A summer garden meal will almost always include tomatoes, I've discovered. My first banner year growing tomatoes was the summer of 2012. It seems so long ago now but it was just last year. I purchased transplants from a community garden plant sale: Cherokee Purples, Black Krim, Costoluto Veronese and Celebrity. We had one mystery plant that volunteered to join the party; a small, yellow pear tomato that popped up alongside the rail of the raised garden bed. I named him Willie.
My measure of success as a gardener is being able to repeat a healthy yield from one year to the next. I'm proud to say that I was able to harvest another counter top full of tomatoes for 2013. Here are a few things that I've learned along the way. Most are pretty basic but often overlooked. Consider this a very brief primer to growing tomatoes.
Whether you've visited a nearby Home Depot or your local garden center, you've discovered that there are many, many tomato varieties available. So, how does one choose? Believe it or not, I can help you narrow down your choices.
To begin with, we’ll divide our tomatoes into
two broad categories: determinate and indeterminate.Yes, I added a third but we'll consider that a subcategory, alright?
Determinate: Think of these plants as having a pre-determined growing habit. They will get just so big (about 3’ – 4’), and yield just so much and then they’re done. I have a large galvanized container that I like to put a determinate tomato plant in each year. Determinates are great for just this sort of thing – containers and small garden areas. They don’t need to be managed the same way their brethren, the indeterminate, needs to be.
If you think you might like to try canning and you’re looking for an abundance of tomatoes to ripen all at once, determinates may be a good choice for you. I grew a Hungarian determinate this year, a Magyar Piros Boker. It’s delightful. The fruit has dense flesh, a pretty red color and nice round shape. I don’t know the exact number but I’ll guess that it has produced nearly a dozen tomatoes for me.
Indeterminate: Indeterminates can be beasts! These are the tomatoes that take over garden beds, flop over onto pathways, vine up the side of the house and peek into your windows at night. I love the fruit but I’m not a fan of their growing habit. They never seem to stop. I use tomato cages and by the time these vines are fruiting the cage gets lost. Indeterminate tomatoes are why I started buying brightly colored tomato cages, just so I could find them under all the foliage. I am learning the hard way that these tomatoes need room. I gave my transplants about 30” inches distance but they still ended up creating a single solid mass.
Indeterminate does not describe the fruit at all. You can have small, cherry tomatoes or large Big Boys on an indeterminate vine. I’ve had the best luck with the Cherokee Purple. It’s usually the first to produce. The tomatoes are large with purple skin and deep green shoulders. I’ve also enjoyed Black Krim, Azoychka and Paul Robeson, all indeterminates. Clearing out the garden bed of indeterminate tomatoes is horrible work. You’ve been warned.
Indeterminates will produce for a longer period of time than determinates, but remember that you need space for these.
Semi-determinate: sometimes referred to as strong determinates. They are somewhere in-between the two categories. They have a bushy growing habit but produce fruit a little longer into the season.
Other things to take into consideration when choosing your tomato plants are color, shape, size, heirloom vs. hybrid and use.
Color: There are so many colors of tomatoes to be had that one company, the Baker Seed Company, actually divides the tomato section of its catalogue by color. Yellow just may be the new red, but you can also choose from green, white, rose, orange, purple and pink. And don’t forget the striped ones!
Shape: I’m going to venture to guess that most people think of tomatoes as round, and red for that matter. Now think outside the box. Tomatoes come in many shapes: some are pear-shaped, some are flat (Costoluto Genovese), others are long (Icicle) and yes, some are even round (Bonny Best).
Size: My brain tends to oversimplify. I think of tomatoes as either cherry or bigger than cherry. The bigger than cherries are often referred to as Beefsteaks. Mortgage Lifters and Brandywines are a few examples of beefsteak tomatoes. I would grow Brandywines for the name alone provided I had enough room. Some tomatoes are very small. I bought an Azoychka this year. The label promised beefsteak size tomatoes (8oz and larger) but they turned out to be about the size of a grape. I suspect they may have been mislabeled.
Heirloom vs. Hybrids: “People get really excited about those exotic tomatoes – the Krims and the Robesons. Not me, I like the old standbys like Early Girls and Big Boys,” a co-worker confided to me recently. There are gads and gads of tomato varieties out there. Our local community garden plant sale offered 130 different varieties!
I happen to like heirlooms. They are often misshapen and lack conventional beauty. I also like a tomato with a good story. I like to imagine the provenance, the family that cared enough to save the seeds and pass them down to a younger generation. Heirloom tomatoes are open-pollinated which to me, means natural, simple pollination. You know, the whole birds and the bees thing. The offspring of open pollinated heirlooms will be identical to the parent, unlike hybrid seeds which do not grow true.
Hybrids most definitely have their place. They are often more disease resistant and pest resistant. Some are less prone to cracking. Choosing between an heirloom and a hybrid is a matter of personal preference. No ones judging you.
Other Lessons Learned
I’ve learned to start with transplants instead of starting tomatoes from seed. That was difficult for me because I love to start a plant from seed. I’ve had markedly better success with transplants. But that’s just me. Live and learn.
When putting the transplant into the soil, plant it deep; deeper than you think you’d need to. Sink the rootball plus the stem up to the first set of leaves. Roots will sprout from the stem and the tomatoes will be able to take up more nutrients from the soil.
Tomatoes are all about nutrients. They are what gardeners call heavy feeders. After getting your transplant into place give it a good drink of fish emulsion to reduce the shock and add nitrogen. Then fertilize every 3 to 4 weeks until tomatoes begin to set. I use Garden Tone for fertilizer but there are fertilizers specifically formulated for tomatoes. Once you start seeing tiny green tomatoes form you can cut back on the feeding.
Tomatoes love the sun, hours and hours of it. They require a good 6 to 8 hours of sun so make sure to pick an open spot for them. You don’t want a shady area right next to the house or a fence that is going to put them in the shade for most of the day.
Make sure the soil drains well. You don’t want the roots sitting in wet muck. If they survive the wet muck you may end up with blossom end rot. Blossom end rot is a black spot that forms on the end of the tomato. It can be small (about dime size) or large (the size of a half dollar). I give these tomatoes to the hens.
Water your tomatoes at regular intervals. You don’t want to let the soil dry out and then drench it. This will contribute to blossom end rot and cracking as well.
Give your tomatoes support. Everyone needs a helping hand at some point. There are all sorts of tomato supports. I use cages but I’d like to graduate to something a little more sturdy for my indeterminates. Cages seem adequate for most determinates.
Mulch around the base of your tomatoes. You won’t have to water as often. I use straw. A bale runs about $10 and lasts through the season.
The Tomato Graveyard
As I said earlier, last year was my first banner year growing tomatoes but not my first year giving it a go. I don’t know how many tomato plants have met their demise in my garden. I chalk most of the deaths up to pride and poor timing. I’ve never been able to get the seeds started at the right time. As I mentioned earlier, I remedied that problem by purchasing transplants instead of seeds.
My biggest problems have been with insects. For some gardeners, it is the tomato hornworm that does the most damage, for me, it’s the stink bug. I don’t believe that I will ever have a pest free garden. I just assume they are there, lurking in the soil or on neighboring plants or watching me from under the eaves of the house.
Last year I used Bt (Bacillus Thuringiensis). It is a microbial pesticide and targets a specific group of insects. It is effective against soft bodied insects. The problem I ran into with Bt is that it breaks down in sunlight, and since tomatoes thrive in the sun, frequent reapplication was needed.
This year, I switched to spinosad. Spinosad is an organic insecticide and does not need to be reapplied as frequently as Bt. It is also very effective against soft bodied insects. Be aware that neither product is at all discerning. They will kill both beneficial and pesty caterpillars alike. Caution needs to be used when applying. The draw is the low toxicity to mammals. It is the ingredient used in Comfortis, a once monthly oral flea control product for dogs.
You can always handpick pests but be careful how you dispose of them. I once had a friend who picked hornworm after hornworm from her tomatoes, tossing them into a slow seething pile on her driveway. Once she was satisfied with her collection, she laid a piece of plywood over the heap and jumped up and down on it. She went to town on that board, thrilled at the complete and utter annihilation of the destructive worms beneath. The hornworm’s final revenge was to splatter and cover her legs in gut green slime. Let’s move along, shall we?
You may encounter nutrient deficiencies or disease among your vines. You will wonder why the leaves are turning yellow, curling or spotting. Why the blossoms are dropping off before setting fruit, or why the blossoms sit and never pollinate.
This is where I tell you that there are more questions than tomato varieties. I feel as if I have just learned to ride my bicycle after slamming into the concrete time and time again but now I am finally flying down the street and I want to take you with me!
I have only a few answers, others have more. I’ve learned, simply by gardening in Central Texas, that sometimes it is too hot for blossoms to turn into tomatoes. The pollen will get sticky making it impossible for fertilization to take place. This is why we get our plants in the ground by March, while you, dear gardener in Maine, must wait until June.
Be bold. Ask a fellow gardener, get online and/or buy a book. I usually do all three for any given problem. If you’re lucky two of your three sources will concur and you will be on the right track to finding a solution.
This was the briefest of little primers and if nothing else, I hope it has piqued your interest in gardening and growing tomatoes. Please share your successes and failures. As I’ve said, I love to hear a good story. Let’s hear yours.