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Tired of losing tomatoes to unwanted garden pests? Worried you’ll need to sacrifice excellent taste for improved yield? Take a deep breath and relax. This year, you can have your tomato and eat it, too. With the help of a few new varieties and field-proven tactics, you’ll be on your way to growing the best tomato crop yet.

If you want to grow delicious, homegrown tomatoes this year, simply focus your attention on these three stages of gardening: planning, preparing and protecting.

Stage 1: Plan

Planning for a successful tomato harvest starts with choosing the right varieties to grow in your garden. A nonprofit organization called All-America Selections (AAS) may have the answer. The group tests new varieties before they hit the market, and their trial notes will tell you everything you need to know.

How does it work? Professional horticulturists across the country volunteer to grow test plots of new tomato varieties and compare notes on disease resistance, yields and taste alongside established varieties.

“Our judges rate taste and texture first, then everything else second,” says Diane Blazek, executive director of AAS and the National Garden Bureau. “You can have the most prolific, cute, unique new tomato, but if it doesn’t taste good, nobody wants it.”

Stage 2: Prepare to plant

Your tomato garden needs access to full sun (6-8 hours a day) and should have good drainage. Tomato plants hate wet feet and often succumb to root rot when left in waterlogged soils. They do, however, need regular watering throughout the growing season, so select a spot with easy access to water. Irrigating deeply but infrequently strengthens plants and encourages deep, healthy root systems for hot summer days.

Avoid planting where tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant and other solanaceous crops have been grown within the past three years. Many pests overwinter in the soil adjacent to plants and will terrorize unsuspecting gardeners.

Once you’ve selected the right spot, make sure to test your soil and amend the ground as indicated. Check with your local extension office or garden center to help you arrange a test and interpret the results. Tomatoes are nutrient hogs that require a good supply of nutrients from start to finish, so you’ll likely need to fertilize before and during the growing cycle.

Adequate moisture is necessary for nutrient uptake. Drip irrigation works well and doesn’t soak leaves, which often leads to disease issues.

And don’t forget to deal with weeds. They are an often-overlooked source of tomato pests. After clearing the site of any weeds, spread mulch 3-4 inches deep and keep it a palm-width away from the bases of tomato stems.

Planting should only begin after the last frost date for your area.

Stage 3: Protect

Like the rising of the sun, pests – insects and diseases – are to be expected in every garden. The good news is they can be controlled or even avoided with commonsense management.

  • Monitor and identify. Get to know your garden and what lives in it. Talk to your local extension office for a precise understanding of the insects and diseases to watch out for.
  • Make an evaluation. If you do spot harmful pests or damage on tomatoes, evaluate whether real damage is being done to the landscape. Set thresholds to guide your treatment decisions. For example, you may decide there’s little benefit to treating a pest problem if there is less than 10% damage to the plant.
  • Choose a wise treatment. If treatment is necessary, use the least toxic measure first. Proper watering, plant spacing and fertilization can help prevent or reduce the number of pests. Mechanical means are another option that requires the physical removal of pests and can be useful for small populations. For example, hornworms are easily removable by hand-picking, and aphids are often washed away by a water hose.

If these approaches fail, reach out to your local extension agent or garden center for advice on pesticides and follow all label directions. Pesticide labels are the law, and many chemicals may be unethical or even illegal to use on fruit-bearing plants.

Enjoy the pursuit

Gardening should be an enjoyable escape from the fast-paced world we live in. It’s an opportunity to serve as good stewards of the land, so when the time comes, we pass on something a little better to the next generation. If you really want to experience all that gardening has to offer this summer, focus on using it to produce memories instead of a crop. If you do, you’ll find everything begins to taste a little sweeter along the way.

Chase Smoak is a special contributor to Iowa Electric Cooperative Living magazine.

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