Ask the Gardener

Ask the Gardener: A primer on growing tomatoes

CorrespondentApril 11, 2014 

Garden-grown tomatoes ready for eating.


I am a novice gardener and would like to know more about raising tomatoes. Can you provide me some of your knowledge of planting, growing and taking care of tomatoes, or refer me to some books or articles?

Robert Foster


There are many good books on growing tomatoes, and two come to mind: “You Bet Your Tomatoes” by Mike McGrath (Rodale Books), and “The Complete Guide to Growing Tomatoes” by Cherie Everhart (Atlantic Publishing Group). But if you want a free, quick, information-packed tour of what it takes to grow a nice tomato, Clemson Extension has put together a nice e-fact sheet that translates well for North Carolina gardens. You can find it online at

As for my insider tips, let’s keep it basic:

• Plant in well-worked, heavily amended soil in full sun with, if possible, a little bit of late-afternoon shade.

• Mix in a low-nitrogen, time-release fertilizer at planting time.

• Water well when the rains don’t come.

• Mulch the plants in late May, preferably with compost.

• Use stakes or cages to prevent plants from flopping over.

• Be on the watch for bad bugs such as fruitworms, stink bugs and hornworms.

Fending off bugs

When I grow broccoli, or any other greens like spinach, it doesn’t take long for bugs, cabbage worms, etc. to get on my vegetables. I had heard that if you covered these, you could prevent the bugs. Is this true? If so, what do you use for a row cover? I was thinking a type of netting like tulle, which has a close weave.

Phyllis Banner

Morganton, N.C.

If you don’t mind your veggie patch looking like ground zero of a clothes dryer explosion, row covers – often called “floating” row covers – are an effective, non-chemical way to ward off a rogues gallery of bad bugs, including squash bugs, cabbage worms, cucumber beetles, stink bugs, fruitworms, flea beetles and hornworms. To a degree, this lightweight barrier can also help deter munching rabbits and deer.

Tulle, which is usually purchased at fabric stores, can be adapted as a floating row cover in the garden. To prevent too much heat buildup in the summer, stick to light colors. I’m not too sure how well tulle would stand up to outdoor UV degradation year after year, but for one growing season, it should work just fine. Also, keep in mind that there are commercial row covers such as Reemay and Agribon available at reasonable prices.

Japanese beetle traps

I have heard Japanese beetles can be a problem in my garden – I’m new to North Carolina. I was wondering what you thought about Japanese beetle traps.

Rhonda Davis


I’m not a big fan of Japanese beetle traps because they attract more of these bad bugs into a garden than would fly in normally. This means if you use them, it is better to place such traps far-r-r-r away from plants Japanese beetles see as food. The best way I know to do this is to buy a bunch of traps and give them to your neighbors.

I prefer to go after these destructive beetles with an insecticide containing a natural contact killer such as Pyrethrin, and I spray early in the morning or late in the evening when butterfly and bee activity is at its lowest. Want to skip insecticides? If you don’t have a problem with its yuck factor, shaking these beetles off into a bucket or wide-mouth jar of soapy water is another way to lower their numbers, although this method usually gives more visual satisfaction than population-busting control.

Also, since you are new to gardening in North Carolina and dealing with Japanese beetles, I’ll just mention that they aren’t the Insect Apocalypse – there are plenty of plants that these bugs won’t bother.

L.A. Jackson is the former editor of Carolina Gardener Magazine. Send your garden questions, including the city where you garden, to:

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