Growing Tomatoes

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Growing tomatoes is probably the most common vegetable gardening activities that people undertake. They grow them in gardens, flower beds, pots, barrels, and hanging baskets. I've even seen a tomato plant growing from a crack in the sidewalk.

Fresh, sweet, home grown tomatoes

The first ripe tomato of the summer is a highly anticipated event at our house, we relish them as if they were candy. Of course after the vines start bearing full steam in the late summer, that anticipation is replaced with "what in the world are we going to do with all of these #%&$%! tomatoes?" We always seem to find good uses for them though.

Growing Tomatoes - General Terms

Blossom on a tomato plant

If you are thinking about growing tomatoes, there are a couple of terms that you should be familiar with, so when you see them used in seed catalog, you know what it means to your garden.

Determinate - refers to when and how tomato plants grow and when the fruit ripens. Determinate plants grow in a bush, rarely need staking and bear a single crop over a short period of time (3-4 weeks is normal), and then are basically done.

Indeterminate - refers to plants that continue to grow and bear steadily all summer, until they are killed by cold weather or you have "had enough" and pull them up. Indeterminate tomatoes need some kind of support - stakes or cages - to keep them upright and happy.

Growing Tomatoes - Varieties

General Use Tomatoes - This is the type of tomatoes that most people plant. Some people refer to them as "slicing" or "sandwich" tomatoes. These varieties are generally sweet, and juicy when ripe, and are used primarily for eating fresh.

That being said, they can certainly be used for canning, making juice, and sauce as well. My favorite varieties are "Brandywine" and "Cherokee Purple", both of which are heirloom varieties. 

There are dozens if not hundreds of named varieties out there. Most general use tomatoes are indeterminate.

Sauce Tomatoes - These types have more flesh, less water content, and less seeds than general use tomatoes. Because of this, they are more desirable for making juices and sauces, because you get more final product per tomato.

Sauce tomatoes aren't normally as sweet, but they aren't intended for eating fresh. The most common variety is "Roma", but there are others. They are more oval or pear shaped than round, and about the size of an egg, or just a bit larger.

"Roma" and most other sauce tomatoes are determinate.

Stuffing Tomatoes - I have never grown stuffing tomatoes (because I don't care for stuffed tomatoes!), but some folks do, so I included them here. Stuffing tomatoes have the appearance of a thick fleshed red bell pepper. (tomatoes and peppers are related species).

They have (usually) 4 hollow compartments on the inside except for compact bunches of seeds at the center of each compartment. This makes it easy to clean them out for stuffing/baking. Indeterminate.

Salad (cherry) Tomatoes - There are a huge variety of these bite sized gems. They are generally referred to as "cherry" tomatoes, but they are not all cherry sized, nor are they are all cherry shaped. They are not even all red for that matter.

Some larger varieties are up to an inch or more in size, and is a stretch (literally!) to call them bite sized. Some varieties are almost pea sized - "Currant" for example, comes in red and yellow, and are intensely flavored. Pear and grape shaped salad tomatoes are common, and are also red or yellow.

Standard cherry tomatoes are in fact cherry shaped, sized, and red. "Sweet Million" is my personal favorite type. There are even orange, purple and black colored varieties.

Look through seed catalogs and you will find no end to the sizes, shapes and colors of salad tomatoes. Most salad tomatoes are indeterminate.

Novelty Tomatoes - There are quite a few varieties of unusual tomatoes available, many of which are heirloom varieties. There are black, purple, green (when ripe), orange, yellow, and striped. There are also long skinny ones and short fat ones, and short stocky plants perfect for growing in containers. Find tomato varieties at local nurseries, or from on-line or mail order seed nurseries.

Growing Tomatoes - Planting & Growing Tips

Planting: You can either buy started seedlings or seeds for growing tomatoes. You can also collect seeds from your favorite heirloom or open pollinated varieties for starting the next year. If you are starting them from seed, plant seeds indoors in a sunny warm location, about 8 weeks before the last average frost date.

Plant tomato starts (or "slips") after the threat of the last frost in well tilled soil about 24 inches apart. Most tomato starts tend to have grown long and spindly by the time planting time comes along.

Tomatoes are one of the few plants that you should plant deeper than they were in the pots. Unless you buy very large stocky starts, you should plant the tomatoes so that only about 4 inches of the plant remains above the soil.

Tomatoes can grow roots any place on their stems, so planting them deep gives them a good head start. It also promotes the growth of stockier, stronger stems.

There are two schools of thought about planting tomatoes. One says dig a trench about 4 inches deep and lay the tomato starts in the trench, parallel with the soil surface, and gradually bend the top so that it is pointing skyward.

The other (which I subscribe to) says to dig a hole and plant them straight down. This keeps the plant roots deep so they have access to water for a longer period in the event of a dry spell in the summer.

Staking or Cages: Once your tomatoes reach about a foot in height, you need to start giving the indeterminate varieties some support, either a cage or stake.

My personal preference is to use a metal tomato cage, simply because it's less work than having to regularly tie your tomatoes up to the stake. Either one works, it's a matter of personal preference.

Try doing both - then decide which you like.

Mulching: When you begin adding support for your tomatoes, it's a good idea to add some mulch around the base of the plants. I use grass clippings that have dried in the sun for a few hours. Wood bark, compost, news paper and dry leaves all work fine and serve the same purpose. Just use what you have available.

Mulching helps control weeds, and helps keep the soil around the base of the plants cooler in the heat of the summer. It also helps prevent evaporation of moisture from the soil - leaving more available for growing tomatoes.

Fertilizing: Tomato plants can benefit from a regular application of water soluble fertilizer. Most people know about Miracle Gro brand which works quite well.

You can also make your own, by soaking compost in a bucket of water for a few hours or over night. Pour this compost tea directly around the base of your plants.

A trick I have learned for tomato growing success is to use a "trickle bucket" to water the plants deeply. If you simply pour water or fertilizer mix around the base of the plant, most of it will run off to somewhere between the garden rows - only to the benefit of weeds that you don't want.

A trickle bucket is a bucket or other plastic container with a small 1/16 - 1/8 inch hole made in the bottom, near a side. Put this bucket next to your tomato plant, with the hole closest to the plant. Fill it with water or fertilizer, and it will - you guessed it - trickle the water on slowly enough that most of it will soak into the soil directly under the plant.

You'll be amazed at the difference that a feeding like this every 10-14 days will make.

Green tomatoes soon to be ripe and ready to pick

Growing Tomatoes - The Harvest

When tomatoes start coming on in the summer, you can't wait for that first one to get ripe. - the first tomatoes of the season are the best tasting - probably because of the anticipation.

Pick tomatoes when fully ripe. See my pages on canning tomatoes and tomato juice, making salsa, making ketchup and making pasta sauce for ideas about what you can do with the surplus that you will almost certainly have.

One delicacy that I look forward to in the summer is fried green tomatoes. Slice them thin, dredge them in flour with salt & pepper, and fry golden brown. WOW!

You can extend your tomato harvest well beyond the first fall frost by pulling the plants up by the roots and hanging them upside down, in a cool basement or root cellar. The leaves and stems will dry up, but tomatoes remaining on the vines will continue to ripen for a few weeks after the frosts would have wiped them out.

Growing Tomatoes - Pests

Tomato plants have few pests. The most common is the Tomato Hornworm. These are larvae of the sphinx moth (also known as hummingbird moths). They are large enough (up to 4" long) that they are easy to see, and remove by hand.

If you're growing tomatoes, the signs to look for are large areas where the foliage has been eaten, and 1/4" droppings laying around on the ground beneath the plants.

The presence of hornworms don't really call for application of pesticides. You can easily pick them by hand, drop them on the ground and step on them. They are easiest to see in the mornings and evenings, when they seem to be most active.

Tomato Hornworn Caterpillar

Tomato Hornworms also have a natural predator - a tiny parasitic wasp that lays it's eggs on the hornworm. when the wasp eggs hatch, they burrow into the body of the caterpillar, and eat it from the inside.

If you see a hornworm with what looks like small white rice grain sized cocoons hanging on it, don't step on that one. It's already dead or dying, and will soon be producing a new generation of parasitic wasps.

Squirrels and Rabbits seem to have a taste for ripe tomatoes - or more accurately for half of a ripe tomato. They will eat about half of a tomato and leave the other half for you. Isn't that thoughtful?

Live trapping and relocating them, or fencing in your garden is about your only options with these furry critters short of adding them to the menu.

Growing Tomatoes is a summertime ritual practiced by thousands of gardeners every summer. Fresh picked tomatoes taste so much better than the "strip mined" tomatoes you buy at the grocery, there's no comparison. I enjoy going to my garden in the hottest part of the summer, picking a tomato, and eating it right there on the spot - sweet, juicy and refreshing! You can't get any fresher than that!

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Related Topics:

Canning Tomatoes

Blanching Tomatoes

Making Pasta Sauce

Making Salsa

Making Ketchup

More Summer

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