There’s no reason to grow a mushy, tasteless tomato. You can buy that kind at the grocery store. Home gardeners put quality and flavor at the top of their list when it comes to the criteria they use to select the tomatoes they want to grow. Sure, disease resistance is important and good production is nice, too, but the real reason most folks grow tomatoes is that they want tomatoes “like Grandma used to grow”.
Tomatoes originated in the South American Andes in a region that now makes up parts of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. The natives of these regions moved them up through Central America and into Mexico where Spanish explorers found tomatoes growing in Montezuma’s garden in the sixteenth century. In fact, the word tomato is derived from the Aztec name “tomatl”. Soon after their discovery by the Spanish, tomatoes were introduced to the world.
The tomato wasn’t exactly welcomed to the table first thing. The Italians seemed to have been waiting for the tomato to come along. They discovered Marinara sauce and the rest is history. The French thought it was an aphrodisiac, calling it the pomme d’amour or Love Apple, but the English feared it was toxic. Tomatoes do have some rather “bad boy” relatives like Deadly Nightshade. American colonists, suffering at the time from far too much English influence, went along with the toxic theory. Late in the eighteenth century, based on the advice of an Italian gardener, Thomas Jefferson tried them at Monticello. He later described making preserves with yellow-fruited cultivars that tasted similar to tart apricots. And you thought Martha Stewart discovered yellow tomatoes…
It wasn’t until September 26, 1820 that an event occurred to dispel the myths concerning the health risks associated with tomatoes. Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson marched up the steps of the Salem, New Jersey Courthouse and sat down to consume a basketful of tomatoes in front of 2,000 doubters. The curious, perhaps somewhat morbid crowd, gasped as he consumed one after another only to walk away and live to the age of seventy-nine. It has only been within the last few years that we have learned about the lycopene content of tomatoes being especially good for healthy hearts. This extremely nutritious vegetable is now considered America’s favorite vegetable. Not bad, considering its nineteenth century reputation.
The burning question in the minds of so many gardeners today though, is……………Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable? And the answer is yes! It’s both. Botanically it is a fruit, horticulturally it is a vegetable. In the “eyes of the law,” it took the Supreme Court to decide. It seems that in 1886 a crafty New York importer was trying to beat the ten percent tariff on
vegetables by declaring a shipment of tomatoes to be fruit. Seven years later, Supreme Court Justice Horace Gray declared the tomato a vegetable based on its use as a dinner vegetable, not as a dessert.
Homegrown tomatoes should be juicy with acidity, sweetness and complex flavors that make a BLT (bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich) zing. They should be so good you’ll want to munch on them right in the garden. In short, they have to add more to a salad than color.
Early varieties are always a good bet. Gardeners in the south need to beat the heat, and in the far north it’s a rush to produce before the first frost. Early Girl is one of America’s favorite tomatoes and Fourth of July is another early one that produces 4-ounce delicious fruits in only 49 days.
There are also some early heirlooms like Black Krim and Moskvich.
Cherry varieties are sure-fire guaranteed to produce all season long—even in the heat of summer when other tomatoes are just trying to stay alive. Surprisingly not all cherry tomatoes are scrumptious. Gardener’s Delight and Sweet Chelsea are two that combine good flavor and disease resistance. Jolly, Supersweet 100, BHN 968 and BHN 624 should also be on your list. Need a little variety? Sun Gold is a delicious golden, yellow cherry that may possibly be the best tasting tomato in the World.
Main season hybrids should make up the bulk of your tomato patch. These are the ones you’ll want to slice for sandwiches or to spread out on a plate and season with salt and pepper. Burpee’s Better Boy, Talladega, Champion, Celebrity, Tycoon, Momotaro, Tomande (Italian type) or Heatwave II (for hot climates) will keep you in prize-winning tomatoes all summer long.
If you like to make your own sauces, include Viva Italia. Juliet is a similar small Roma or saladette type that is tasty enough to find its way onto a menu in some fine restaurants (-Bibb Lettuce with Juliet tomatoes). One plant of either variety will usually produce a wheelbarrow full of tomatoes in a season. Both varieties can be canned or used fresh in salads plus they are much more flavorful than the typical Roma tomato.
Heirlooms are more challenging since they tend to have little or no disease resistance. What they often do have is great flavor. Cherokee Purple, Black Prince, Purple Calabash, German Johnson, Marianna’s Peace, Persimmon, Kosovo (Cuore Di Bue is similar), Early Goliath, Gregori’s Altai, J D’s C-Tex Early Black, Black from Tula, Green Zebra, and Flamme are some of the tastiest. Brandywine is usually a dud in Southern Gardens. There are several strains, including the Sudduth strain, that are supposed to grow better in the South. Look for it in the tomato specialty catalogs like Totally Tomatoes or launch an internet search.
Fruiting crops, including tomatoes, need full sun most of the day for good production of quality fruit. Good drainage is important, too. In high to medium rainfall areas (more than 30 inches per year) work the soil into ridges and plant on the ridge or build raised beds 12 to 18 inches deep. Plan on setting out at least one cherry tomato and 4 to 6 large-fruited varieties depending on the number of fresh tomato lovers in your family. You’ll need stakes or wire tomato cages to support the plants so that the fruit doesn’t lay on the ground and rot. To insure even and efficient watering, you will want to put in a drip or soaker hose system for watering. Finally, count on mulch to keep down the weeds.
Seeds or Plants
Tomatoes are virtually always set out in the garden as transplants. It takes 6-8 weeks to grow a 4-6 inch transplant. Sow the seeds in flats with a soilless soil mix, covering them with ¼ inch of the mix. Water in the flat carefully (some gardeners soak the flat in a tray of water), let it drain and then place the flat in a plastic bag to keep it moist. Set the flat in a warm area. A grow mat works great for providing bottom heat to speed up germination and, as soon as the seeds sprout, take the flat out of the bag to reduce the chance of disease. While seedlings are still small, use a pencil to lift under them. Be sure the soil mix in the growing pot is slightly damp and use your pencil to make a transplanting hole before removing the plant from the seedling tray. Then holding onto the leaf (not the stem) carefully transplant them to peat pots or seedling trays.
An alternate technique is to direct seed the tomatoes into peat pots or packs and skip the transplanting procedure. Plant several seeds in each container and thin them to one per cell if they all come up. Be sure to place the developing seedlings where they will get plenty of light. Try a sunny, south window or use fluorescent lights. If you use lights, make sure the plants are close–no more than 6 inches from the leaves to the fluorescent bulbs. Incandescent bulbs won’t work because they get too hot.
If tomato transplants get a bit lanky, they can be planted 4-6 inches deeper than they grew in the pots. Not all plants tolerate this treatment but tomato stems root readily and if you don’t plant too deep the existing roots will continue to function as well. If the plants are really leggy, lay the stem in a trench and carefully lift the top up. You can’t bend it 90 degrees or it will break. It helps to keep the tomato growing upright if you’ll tie it to a small piece of bamboo stake.
Tomatoes should be set 30 to 48 inches apart in the row with rows 48 inches apart. It’s very tempting to put them closer at planting time, but if you get them too close you’ll only increase the chances of disease. Wrap the stems with a piece of wax paper or cardboard (a two inch section of toilet paper roll works well) and secure with an office stapler. Don’t make it too tight or the stem may be girdled before it decays. Aluminum foil is easy to wrap around the stem and no staples are required. The protective collar should extend an inch above and below the soil to protect the tender seedlings from cutworms. After the stems toughen up in 3-4 weeks cutworm damage will no longer be a concern and the paper will have rotted away.
Use 1/3 strength soluble plant fertilizer as a starter solution when you transplant (one pint per plant), then use a regular strength dose of granular tomato food periodically through the growing season Tomatoes demand lots of fertility once the fruit sets, but too much early in the season can give you a big bush but fewer tomatoes. Using slow-release fertilizer pellets at planting time is also a popular technique. You can judge the amount of fertilizer you need by stem size. If stems are larger than your thumb, you may be overdoing it but hungry plants are the norm in a new garden.
To reduce transplant shock, use fiber row cover wrapped around tomato cages at planting. This material will protect the plants from late frosts and the drying effects of the wind. Fiber row cover will continue to protect plants from wind damage and it also helps to keep early insect invaders like aphids away. Tomatoes need even watering or you will end up with Blossom end-rot. Water thoroughly but not too often (twice per week should suffice at first) and try to water early in the day so that plants will dry off before evening. This helps to reduce disease problems. Using drip or soaker hose irrigation is another good idea. Water is used more efficiently this way and the leaves don’t get wet. Mulching can help to insure that an even supply of moisture is available to the plant. Try putting down a layer of newspaper 5-10 sheets thick between the rows (soak the papers in water first, so they won’t blow away) and then cover the newspapers with dry grass clippings, bark mulch, etc. Some weeds will eventually get through but the tomatoes will be about finished by that time anyway. Also the paper will have decayed by that time so you can till it in for more organic matter.
To sucker or not to sucker. Whether you should remove the side shoots that grow out of the leaf axils or not depends on your training system. Gardeners that like to use stakes usually snap out these side shoots. They typically get earlier and larger tomatoes but overall production is lower. If you are growing in cages the suckers are generally left on, though you may want to pinch the tip out of them when they are 6-8 inches long.
Regardless, it’s a good plan to remove the sucker growth and older leaves from the bottom 6-10 inches of the plant (removing the suckers up to the first cluster of tomatoes). This helps to improve air circulation and reduce the spread of diseases like Early Blight. Wait until the plants are knee-high and, in the morning, when the plants are nice and turgid, snap off the lower growth. Be careful not to work plants that look sick with distorted foliage or a mosaic pattern to the leaves. They may have a virus that can be spread to other plants. It’s best to rogue out sick looking plants early in the season.
Insects and Diseases
Early Blight fungus is a major disease of tomatoes. It begins as a few yellow spots on the lower leaves and then the leaves turn completely yellow. Before you know it the disease progresses up the plant and the leaves begin to turn brown. By this time it’s too late to do much. As mentioned earlier, removing some of the bottom leaves will improve air circulation and reduce the spread of this disease. If you plan to use fungicides, start early and be sure to spray the underside of the leaves where the organism gets its start.
Spider mites begin to build up rapidly as the temperatures warm up (especially in a dry season). Try high pressure water sprays directed to the underside of the leaf and/or spray with low toxicity wettable sulfur.
Stinkbugs come along later in the season, just as you’re starting to “lick your chops” for those luscious tomatoes. They puncture the fruit and suck out the juices leaving a corky, white layer underneath. Not exactly what you were salivating over, huh? Organic gardeners hand pick them or spray/dust with sabadilla. Neem oil and insecticidal soaps can also be used to discourage these pests. The few chemical pesticides left in the homeowner’s arsenal can help to control them, too, but you will need to check with your local Extension Agent for current recommendations. Persistent spraying is the key since they seem to fly in from another weed patch just after you’ve sprayed to kill them.
Tomatoes can be harvested when they begin to show color and they will continue to ripen. However, the closer you can get to vine-ripened the better the flavor will be. Bird damage usually becomes a concern at this stage. They love to peck holes in the fruit. Some gardeners say they’re after water so try placing some pans of water in the garden. Others claim red Christmas tree ornaments will fake them out and they will go away. Putting fake owls in the garden (move them around every few days), covering the plants with bird netting (just before harvest time) and wrapping clusters with fiber row cover are other techniques to try.
Recipes and Storage
Entire cookbooks have been written on the tomato, but it’s hard to beat a BLT. Crisp bacon on toasted whole wheat bread with mayonnaise and a crisp leaf of lettuce is just begging for a couple of scrumptious slices of tomato.
Or make a batch of Willie’s Salsa. Chop up 3-4 fresh, vine-ripened, juicy red tomatoes and sprinkle them with the juice of one lime. Add in ½ cup of fresh cilantro (chopped), 1-2 level tablespoons of seasoned salt, ¼ to ½ teaspoon of coarse black pepper, 1 or 2 finely chopped jalapenos, 1 finely chopped onion and 1 minced garlic clove. Stir and let the flavors blend for an hour or so in the refrigerator and then break out the nacho chips.
Real tomatophiles like their tomatoes sliced ¼ inch thick and spread out on the plate with a little salt and pepper.
Container Grown Tomatoes
Almost any plant can be grown in a container and tomato growers are actually quite fond of growing them this way though there are challenges. First you need a large container—five-gallon size is a minimum and fifteen to fifty gallons is not out of the question. Lots of folks grow them in old whiskey barrels cut in half. Got an old hot tub liner? Well maybe that’s a bit extreme.
The variety you plant has a lot of bearing on the minimum size container you’ll need. There are micro varieties that can be grown in small pots, but is it worth it? Gardeners usually go for the determinate varieties that naturally stop growing upwards as they begin to mature fruit. Some of the better ones to consider include Patio Hybrid, Better Bush Improved Hybrid, Health Kick Hybrid (50% more lycopene) and most any determinate variety. Even though many of the cherry tomatoes produce large plants, they still do well in containers with a cage or trellis for support. Try Jolly Hybrid, Supersweet 100, Sweet Million or Yellow Pear.
The soil you grow the plants in makes a lot of difference as well. Most container gardeners rely on soilless mixes purchased loose in large bags or compressed into bales. Check with the local nursery/garden center for the best brands. Beware of bargain soils that maybe little more than a field soil that some company bagged up. They’re often too heavy in texture and would require the addition of 1/3 peat moss and 1/3 verimiculite, perlite or sharp sand to make them acceptable. In most cases you won’t want to use your own garden soil either unless you add the organic matter and coarse filler as recommended above.
Be sure to grow plants up to a one quart or one gallon size before moving them to the final large growing container. They will be less likely to dry out if they have a larger root system. Initial rates of growth are usually phenomenal in a container, but as the plant begins to set fruit and the temperatures heat up, look out. A heavily-loaded tomato plant in a container can require watering twice a day at the peak of production. Allow them to stress for water even once and you may soon see the ravages of Blossom End Rot. Blossom End Rot is very water related. Too little and the cells at the end of the developing fruit begin to die. Oddly enough, too much water, especially in heavy garden soils can cause the same symptoms. How so? Roots starved for oxygen can’t take up enough water. Calcium is an important element in preparing the plant to cope with water stress. This makes it important to have enough water-soluble calcium in the plant. Some people sidedress with calcium nitrate or you can spray the plants with commercially prepared calcium chloride solutions. If you are using a balanced fertilizer just keeping the soil moisture level consistently wet, but not soggy should do the trick.
The excellent drainage you get when growing plants in a container not only makes the soil dry out quickly, it also allows fertilizer to wash through quickly. Weekly, even twice-weekly applications of fertilizer will be necessary to keep your container tomato crop growing vigorously.
Unfortunately, container gardening doesn’t necessarily eliminate the pest situation. You should be able to avoid soil nematodes but spider mites and Early Blight can still cause problems. Space the containers three to four feet apart and that will help with disease prevention, plus it will make the plants easier to spray if it becomes necessary.
Regular “dirt gardeners” may wonder why bother? There’s no one answer, some folks like to have their plants “handy”—like on the patio, or they don’t have a garden plot. Others consider eliminating the weeds and soil pests worth the effort. A few are likely “control freaks” and some of us just like to plant in pots. Perhaps the underlying concern is a fear of cultivation. Anyone that’s ever tried to shake the weeds from heavy Texas clay knows what a back-breaking, frustrating job it can be. Regardless of the excuse you use, container gardening is great fun!