spring Plant sale will be held on Saturday, April 22, this year. The symposium this weekend is in advance of spring planting to help plan and educate before time to plant. The opportunity to purchase propagated plants will come your way in April.

The annual garden tour, usually held the first weekend of May, will be Oct. 21-22 this year to offer variety in landscape design for fall and winter plantings.