Esposito’s Inspires Little Gardeners with Free Tomatoes

The local nursery has committed to giving away hundreds of tomatoes to children each year.
Tomato Girls
Photo courtesy of Esposito's Garden Center

The joy of harvesting fruits or veggies from your own backyard is an empowering and exhilarating experience. Watching a homegrown tomato evokes a genuine enthusiasm for gardening and is likely to encourage healthier eating habits in veggie-opposed children.

This is why Esposito’s has committed to giving away hundreds of tomatoes to kids under the age of 10 each year. This access to free tomato plants paired with Esposito’s collection of learning materials helps instill confidence, curiosity and creativity in tomorrow’s gardeners — and it holds the potential to create lifelong enthusiasts.

There is no purchase necessary, but children must be 10 years or younger and present at the time of redemption to claim their free tomato plant. The promotion runs for the entire month of April, and there is a limit of one plant per child. These free tomato plants may be planted in the ground or in a pot, and there a few keys to success worth noting.

One of the most important tips: tomatoes should be planted deep within the soil. This is contrary to typical planting advice, as most plants should be planted no deeper than they were in their nursery pots, but tomatoes are unique.

The stem of a tomato plant is covered with fine hairs, all of which are capable of turning into roots when buried beneath the soil. Burying more of the stem means more roots down the road, which in turn promotes a healthier, more drought-resistant plant.

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To stake or not to stake? Photo courtesy of Esposito’s Garden Center

Esposito’s recommends removing all of the leaves along the lower 2/3 of the main stem, and burying the plant deep enough such that only the top 1/3 of the plant is above the soil. Planting tomatoes this way will essentially triple the depth of the root system.

To kick-start this root production, children should fertilize their tomato starter with Bio-tone at the time of planting. Bio-tone should be applied directly into the planting hole to maximize contact with roots. This starter fertilizer contains all of the essential nutrients a newly planted tomato needs to thrive, along with beneficial microbes which work to extend the root system that in turn improves nutrient uptake and drought resistance.

Once the newly planted tomato is established (about 1 week after planting), apply Espoma’s Tomato-tone every 14 days to maximize fruit production and help prevent blossom end rot, more on that later.

There are two options when it comes to planting tomatoes in a pot. You can choose to mix your own soil, which is veggie expert Wayne Dement’s method of choice, or you can save some time and use a pre-mixed bagged soil blend. If you’re taking the DIY route, simply combine half-and-half Michigan peat and fine pine bark mulch, then mix in a few handfuls of Bio-tone starter prior to planting.

For a potting soil that’s ready to go straight out of the bag, try Fox Farm’s Strawberry Fields blend. This organic soil mix is designed to promote robust fruit production with additives like coco fiber, earthworm castings, bat guano, oyster shell, dolomite lime and beneficial root-boosting microbes.

Planting tomatoes in the ground allows for larger root systems, but most Tallahassee residents will need to amend their soil prior to planting. Tomatoes prefer well-drained, nutrient-rich soil; if you find that your soil is too compact, apply a 6 inch layer of one part aged compost and one part black hen chicken manure, then till thoroughly.

This compost and manure blend will provide a great source of nitrogen and can help break down heavy clay soils or improve water retention in sandy soils. If tomatoes are planted in soil low in calcium, they will likely develop unsightly brown blemishes which render the fruit inedible; this condition is referred to as blossom end rot.

To replenish calcium levels in garden beds intended for tomatoes, till in Agricultural Limestone 2–6 weeks before planting — the earlier the better. For those who have yet to apply limestone this spring, go ahead and plant your starter tomatoes but be prepared to apply Fertilome’s Yield Booster liquid calcium if the tomatoes develop brown blotches on the underside.

To stake or not to stake? It all depends on the variety. Some varieties of tomatoes — such as patio, Roma or marglobe — take on a naturally bushy shape, and they generally do not require much staking. Most tomatoes, however, have a vining habit and will need to be staked for support. These vining varieties are capable of growing much larger than their bushy counterparts. When it comes to providing support for top-heavy vining tomatoes there are several options.

You can loosely tie the primary stalk of your tomato plant to a tall wooden, plastic or metal stake. You can use a pre-made metal tomato cage or you can create your own cage using wide-gauge fencing material. No matter which method you choose, it is imperative that you install your supports early while the plant is small and easy to position. Installing supports after a tomato has grown sprawling branches and roots can be tricky, and it often results in broken limbs and diminished harvests.

Strategic tomato pruning is shown to improve airflow and disease resistance, help direct energy to fruit production, and encourage earlier ripening. In the first few weeks after planting, remove any flowers that emerge before the tomato reaches 18 inches tall. This allows the plant to direct more energy towards producing strong roots.

Once the tomato is about 18 inches tall, remove all of the leaves along the bottom 12 inches of the primary stem to enhance resistance to fungal outbreaks during the rainy season. When the first fruit cluster begins to grow, remove any leafy “suckers” (pictured below) that emerge below the first fruit cluster to encourage rapid fruit development. It’s best to remove suckers when they are small enough to remove with the fingertips, but if you do need to use pruning shears, make sure they are freshly sharpened and cut as close to the main stem as possible.

To speed ripening late in the season, remove the tip of each main stem about four weeks before the expected first frost (typically early November in Tallahassee). Pruning the tip of the plant will encourage the tomato plant to direct more sugar to the remaining fruit, which allows the final tomatoes to ripen as quickly as possible before the frost arrives.

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