A closeup photo of a tomato plant showing the cage around the plant and drip irrigation.

“Tomato jail” includes the fence and drip irrigation.

There’s nothing like a home-grown tomato, fresh off the vine. Hybrid tomatoes like Early Girl, Better Boy, Celebrity, Whopper and some varieties of Beefsteak taste good, but once you’ve tasted an Heirloom Cherokee Purple, Mortgage Lifter, Black Krim, Pineapple or Yellow Pear, you won’t ever purchase tomatoes or eat from the grocery store.

Whether you start seeds yourself or purchase seedlings, tomatoes are fairly easy to grow.

However, they often suffer from insect attacks, caterpillar munching, diseases and funguses, but those problems are not insurmountable.

The main solution is to stay on top of tomatoes’ progress every few days. If there’s a sign of disease, such as spots on the leaves, yellowing or turning brown, it’s most likely signs of a fungus. Remove the discolored leaves, start watering directly at the base of the plants, apply mulch to keep funguses and diseases from splashing up from the soil and use a product such as Neem oil according to the package directions.

For insects, including bugs and caterpillars, your best defense is a good offense. If you see damage look closely on the tops and bottoms of the foliage as well as the stems where you will see what’s doing the damage, then Google for the appropriate solution.

Sometimes it’s as simple as applying insecticidal soap. Or you may need to pick off those tomato hornworms – those big hard-to-spot caterpillars that can strip a plant in an afternoon – and, of course those pesky Japanese beetles.

Japanese beetles are the adults that have developed from grubs. They’re hard to kill, and don’t use an attractor trap because it will just bring more of them to your garden. Be patient. They’ll come and go in 5-6 weeks. To make yourself feel better about controlling them, fill a bucket with water and ¼ cup of dishwashing liquid, then pick them off one at a time. Really.

Rose Lane’s tomato jail

This year we have more than 80 tomato plants growing in raised beds, containers and growbags everywhere we could fit them. There are more than 20 varieties from Cherokee Purple and Pineapple heirlooms to Midnight Snack cherry tomatoes and Solar Flare hybrids. Needless to say our garden produce will be colorful.

To make more space and to rotate our nightshade crops – tomatoes, peppers and potatoes – we turned to mostly growbag and container gardening. So our driveway is lined with 6- and 7-foot-tall tomato plants.

Rick has built a wonderful system to keep them watered and standing tall without much distraction by tomato cages. We call it tomato jail.

Using tall metal fence stakes and sections of cattle gate he has created a system of support that’s simple to keep the plants from falling over because of the weight of the fruit. Then he installed a drip watering system to water directly into the soil without splashing dirt or disease on the leaves.

It also has a temporary roof structure that will hold shade cloth when the temperatures soar into the 90s this month. In case you didn’t know, the ripening process slows to a stop if the temperatures are too high.

Some other simple tomato hacks

Make a tomato trellis from string hanging from a frame made of boards or pipes, especially good for indeterminate tomatoes that bear fruit in succession. Pinching side branches to focus more fruiting on the main stem will also yield bigger tomatoes.

Give your tomatoes a growth boost by watering once or twice a season with a mixture of 1/8-cup of Epsom salts in a gallon on water. You can also sparingly scatter Epsom salts around each plant before watering; do not overapply.

Regularly inspect the plants to find insect culprits and signs of disease and fungus. Then treat them appropriately always following the label instructions.

Remember that only 5 percent of insects in the garden are harmful; the other 95 percent are beneficial as pollinators or predictors on the destructive bugs.

Disease and fungus are easier to spot because the leaves may wilt, turn yellow or brown, develop spots and other signs. The best approach to these signs is to defoliate affected foliage and toss it into the garbage. Do not compost it.

Clean your pruners in between with either isopropyl alcohol or a weak solution of bleach, and thoroughly wash your hands when you’re finished.

Take time to ‘eat’ the tomatoes

Gardening doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. They key is to do a little at a time, work in the mornings when it’s cooler and pay attention to what’s happening in your landscape.

Your best source for all things tomato is joegardener.com. He’s Joe Lamp’l, the joe in joegardener.com and the garden guru behind “Growing a Greener World,” which is now available on his YouTube channel of the same name. He lives in North Atlanta but he’s known in all 50 states. His podcasts and YouTube programs will make you a smarter and happier gardener. Check it out.

Photo: by Pamela A. Keene