HOW TO GROW TOMATOES
TOMATOES - Enjoy the fruits of your labor: How to plant and grow
the best tomatoes you ever tasted
While technically a fruit, most people consider tomatoes (Lycopersicon
spp.) to be an essential part of the vegetable garden. Who can resist
the delicious temptation of a tomato picked fresh from the vine? It comes
as no that surprise that the tomato is the most commonly grown vegetable
in the States. Funny to think that the Europeans who found the tomato
considered it poisonous and it was not eaten on the Continent until a
century after it's introduction there!
Not all tomatoes are the same
First, determine what kind of space you want to put your tomatoes in.
Tomatoes come in two different types; determinate and indeterminate. As
the name suggests, determinates have vines that grow to a determined point
and stop, making them more compact and bushy (They are sometimes listed
as bush tomatoes). Indeterminates are more viney than determinates; their
vines continue to grow and need support. Determinates tend to be early;
indeterminates are a good bet for later fruit. Obviously the determinates
are better suited for small gardens; they are also a better bet for containers
(although you could always provide a cage or trellis for indeterminates
Selecting and purchasing your tomato
Tomatoes are easy to grow from seed (65° F or 18° C to germinate).
Unless you wish to grow heirloom tomatoes, you may wish to simply purchase
your tomato plants if you want to spare yourself the time and trouble.
(Check your better garden centers and greenhouses; as they may even have
starts for those more common heirlooms like the Brandywine tomato).
I recommend starts unless you have greenhouse space; it can be done, but
unless you really want them to be YOUR tomatoes, (or you need two hundred
plants) it's worth the outlay to get plants that you won't need to baby-sit
for two months (time is money...).
Be sure to pick out healthy plants with no yellowing or speckling on
the leaves (fusarium or leaf spot). If you're not sure what tomatoes you
want or need, checking the tag can be a big help in selecting a good tomato.
Look for a string of letters on the tag. They denote resistance to disease:
- A - Alternaria leaf spot
- F - Fusarium wilt
- FF - Race 1 & Race 2 Fusarium
- L - Septoria leaf spot
- N - Nematodes
- T - Tobacco mosaic virus
- V - Verticilium wilt
So a tomato with an FFLT code is resistant to both common strains of
fusarium wilt, septoria leaf spot, and tobacco mosaic virus (Don't even
THINK about smoking around your tomatoes...). Most of the modern strains
are more disease resistant than old, heirloom varieties. There are a lot
of different tomatoes out there. Let's look at the different types...
This is going to change a lot depending on which part of the country you're
from. Celebrity, Big Boy and its prodigy Better
Boy are well known everywhere, but in Phoenix (or any other hot locale)
you should know about Heatwave. Ace and Pearson are
favorites in California and Rutgers is still a hit in New Jersey. Check
around with the cognoscenti in your area and see if there is a local favorite.
These determinate types set fruit at much lower temperatures, making them
great for early fruit and invaluable for areas with cool summers. Early
Girl, Sunstart, and Burpee's Early Pick are good examples, as are New
Yorker, and Wayahead. Red Robin is a good cherry type.
Oregon Spring, Northern Exposure, Manitoba, and Stokesalaska are all good
tomatoes for the far northern or montane gardens. (I remember a friend
who moved from New England to Jackson Hole being frustrated at not being
able to grow her usual tomatoes; if only she had known...). Glacier is
a newer tomato that supposedly has the hardiness of the sub-arctic tomatoes
without their watered-down taste. Check those local nurseries for more
Hybrid (F1) Tomatoes
These are the result of breeding programs, F1 being a designation of first
generation crosses between two good tomatoes to get a better one. Most
of the modern tomatoes fall into this category, and if the truth was known,
probably a lot of the heirlooms, too. A good example would be the giants
like Beefsteak from which Big Beef (Big Boy x Beefsteak) and Beef Master
Plum (Paste) Tomatoes
These are the Italian style tomatoes with thick meat and a small seed
cavity, making them perfect for tomato paste or sauce. Roma is
still the hands down favorite in Little Italy, but I am very impressed
with Sauce and Slice, a newer variety that does double
duty (perfect for the tiny garden or containers). Look for Plum Dandy
or Super Marzano as well.
These include the grape and cherry tomatoes. Red Cherry tomato,
Red Pear tomato (and their yellow counterparts), Sweet 100
and it's offshoots, Supersweet 100 and Sweet Million
are all favorites of mine for right out of the garden noshing. If you’re
looking for a great plant for a small container or windowbox, try Tiny
Tim, Patio, or Small Fry tomato.
These are the old strains that have been kept alive by gardeners harvesting
their own seed. Brandywine is a 112 year old Amish variety that
is still the big favorite along the Delaware/Pennsylvania border (as well
as gathering a more national following, hitting most lists of best tasting
tomatoes). It dropped out of sight for a while as the big seed guys were
concentrating on farmers and not gardeners, and Brandywine
doesn't travel well; it's so juicy I have actually considered bibbing
for a particularly luscious one!).
Handed down from generation to generation, tomatoes like 'Cherokee
Purple' and 'Mortgage Lifter tomato ' are more than
just great names; these are tomatoes that will add some new excitement
to the summer table. Imagine the look on the kid's faces when you top
their burger with a slice of 'White Wonder tomato', a nearly
The heirlooms can also be a connection to the old country. From the 1
lb. 'Polish Giant' to the 1-2 oz. Stupice from the Czech Republic
(they may be small but the flavor isn't...) there are tomatoes from all
over the world to pique your taste buds. Colors range far away from the
Heirloom tomatoes grow in many colors
Brandywine is a salmon pink in its common form, but there are yellow,
purple and red sports. Oranges include Nebraska Wedding and Kentucky
Beefsteak; purples are represented by Black
Prince and Prudens Purple. Yellow is
another bonanza with Persimmon Yellow, Pixie
Peach and Tangerine. Even green checks
in with Green Grape, Evergreen
and Green Zebra which has yellow stripes!
Red/yellow stripers include Mr. Stripey and Old German (a
Mennonite variety; it appears we owe the Amish and Mennonite folk a huge
debt of gratitude for keeping many of these old strains alive). Think
about starting your own family tradition of handing down a neat variety
and growing a little more fruit on the family tree! As always, check the
local extension service or Master Gardeners for heirloom varieties specific
to your region.
Soil, sun and water requirements
Tomatoes require plenty of sun. As for soil, they will grow in just about
anything you throw at them. An old survivalist manual says you can grow
them in newspaper if you add the right fertilizers and I don't think that's
far from the mark (although I haven't been brave enough to try). That
isn't to say that soil amendment is a bad idea.
I am always in favor of adding compost and manure to anything but the
wettest soil. They do very well when planted in containers, as soil can
easily be changed or improved from year to year (raised beds are good
for much the same reason). Uniform watering is the key to nice fruit.
Even watering can prevent leaf-end roll, blossom end-rot and "cat-facing",
those misshapen crags and cracks on the stem end of the fruit. (I find
the new moisture crystals help keep things on an even keel if I miss a
day or two). Can't say this enough; tomatoes are about the watering! Skimp
on amendments, fertilizers and the rest, but if you want good tomatoes
it's about the water.
(Did I mention about watering?)
It is OK to plant tomatoes in the garden when the temperature is a consistent
50° F, but plants won't begin to set fruit until the overnight low
is regularly above 55°. Plant tomatoes approximately 2 to 3 feet apart
from each other or in rows three feet apart with the plants spaced at
a foot. This is a good method for indeterminate types in smaller gardens;
you must simply keep the plant to a single main stalk. Run a pole over
the length of your row and string 'em up! As your plants get larger, they
will need to be staked in order to support the weight of the fruits as
they begin to grow. Cages are a quick and easy fix that works great, but
I find that twig or bamboo tripods and trellising make a more aesthetic
offering; just because it's a vegetable garden doesn't mean it can't look
Tomatoes should be harvested when they are fully ripened and just starting
to soften. Once picked, store tomatoes in dark, warm conditions. DO NOT
REFRIGERATE TOMATOES! Ever! Fresh tomatoes start to fall off the flavor
wagon as soon as they go below 55°; you might as well buy those soulless,
tasteless clones at the supermarket.
You have three days to use a vine-ripened tomato; it is wise to observe
the garden and make that crucial decision: Are there too many to eat and
is today the day I make sauce? (Cooked sauce WILL freeze nicely and there
are few greater winter joys than hauling out a container of sauce from
the freezer and enjoying your tomatoes months later!) Don't let a single
one go to waste. If your friends and family are waving you off, try a
local shelter or soup kitchen. They'll appreciate it and you'll feel great.
More and more I find people who aren't growing tomatoes (?!) and I never
lack for donees. I usually grow three tomatoes in my ten by ten space
(usually an 'Early Girl', a Roma
tomato, and a Brandywine, although Roma
was replaced with 'Sauce and Slice'
this year with excellent results).
Find those tomatoes that work for you; maybe one to hand down to the
grandkids. They are fun to grow and even more fun to eat. Enjoy the fruits
of your labor. Enjoy...
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