Growing Tomatoes in Tennessee: These Tricks Will Help!

So, you live in Tennessee, and you want to grow tomatoes, huh? Now, I’ll say you can have tons of success growing tomatoes in TN, but there are a few things you must play close attention to if you want to grow them successfully:

  • Tennessee can have very wet spring weather (water stress/fungi)
  • The summertime may come with daily storms (water stress)
  • Summer is also incredibly humid (hospitable to fungi)
  • Drought and sky high temperatures are common during August and September (water stress)
  • The clay soil is very heavy and hard to work with (roots/nutrient uptake)
  • The combined heat, humidity, and sunny days can stress the foliage
  • Night time temperatures can be too high for flowering for some varieties during heat waves (over 75*F)

Now That You’re Aware of the Problems, Here’s How to Grow Healthy Tomatoes In Tennessee…

We’re going to give you a run down of exactly what you need to do in order to get your tomatoes going strong all summer long. Let’s start off with choosing the right varieties.

Picking Tomato Varieties Based on Heat Tolerance

Tennessee can be absolutely brutal in the summer. Truly, the humidity and heat can take your breath away. If you choose more sensitive tomatoes, they’ll start to drop blossoms and fruit, then stop flowering altogether; they will only resume when the heat breaks. Here are some great varieties that can take the heat:

  • Sun Sugar Tomato
  • Arkansas Traveler Tomato
  • Creole Tomato
  • Calypso Tomato
  • Atkinson Tomato
  • Caribe Tomato
  • Floradade Tomato
  • Homestead Tomato
  • Rio Grande Tomato
  • Most Cherry Tomatoes (these guys don’t back down)

Planting Tomatoes Correctly for Best Growth

If you want your plants to exceed your expectations, you have to give them the best start that you possibly can in your garden. From the soil to the planting technique, it’s all important!

Be sure to pick a spot that drains well; tomatoes could perform well in a wet area, but there’s a high risk of fungal infection. In addition, a plant in a poorly draining location is far more likely to have split fruit due to the water levels within the plant. Raised beds can help significantly, which is why many people utilize them for their tomato plants.

Amending Your Heavy Clay Soil

First, you need to ensure that your soil is not overly acidic or alkaline, and you need to be sure that it is not deficient in nutrients or minerals. A soil test will help you to determine exactly what your soil needs. Some things, such as blossom end rot, can occur due to deficiencies; keep in mind that blossom end rot can also be caused by a lack of water, too.

To break up the heavy clay so that the tomato plants’ roots can grow freely towards water and nutrients, add some organic material to the soil. Compost, humus, and composted manure can help tremendously. If it’s hard for you to dig and forms a clay crust when dry, it’ll be hard for the tomato plant to send out long, strong roots.

Planting Tomatoes at the Right Depth with a Little Food

When planting tomatoes, you need to dig a hole that is roughly 8″ deep. It needs to be deep enough to bury 2/3 of the plant. Yes! You’ll be burying most of the plant (don’t worry, it’ll root along the stem.) This allows them to set strong roots and form a strong stalk.

You can also add a spoonful of epsom salt, and a spoon of lime to the hole at planting; some people actually place a single Tums into the hole instead of lime. I enjoy sprinkling a bit of fertilizer in the hole, covering it with compost or manure, then planting the root ball over the compost. It gives my plants an excellent head start.

Protecting Your Plants from Fungal and Bacterial Infection

As the plants grow, make sure you diligently remove lower branches. On determinate plants, remove the lower 6″; on indeterminate plants, you can prune each branch that has ripened all of its fruit (fruiting branches won’t fruit again, the plant will flower at the head of each vine or sucker). Also, keep leaf litter, fallen fruit, weeds, and other debris away from the base of the plants.

The reason for this is to improve aeration and reduce moisture; this will keep water off of the plant, and provide a less hospitable environment for fungal or bacterial infections. The humidity in Tennessee is so thick that you could cut it with a knife; the more airflow you can achieve, the better.

Watering at the Right Time, Carefully

When you water your plants, only water the soil; and be sure to do so gently, minimizing splashing. Dirt that splashes up towards the leaves can give rise to fungal infections. Wet foliage could burn and curl in the harsh summer sun, scorching the plant and its fruit.

It’s best to water your plants at night, to give them an opportunity to drink and rest after a hot day, recuperating before the following day’s heat.

Basic Watering Care: to Water, or Not to Water?

Be sure to water the plants regularly when necessary, skipping rainy days. Avoid watering if the top inch of soil is still moist; don’t allow the dirt to dry out, though.

Drought-like conditions can cause water stress. If the plant takes on lots of sudden water, near ripe and ripening fruit can split due to the pressure. Thus, you don’t want to water plants on the days that rain falls or is going to fall.

If you maintain even moisture, you significantly reduce the risks of cracking among your tomatoes. It also helps to reduce blossom drop or fruit drop, when heat isn’t the driving force behind it.

Feeding: Side Dress for Top Production

Did you notice that your plants have slowed down a bit? Perhaps fruit set has quietened down? Maybe the plants aren’t looking as green and vibrant? Try side dressing with compost or fertilizer!

Don’t overfeed them though, and be mindful of nitrogen use. Sure, nitrogen produces a big, green, beautiful plant; but, too much nitrogen will give you all plant, no fruit. The plant needs to focus on fruit production rather than foliage once it begins flowering; if you are feeding your tomatoes a high nitrogen fertilizer, do not feed them with it once the plants hit 24″ in height. Otherwise, you may find yourself with the county’s biggest tomato plant; record breaking harvest? Not so much.

Picking Your Fruit at the Right Time (Even If It ISN’T Completely Ripe)

I get it. You want VINE ripened tomatoes. But, let me ask you this: if you could harvest 100% of your near ripe tomatoes right before a storm rolls in, ripen them on the counter for a day or two, and reap the entire harvest, why would you want leave them for one or two more days on the vine only to find 50% of them unfit for use in the kitchen?

This tomato is very, very green; it would likely survive a storm just fine. However, if it had red streaks showing, it would be in iffy territory for a variety that’s known to crack.

What I’m saying is, sometimes, leaving them on the vine can actually negatively affect your harvest significantly. Some varieties are prone to cracking, others (even resistant varieties) will crack under high water stress. A summer storm will cause this, especially if it has been quite dry for a week.

This is why experienced gardeners always run out to harvest their gardens before a storm rolls in. By doing so, they’re:

  • Picking fruit before it has a chance to crack under water stress
  • Relieving the plant of its produce before the soaking rains, triggering it to flower and fruit more profusely over the coming days
  • Getting the work done before the garden gets muddy and mucky, reducing mess and the risk of compacting the soil
When you know a storm is coming, take a 5 minute break to harvest any tomatoes that you know are close to ripe. Otherwise, everything may crack during and after the storm.

Watching for Pests

There are a variety of critters both big and small that’ll come for your produce. The wildlife. The horn worm. The aphids. Even the neighbor’s dog could be an issue, or that squirrel (that you thought you liked) that lives in your Magnolia Tree.

Keep the pests out of your plants, and you’ll have plenty of produce for yourself. Some ideas include:

  • Electric wire for most wildlife and domestic pets
  • Deterrent sprays for rabbits, deer, and voles
  • Plastic forks, tines up, for cats
  • Homemade sprays and diatomaceous earth for aphids and other pests
  • Attracting parasitic wasps and beneficial birds for hornworms
  • Hand picking/inspection (horn worms)

Planting a Second Crop Within a Single Season

If you know your favorite plants are going to stop blooming when the worst of the summer heat sets in, start more plants indoors in June. This gives them time to reach a significant size by September, providing you with lots of tomatoes in September and October as night time temperatures lower enough for blooming.

This goes for determinate plants, as well. Once plants are spent, pull them and prepare to plant another plot of the determinate tomatoes (transplants) in another place.

Are You Ready to Grow Like a Pro Next Year?

Now that you know what you’ve got to do to get some A+ tomatoes in The Volunteer State, I wish you the best of luck for next year’s tomato season!

Once you know what you’re dealing with, tomato plants are an absolute breeze to grow and harvest. It just takes a bit of understanding; some trial and error, too!

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