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With the recent interest in gardening and growing your own food, perhaps a few pointers on growing great tomatoes would be helpful as the growing season is now well under way.
Types of Tomatoes
There is a great variety of tomatoes available in many colors, shapes, and sizes. Types include cocktail, cherry, grape, sauce, slicers, beefsteak, and canners; and come in colors of white, yellow, red, pink, purple and brown. Knowing how you will use the tomatoes in the kitchen will narrow down the selection field. But what, then, is all this about hybrids and heirlooms?
Hybrid vs. Heirloom
Hybrids are a good place to start for most gardeners. Varieties, including Celebrity, Big Boy, and Sun Gold, are a result of crossing two other tomato varieties with the goal of producing a better tomato with greater disease resistance, more vigor, and more uniform fruit. Heirlooms, such as Cherokee Purple, Brandywine, and Mortgage Lifter, are open-pollinated and have a history or story that traces back to its origin, which is generally before 1950. The selection of heirloom varieties is vast thanks to the seed-saving efforts of numerous generations of gardeners. Heirlooms are often preferred due to their outstanding flavor and huge yields at harvest.
Indeterminate vs. Determinate
Most tomato varieties have an indeterminate growth habit, meaning they have a central stem that can easily reach 10 feet in one growing season! The fruit develops in clusters in stages providing a longer harvest time than determinate varieties. The latter top out at a much lower height and fruit set usually happens around the same time. Romas, for example, are determinate, which is perfect for the gardener who wants to make sauce or salsa, because the tomatoes ripen around the same time.
Don’t plant too early. Tomatoes are a warm season crop, preferring warm nights and warm soil temperatures. Though it’s tempting to plant early to mid-May when we are treated with a few pleasant days, it’s best to wait until the danger of frost is past. Make Memorial Day weekend planting time.
Plant deeply. This is one of the best tips for growing a strong plant that can support all the heavy fruit that is sure to come. Dig a trench and lay the plant in the trench, allowing only the top few sets of leaves above ground. Roots will form along the buried stem creating an anchor for the plant.
Mulch. One of most common diseases that plague tomatoes is early blight. This happens when soil full of bad microbes is splashed onto lower foliage, but a thick layer of mulch can prevent this. Straw, untreated grass clippings, shredded leaves, and newspaper are good options.
Stake them early. Tomato cages work well for determinate varieties which have a genetically shorter stature, but will not give others enough support. Remember that indeterminate varieties have a main stem that can be supported by a tall stake and some twine.
Companion planting. There are herbs and flowers that repel pesky insects and attract the beneficial ones: Alliums (chives and onions), marigolds, peppermint, parsley (allow to flower), and basil (especially African Blue flowering). Keep potatoes away from tomatoes, and never plant tomatoes near black walnut trees.
Feed them well. Tomatoes have a hearty appetite, so start them off right with a healthy dose of organic matter, such as compost, worked into the soil, and supplement with fertilizer at planting time. An additional feeding is recommended when flowering by side-dressing the plants with another helping of compost or fish emulsion.
Water consistently. One of the problems gardeners face with tomatoes is blossom end rot. This occurs when calcium is not available to the plant at the time of fruit set, but can be prevented in two ways: water consistently and add calcium nitrate or gypsum to the planting hole making the nutrient available to the roots. More watering tips: water the soil, not the foliage to further reduce the possibility of diseases, and it’s best to water first thing in the morning.
Remove lower leaves. Once the tomato plants are growing by leaps and bounds, remove the lower leaves (12” from the ground). This will also help reduce any blight spores splashing up onto the foliage.
These simple practices can make a huge difference in the health of your tomatoes and don’t take much of your time. Set up a regular watering schedule so you can observe them daily, watching for signs of pests and diseases. In a few months, you’ll be enjoying the fruit of your labor.
Horticulturist and General manager at Burlington Garden Center. Contact her and the BGC staff with your gardening questions @ 262.763.2153 or firstname.lastname@example.org.