There’s Nothing Like Vine Ripened Tomatoes!
Tomatoes are probably the most popular crop for backyard gardeners, and for good reason. It is impossible for anyone selling tomatoes to replicate what you can get from your own plants. This includes flavor, texture, color, variety, size, and just about any other characteristic of the tomato that you care to measure. Depending on who you ask, you will find that there could be anywhere from 7,500 to 25,000 unique varieties of tomato in the world! If you want to experience some of this diversity, growing your own is a priority. Here are a few tips that may be helpful in getting going:
1. Tomatoes are normally easiest to grow in the ground because of a more consistent supply of moisture. They prefer consistency over fluctuation between too wet and too dry.
2. If you prefer to use a container, use one made of a non-porous material like plastic or glazed pottery. The Earth Box is a good way to go if you want to take the guesswork out of container gardening.
3. Start seeds indoors six to eight weeks before your last frost date. There are a number of good seed suppliers for unique varieties and high quality seed. I like Botanical Interests because they have a mix of hybrids and heirlooms; and the seed is always fresh so success rates are high.
4. Compost and manure are great soil amendments for growing tomatoes. They provide a good initial supply of nitrogen to get the plants going early on, then the less volatile phosphorous and potassium will do the work of setting fruit once the plant is well established. Work compost into the soil at planting time, then “top dress” monthly with a 1-2 inch layer around each plant.
5. Tomatoes prefer a slightly more acidic soil than the rest of the vegetable garden. When you lime the garden, skip the tomato patch.
6. As they grow, tomatoes need support. In fact, the supports should be in place before the plants need them, to avoid damaging the plants with a “retrofit”. I find that cages are okay with bushy varieties, if I can’t keep up with sucker removal, but I prefer stakes. Staking requires more maintenance: remove suckers and add more ties to the main stem weekly, at a minimum; the benefit is at harvest because the tomatoes are easier to reach and less crowded by stems and branches. Another seemingly good option is trellising, but I haven’t tried it. If you have, let me know how it went.
7. Blossom end rot is a black spot on the bottom of the tomato fruit that starts when it is green and grows to ruin that particular tomato. This condition is technically caused by “calcium deficiency”, however it can be brought on by soil moisture fluctuation. Simply put, when the soil is too dry, the plant can’t take up calcium. To prevent this condition but keep an acidic soil, add granular gypsum at planting time for the calcium and keep the soil moist but not wet. Mulch during the hot part of summer to retain moisture and cool the soil.
8. This year we had a cool, wet spring which led to leaf curl. This is not a major problem, and the plants grew out of it as the weather conditions changed. A major difference between leaf curl and blight is the color of the leaves: with leaf curl they are the normal color, with blight they turn yellow with brown spots after a while. Leave plants with leaf curl alone, remove blighted plants.
9. Horn worms and other caterpillars can be a problem in the summer, munching a few leaves while the bugs are small, then devouring whole plants overnight as they grow. Pick them off (don’t let the horn worm stick you, though), and/or treat with Bt, which is a bacterial caterpillar killer.
10. If whitefly becomes a problem, neem or horticultural oil can be a big help. Be sure to spray early or late in the day, but not at all when the plants are heat or dry stressed. Keeping good air circulation around the plants can prevent this problem altogether.
11. Share the harvest. Nothing makes up for loud children, barking dogs, unsightly broken vehicles or any number of neighborly spats like home grown tomaters.