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How to Grow Perfect Tomatoes

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When was the last time you bought a really good-tasting tomato from the grocery store? Weather permitting, you can grow a bumper crop of your own, much more delicious tomatoes this year and use them for salads, sauces and other recipes—and give them to grateful friends. Almost anyone can do it, even if you don’t have enough space for a garden. How to go about it…

CHOOSE THE RIGHT VARIETIES

The typical garden catalog might offer 10 to 20 tomato varieties—a specialty catalog might offer several hundred.

Not every tomato variety will grow well in every garden, but there are some stalwart varieties that are easy to grow, disease resistant and produce large crops of delicious tomatoes just about anywhere. Some top choices found in catalogs and garden centers…

  • Small fruits—cherry tomatoes. Riesentraube, Sugary, Sun Gold (yellow), Sweet 100.
  • Medium fruits—salad or slicing. Better Boy, Big Boy, Box Car Willie, Celebrity, Early Girl, Flammé (orange), Lemon Boy (yellow), Matina, Paul Robeson (black), Sioux.
  • Large fruits—beefsteak. Brandywine varieties, German Johnson, Goliath, Mortgage Lifter.

Most tomato varieties will do reasonably well anywhere, but if you have a short, cool growing season—or a long, hot, and humid one—choose varieties that are best for your area.Good medium-sized red choices for short seasons—Early Girl, Jetsetter, Stupice. Good medium-sized red choices for long, hot seasons—Homestead, Porter’s Pride, Solar Fire, Sunmaster.

PLANT METHODICALLY

Tomatoes like good soil with lots of organic material (humus) in it, a fair amount of room, and plenty of warmth and sunshine.

Tomatoes hate the cold, so plant them after the last frost for your area (check with your local county extension or farm bureau to find the date for your area). Also, choose a spot that will get at least six hours of full sun every day.

If you grow your own seedlings, start the seeds indoors about six to eight weeks before the last frost date in your area.

Space the seedlings two to three feet apart (in all directions) or one plant per pot if you are using containers. Dig a planting hole six to eight inches deep or more—it should be deep enough to hold the roots and the stem of the seedling up to the first set of true leaves (not the small rounded leaves closest to the roots). Planting deeply helps your tomato plants develop strong roots, which will help them flourish.

Place a stake by each plant now, so you won’t disturb the roots later on when the plant is bigger. As the plants get taller, tie them loosely to the stakes with string or twist ties. This keeps fruit and foliage off the ground, making it easier to find and pick the tomatoes—and also keeps the branches from breaking under the weight of the fruit.

To keep down weeds, insects and plant diseases, and to help conserve moisture, cover the soil around the plants with a thick layer of organic mulch, such as dead leaves, grass clippings, straw, shredded newspaper—or use black plastic sheeting or landscape cloth.

Tomatoes in soil that has been enriched by organic gardening methods don’t usually need added fertilizer. If your soil isn’t as good, your tomatoes may need some help. Apply natural fertilizers, such as compost tea (soak a shovelful of compost overnight in a gallon or two of water, then pour off the water around the plants) or fish emulsion, available at any garden center, when the seedlings are first planted, again when the first blossoms appear and again when the first fruits start to turn light green. If you want to use a manufactured fertilizer, Miracle-Gro for tomatoes has the best mineral balance.

WATER DEEPLY AND OFTEN

The true secret of growing perfect tomatoes is watering them deeply and often. The best way to water is with soaker or drip hoses along the bases of the plants. These get the water down to the roots without wetting the foliage and fruit, where it can cause mildew and other diseases.

Tomatoes need to be watered on a regular basis. Check the moisture level every few days by digging down a couple of inches. If the soil is dry below the surface, you need to water.

Tomatoes need roughly two to three gallons of water applied per plant per week—more if it’s very hot and dry, less if it’s been rainy. If you use soaker hoses, let the hoses run for two to three hours. To hand water, gently apply about a quart of water around the base of the plant, let it soak in and then repeat once or twice more.

If your tomato plants start looking badly wilted or yellowed even though you’ve been careful about watering regularly, chances are a tomato disease is at work. Once these problems turn up in your garden, they’re there for good. Avoid them in the future by selecting resistant varieties. Resistance to the most common tomato diseases is indicated by these letters after the variety name on the seed packet or label on the container (if you bought seedlings)…

  • A stands for Alternaria arborescens fungus.
  • F for Fusarium wilt.
  • N for nematodes (tiny worms that attack roots).
  • T for tobacco mosaic virus.
  • V for Verticillium wilt.

Check with your local county extension agent or farm bureau to find out more about specific tomato diseases in your area and for help identifying what’s hurting your plants.

HARVESTING YOUR CROP

For best flavor, pick your tomatoes when they’re still two or three days away from being fully ripe. Let them finish ripening indoors on a countertop away from direct sun. Homegrown tomatoes will often have some green at the stem end even when they’re ripe. They may also still have some green on the shoulders. Pick them anyway—by the time they turn completely red, if left on the vine, they will be overripe. Most important of all: Never put tomatoes in the refrigerator! Their taste and texture will be ruined.

TOMATOES FOR SMALL SPACES

No space for a garden? If you have a balcony, patio, porch or a sunny window, you can still enjoy homegrown tomatoes.

The secret is to choose a variety designed for container growing. These varieties are all small, compact plants with small fruits that will grow well in pots or even hanging baskets. The most popular variety is called, unsurprisingly, Patio. Other container favorites include Florida Basket, Red Robin and Sprite. For really small spaces, try Tiny Tim—the plants grow to only 18 inches—or Micro-Tom, the world’s smallest tomato variety. These plants grow to only eight inches. For tomatoes in containers…

  • Use the largest container possible for the space.
  • Pick the sunniest spot.
  • Protect the plants from wind by putting them in a sheltered spot or putting a windproof screen around them.
  • Fertilize as needed.
  • Water often, daily if necessary. Plants in containers dry out quickly. Check the soil daily for moisture.
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Source: Sheila Buff, author of several books on gardening, natural history and the outdoors, including The Great Tomato Book. Ms. Buff lives in Milan, New York. SheilaBuff.com
Date: April 1, 2008 Publication: Bottom Line Personal
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