Choose the Right Tomatoes
Tomatoes are the number one homegrown backyard garden crop. If not for quantity, then for enthusiasm and anticipation. The promise of a full-flavored, juicy, thin skinned, meaty tomato drives gardeners, both new and well seasoned, to fantastic displays of devotion and dedication to this crop. But it all starts with selecting the best tomato plants for your garden. There are scores of tomato varieties to choose from, but if you want to know how to select the right tomato you have to understand the choices.
Do you want a “salad” type tomato such as a cherry or grape tomato? These heavy producers may supply the neighborhood’s needs from one or two plants.
The large “sandwich” or “slicing” types can also produce abundantly, but typically one to several fruits at a time (instead of dozens at a time). A family of tomato eaters may be well supported by one or two plants per person.
If you like to make sauces, salsas and such, then a “paste” or “sauce” type would be beneficial. These types have a much lower water content, which makes cooking go much faster compared with other tomato types. Your spaghetti garden may include just a few or lots of plants, depending on your needs.
Much discussion has arisen about “heirloom,” “hybrid,” and “non GMO.” The desire is for a great tasting, sustainably produced seedling or seed. The good news is that most home garden seed and seedlings are non GMO, but it never hurts to ask your supplier. Heirloom varieties are fantastic, but you don’t always find that tag on truly heirloom varieties, it all depends on the seller’s marketing plan. Plants labeled “hybrid” are often good for their resistances to disease, but if you are into saving seed, you will want to avoid these types because their offspring will not match the parent plants. By the way, “hybrid” is NOT the same as “genetically modified.”
All at Once or Not
A final consideration is whether to plant “determinate” or “indeterminate” tomatoes. Determinate types feature a condensed life span in which they flower, set fruit and ripen all of their fruit at once before the plant expires. This is beneficial if you want to have a large batch to can or dry all at once before moving on to another crop. Conversely, “indeterminate” tomatoes can continue to grow, flower, and fruit for a long time, until growing conditions are no longer suitable for them (frost, extreme heat, etc.) Indeterminates are popular because the crop just keeps on coming.
How to Plant Tomatoes
Tomatoes may be started indoors from seed two months or more prior to planting in the garden. Simply sow the seeds in potting soil, moisten the soil, cover with clear plastic and keep them in a location that stays above 70 degrees. Once they germinate (in a week or less), remove the plastic and place them in a similarly warm location with lots of sunlight or fluorescent light. Feed them weekly with a balanced liquid fertilizer. Pot them into larger containers when they outgrow their seedling pots.
When all chance of frost is past, and the soil has warmed, plant them into the garden. Till into the soil a liberal amount of compost, a handful of gypsum per plant will help insure against blossom end rot. Plant the seedlings deeply into the garden at two or three foot intervals, mulch and water well.
After trying all sorts of support methods, and no supports at all, my preference is to use a single stake for each plant. Install the stake immediately after planting, and tie the plant to it with flexible plant ties (or old panty hose, etc.). As the tomato grows, remove the suckers that form in the leaf junctions and continue to tie the stem to the stake. Excessive sucker growth may be a sign of too much nitrogen, so be careful with fertilizers.
For larger tomatoes, you can prune the clusters when fruits appear, allowing only one or two tomatoes to grow and ripen on each cluster. Provide consistent moisture throughout the season to avoid blossom end rot and cracking of the skins. About an inch of water per week, through a combination of rain and irrigation, is sufficient. Tomatoes don’t like “wet feet.”
Bugs And Diseases
Most problems are avoided with plant selection, well prepared soil, good air circulation, and consistent moisture. Sometimes problems arise anyway, such as hornworm (or other caterpillars), whitefly, aphids, and blight. Caterpillars may be removed by hand or sprayed or dusted with Bt caterpillar killer. Whitefly and aphids may be controlled with horticultural oil, or neem oil spray. If blight disease appears, remove and destroy the affected plant.