Clay County Site of UAEX Tomato Demo

Thursday, October 4, 2018
Debby McNeely and Extension Agent Allison Howell with the tomato test plot.
courtesy photo

This year I had the opportunity to participate in a hands-on tomato demonstration conducted in 31 counties throughout Arkansas. Extension agents all over the state went the extra mile to educate homeowners about a simple gardening practice which could result in larger tomatoes.

The purpose of the demonstration was to explain the difference between pruned and unpruned tomato plants. We hoped the public would get to see what effect pruning tomato plants had on the number and size of tomatoes produced by a pruned plant versus an unpruned plant. Research has shown that pruning tomato plants typically results in bigger tomatoes but a smaller number of tomatoes per plant.

The effort also served to demonstrate how extension relays research-based information to people across the state by showing, not just telling. Since tomatoes are a fan-favorite of gardeners, we decided it would be a great idea to participate. Not only would it help me learn more about tomatoes and be better prepared when I receive a question regarding tomatoes, but it could also potentially help gardeners throughout Clay County. It also shows the public that county extension agents are helpful not only in farmer’s fields, but also in lawns and gardens.

In our county, I had the pleasure of working with Debby and Don McNeely. I made weekly visits to advise on pruning, fertilizing and caring for our tomato crop. The one-on-one communication with the McNeely’s was very effective in allowing us both to learn about tomatoes. By using in-person hands-on demonstration methods, clientele and cooperators more readily understand the process and are able to apply the techniques while there to better hone in on their skills.

At the beginning of the year I went out to the McNeely’s and soil-sampled their garden to see what kind of fertility measures we would need to take. After the results came back, we applied our fertilizer. On April 27, we planted 12 Better-Boy tomato plants. Six of them would be pruned, and six would be unpruned. We also had a pesticide spray schedule to follow in order to help fight diseases and insects.

Each week, we were to prune the suckers on the six pruned plants, and spray according to the spray schedule. We were to leave the six unpruned plants alone, except for spraying. After the pruned tomato plants reached five feet tall, we quit pruning them and topped the plants. As the plants started to put on tomatoes, we weighed the number of tomatoes we picked off of each plant, even the culls.

It was a very hands-on demo that required a lot of work. Each week the McNeely’s would chop weeds, water and watch for those pesky raccoons to ensure we had a healthy, clean tomato crop. Debby also had around 20 of her own tomato plants that she used as her own experiment to see what she thought of the pruning and spray schedule. We just finished up the demo a couple of weeks ago. Our results are as follows: the prunted plants produced 274 tomatoes of marketable fruit, for a total of 101.4 pounds. There were 33 culls, which added-up to 12.8 pounds. The upruned plants produced 378 marketable tomatoes, for a net of 132.5 pounds. There were 21 culls, which added-up to an additional 8.7 pounds.

At the end of our demo, we concluded that if you were selling these tomatoes at a farmers market or to a friend, it might be wise to go ahead and spend all of the time/work pruning your tomato plants. The pruned tomatoes did seem to be a little larger than the unpruned plants.

For those who were just growing these tomatoes for themselves or their family, and didn’t have any intentions of selling them, I’m not sure that I would go through all of that work for slightly bigger fruit. We actually ended up harvesting more off of the unpruned plants in the end, and the quality was just as good, if not a little better.

Debby said that she learned two very important things throughout this experiment. One thing was that the spray schedule was very beneficial. The second was that blossom end rot is not a disease.

In conclusion, Debby, Don and myself all learned a lot about growing tomatoes. We didn’t learn it all but we learned enough to be able to answer questions along the way. We had a great time and I couldn’t have picked a better cooperator. I sincerely appreciate their hard work, time, and garden spot to be able to put in this demo and learn more to better help gardeners throughout the county. The techniques we used were important, yet simple, concepts that could change the way gardeners throughout Clay County grow their tomatoes.

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs to all eligible persons without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.

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