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Nursery Owners Dish The Dirt On Tomatoes

By Melanie Moffett
In Center Block
Jul 24th, 2014


article by Lenore Weiss

e slice them in salads and simmer them in sauces.  Without tomatoes, pizza would not be pizza; a BLT would not be a BLT. Most gardeners have planted tomatoes by Easter. But, some grow them more easily than others. Why?
To get some solid tomato advice, I consulted three local nursery owners: Tommy Hemphill, (Hemphill Plant Farm), Sammy Ramazani (Sammy’s Plant World) and Sonny Panzico (Panzico’s Garden Mart) with three locations, two in Monroe and one in West Monroe. In addition to their first names ending in “y,” all agree that nothing beats the taste of a red tomato sprinkled with salt and dash of olive oil.

Tommy Hemphill, 50, of Hemphill Plant Farm located at 9564 Highway 165 North in Sterlington finds a spot in the shade on a curved bench. I make my way around rose bushes and hibiscus. He smiles frequently and likes to show pictures of tomatoes grown in an “Earth Box,” a self-contained system that regulates water and fertilizer and produces impressive results.

Tommy inherited the business from his father, Thomas Hemphill Sr, and mother Dora Hemphill, who is still alive at 78. He remembers growing up and taking care of hundreds of tomato seedlings. “It was amazing to watch how they stand, find the light and manage their own consciousness.” Whoa! I knew I was in the company of a serious tomato lover.

Tommy advises to control your plant’s environment. Give your plants enough room in the garden.  Crowded tomatoes don’t allow for proper circulation.  Remove suckers that divert energy from the plant’s ability to produce fruit. While some gardeners lime their gardens in the Spring, Tommy does that at the end of each growing season and uses pellets, “because they’re easier to control.” (Take note: You can never lime too much.) His last bit of advice is to “never put anything to bed wet.” In other words, don’t water your plants late in the evening. “Wet beds encourage soil borne viruses.” Then there’s tomato taste, something that store bought tomatoes lack. Tommy realizes that everyone has their favorite method of ripening tomatoes. He likes to pick his tomatoes green and ripen them in a cool, dark place, optimally next to a banana and apple that emit a gas called ethanol. The gas acts as a catalyst to speed up the production of sugar.

I moved on to visit Sammy’s Plant World at 1408 New Natchitoches Road in West Monroe, a nearly four-acre expanse of open plants and greenhouses with hanging pots, ferns, grasses and everything else. It me took a while to wend my way from the parking lot to the office, bending down to examine plants everywhere.

Sammy has been in business for eighteen years. He came from Iran in 1995 and moved to the nursery’s current location ten years ago. Sammy talks about the preparation of the garden bed, how to use a combination of topsoil and bark mixture with a fertilizer that has a 14/14/14 ratio plus bone or blood meal. Others recommend a time-release fertilizer called Oscomote. Your best option, he says, is to transplant seedlings early or late in the day. “Not in the heat, because roots will go into shock.”  Plant roots deep to promote the growth of a vigorous plant that isn’t “leggy.” And heaven forbid, don’t think of watering between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. “Water will stay on the ground and damage the plant.”

We all know about tomato cages. Sammy also suggests tying a string from the first to the last cage to give the plants even more support. Square-foot gardeners have good news, too. Tomatoes grow easily in three-gallon buckets where it’s easy to control weeds and “move the plant around during the day to the most desirable location.”

Through his mail order business, Sammy hears from landscapers throughout the country including Kentucky, Maine, Maryland and Tennessee. He also has landscaped the front of the Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo. “The zoo belongs to the community. I help as much as I can.”

My last stop along the nursery trail is Panzico’s Garden Mart at 1630 Arkansas Street in West Monroe. Sonny Panzico sits me down in his “office,” a small area near the front of the store. As we talked, two Manx kittens fight for a spot in his lap.  We talk “tomato.” He says there are more than three hundred different varieties, but most people like the hybrid “tried and true” varieties that include: Amelia, Arkansas Traveler, Big Boy, Better Boy, Beefsteak, Celebrity, Early Girl and Sweet 100s (cherry tomatoes). Whereas it’s not possible to save hybrid seeds from year-to-year for another planting, heirlooms do have that ability. Heirlooms come in a variety of colors and include Cherokee Purple, Paul Robeson Black, Brandywine and Green Zebras. However, heirlooms tend to be more susceptible to pests and infestations.

The good news is there is a product for every infestation. Sevin Dust can help rid your garden of insect pests. If the bottom end of your tomato turns black, says Sammy, your plant most likely has contracted blossom-end rot, which indicates a lack of calcium in the soil. But if it’s too hot at night and the blossoms “do not set” or fall off, tomatoes may require a tomato and pepper set product. Beware the tomato hornworm, child of a brown moth.  Sonny remembers finding one as big as his hand.  “You just have to find them and pick them off your plants.” He demonstrates a “splat” movement, good for squashing hornworms.

Panzico has two other locations, one on DeSiard Street and another on Forsythe Avenue in Monroe. Sonny, 78, who has been in the business for nearly forty years, plans to close the Forsythe store next year and open nine acres near the Sears Store along Highway 165.

Thanks to all nurseries for information about growing the Solanum lycopersicum, a member of the nightshade family that originated in the South American Andes and spread throughout the world following the Spanish colonization of the Americas.

Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable? The debate rages on.