Planting and Growing Great Tomatoes

The favorite fruit in American garden is the tomato. Who can resist biting into a sweet ripe sun warmed bit of heaven? This lesson will help you grow the healthiest sweetest tomtoes for your family.

Many people don’t know that at one time tomatoes were believed to be poisonous. Called the love apple, many early American settlers avoided them, thinking they were dangerous to eat. Tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable and is related to the tobacco plant.

As with squash, there are determinate and indeterminate varieties. The determinate type- Bush Master or Better Boy are 2 examples, are shrubby and only produce one crop. They are ideal for patio or container plants. The indeterminate types require support as they are vigorous sprawling plants. Super Beefsteak, Early Girl, Brandywine, Ace, Pearson and Roma are good examples of this type.

I used to start my tomato seedlings indoors in January. But I now prefer to buy healthy seedlings from reputable dealers. Planting tomatoes doesn’t start until the ground has thoroughly warmed. Rows should be at least 4-5 feet apart, with the plants spaced at 18-24″ apart. Any staking should be placed prior to planting, to avoid damaging developing roots. Tomato cages help support the growing plants, but can make it harder to reach all the fruit at harvest.

Tomatoes are heavy feeders, so the beds need to be well amended before planting. Try to keep the nitrogen content down, as all this does is encourage heavy leafing and does nothing for setting fruit production. I use manure, compost and Super Phosphate, well mixed and watered in a week before planting.

Buy only healthy bushy green starts with no fruit or blossoms. Start off with an early season variety like Early Girl. You can add your favorite tomato as well at the same time. But this method will give you a steady supply of fruit throughout the season. If you are planning on preparing pasta sauces for the freezer, pick a paste tomato for excellent results. These are a much denser, almost seedless variety, making them ideal for this purpose. The medium sized tomatoes are great for salads or eating out of hand, while the beefsteak types are truly delicious for sandwiches or served sliced in vinagrette, and dusted with fresh basil. I normally plant 3 of each type of tomato to make sure there’s enough for family and friends.

Tomatoes have fine hairy rootlings along the stem, which you can see if you look closely. Plant the tomato up to the first set of leaves, and these little rootlings will develop into strong and healthy roots. Tomato plants are temperature sensitive, needing 70 degrees to really get going. But, they won’t set fruit once the temperature hits 90 degrees. Using shade cloth in hot climates can help boost production. Once the temperature drops, they will again resume fruiting.

Watering should be done deeply and regularly where heat is common. Again a shallow channel alongside the rows will help direct moisture to the spreading roots without displacing the soil.

Side dressing with bone meal midway through the season will help continue production. I also feed with fish emulsion once a month. Another way to increase yields easily, is to dig a trench alongside your planting rows and placing spent corncobs in them. Cover them and water in well, then plant your tomatoes.

Mulching is recommended once fruit sets, to keep weeds down and conserve moisture. Clean straw is perfect for this as is cocoa mulch.

The most common pest is the tomato hornworm. These ugly critters can be dispatched by dropping in a bucket of hot soapy water or simple smashing.

Rats, squirrels and birds are often a big problem for home gardeners. Since this is an edible crop, organic methods: bird netting and traps should be used. Maintenance is a crucial part of avoiding pests. Keep spent fruit and debris picked up.

Blossom end rot can be cured by mixing a solution of powdered milk and water, to spray on the plants. This particular rot is caused by a calcium deficiency in the plants. Buying VF1 hybrids will eliminate the typical fusarium wilt and mosaic virus problems seen in earlier varieties.

Harvest tomatoes when they are fully red and firm to the touch. Don’t refrigerate them as they can rot quickly. Pick and use as needed. Paste tomatoes should be harvested and used in sauces within 72 hours.

Some gardeners swear that playing music near their tomatoes creates bigger healthier tomatoes. Try this and see if it works for you.

There are the monster tomato gardeners out there that are always striving for the biggest tomato on record. This is a whole subject unto itself. The most popular tomatoes for this class of gardener are Mortgage Lifter and Burpees SuperSteak, which I love for it’s sweet juicy flavor.

As Fall sets in the remaining fruits can be set in a sunny spot to finish ripening, or green tomatoes can be used in relishes, for pickles, or fried. Spent plants need to be pulled and a cover crop sown to replenish the earth.

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