A Basic Primer on a Garden Favorite

Nothing quite compares to the satisfaction one gets from slicing into that first ripened tomato of summer…Unless of course you happen to be one of those misunderstood few who don’t like tomatoes, in which case, this post isn’t for you.

TYPES OF TOMATOES

Determinate-  Bush Habit.  Fruit ripens all at once, making this a preferred tomato for food preservers who can or dry large quantities.  Best choice for containers.

Indeterminate-  Vine Habit.  Indeterminate tomato plants continue producing fruit until the plant is killed by frost.  This type is preferred by home growers and local market growers who want ripe fruit that continues through the season.  Requires trellising.

WHAT KIND OF TOMATO SHOULD I GROW?

There are countless varieties of tomatoes to choose from, all with different qualities, flavor complexities, colors, shapes, and uses.  Try growing several varieties to find your favorite!

TOMATO SHAPES AND USES

Beefsteak:  Large, irregularly shaped, with dense flesh.
Slicer:  Round, main crop tomatoes, also called globe; great for sauces and eating fresh.
Cherry:  Small cherry-sized fruits that are great for fresh eating or for drying.
Grape:  Small oval-shaped fruits that are smaller than cherry tomatoes with firmer, thicker skin.
Saucing/paste:  Comes in many shapes and sizes, and the low gel content makes them great for pastes.  Commonly Roma tomatoes are used for this purpose.

PLANTING TOMATOES – SITE PREPARATION

Tomatoes are a warm weather crop; they require a location with full sun (at least 6 hours/day) and slightly acidic, well-draining soil rich in phosphorus and calcium.  A pH of 6.2-6.8 is best.
Two weeks before planting seedlings, mix a layer of aged compost or fertilizer into the soil.  Adding a handful or two of Bone Meal into the soil will ensure slow release of phosphorus and calcium, which can help prevent calcium deficiency later on (see blossom end rot under tomato problems).  Amending your soil with Oyster Shell Flour or Lime will also help to avoid blossom end rot.  Avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers which will give you beautiful leafy tomato plants, but fewer blooms and fruits.

SEED

Start seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before the average last spring frost date.  Keep seedlings warm and well-ventilated during this time.

TRANSPLANTING

Harden off your transplants in a sheltered location outdoors, and bring them in for the night for at least 7-10 days before you want to plant them.  Tomatoes have a narrow temperature range for setting fruit.  Ideal temperature is crucial to avoid problems. Plant transplants after danger of frost has passed when night temperatures are consistently 50-55˚ F.  You’ll want soil temperature to be at least 60˚ F. They need warm (not hot) days of 70-80˚ F.  If there is danger of late frost, protect plants with cloches.  Early cold damage can cause blossoms to drop and prevent fruit from setting, reducing production for the entire season.  Well- balanced fertilizer can go a long way towards growing healthy tomatoes.  Blend our All Purpose Mix into the soil around the plant when planting.  If growth seems sluggish, use a little Liquid Fish to give them a boost.

SUPPORT

This can be done by either a traditional tomato cage, or any sort of trellising that can hold up the weight of a fruit laden tomato limb.  Trellising keeps your precious fruits off the ground, preventing rot, keeping the plant dry, ripening more evenly, and keeps them away from slugs and snails.

SMALL CONTAINER GARDENING

Tomatoes can be excellent in pots if you’ve got a small space to work with.  Minimum pot size is 7 gallons for a tomato plant. Just make sure you have lots of sun, a rich potting mix, and always water deeply at the roots.

WATERING

There are two basic rules to keep in mind regarding watering:

1.  Never water plants overhead.  Moisture on the plant can lead to diseases and fruit cracking.
2.  Water the surface evenly, and deeply.  Mulches at the base of the plant help immensely with keeping soil moisture more consistent, and as a bonus they help keep down weeds.

HARVESTING

When your fruit reaches peak ripeness, cut or gently twist the fruit off while supporting the vine to avoid any damage to the plant.  At the first sign of a heavy frost, harvest all your tomatoes at once, including the green ones.  Mature green tomatoes can be ripened in a dark, warm area (60-75˚F).  Placing green tomatoes in a bag with a banana will help trap ethylene gas and hasten the ripening process.  Any green tomatoes left over can be battered and fried, or be made into end of the year pickles!

Unfortunately, there are always things that can go wrong and lay our best efforts to waste.  Here are just a few common issues, and how to prevent or treat them.

DISEASES AND PROBLEMS

Catfacing:  Puckering, scarring, and holes near the blossom end are caused by cold temperatures when flower buds are forming.  Avoid planting too early to prevent this.
Cracking:  Radial cracking (from stem to blossom end)is caused by high temperatures and bright light, or concentric (around fruit) when rain follows a dry spell.
Sunscald:  Too much sunlight causes a blistered, shiny light area on the sun side of the fruit due to losing too many leaves through over pruning or disease.
Leaf Roll:  Edges of leaves curl to form cups that are firm and leathery to the touch.  Make sure that your soil is well-drained and aerated to prevent this condition.
Verticillium & Fusarium Wilt:  Causes leaves to curl up, turn yellow, and drop off.  Dispose of infected plants in sealed containers; throw away with household garbage.
Blight:  Dark sunken areas form on leaves as first fruits start to mature (Early).  Black, irregular water-soaked patches on leaves, dark spots on fruit (Late).  Destroy or dispose affected plants.  The best defense is to plant disease resistant cultivars.
Blossom End Rot:  Fruit forms water-soaked dark spot on the blossom end of the tomato that can eventually take over half the affected fruit.  This is mostly caused by calcium deficiency or uneven soil moisture.  Blossom end rot can also be caused by damaged feeder roots from careless transplanting.  When planting, use mulch to help with moisture; handle seedlings gently.

COMMON PESTS

Flea Beetles:  They feed on tomato foliage early in the season.  Plant hardened, larger, sturdier transplants in warm soil as prevention.  Cultivate your soil in the fall or early spring to disturb the overwintering adults.  Cover seedlings with floating row covers.  If absolutely necessary, you can spray with pyrethrum for control.
Tomato Hornworms:  Can be controlled by hand-picking them off the plants, or applying the selective bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).
Snails and Slugs:  These ubiquitous garden gastropods will feast on fruits too close to the ground.  Trellis your plants to avoid losses.