BY KOKHEONG MCNAUGHTON
Most gardeners would answer “Tomatoes!” to the question “If you can grow only one vegetable, what would it be?” I totally agree!
There’s no comparison between a freshly-picked ripen-on-the-vine tomato from my backyard to one from the supermarket picked when it was green, transported thousands of miles, and ripened with ethylene gas.
Tomato belongs to the deadly nightshade family and the fruits were once thought to be poisonous. Today there are hundreds of varieties to choose from. I typically have about a dozen varieties growing in my backyard every year. I grow some cherry tomatoes in pots (3 to 5 gallon size) so that they can be brought indoors to continue producing fruits after the frosts have killed those that were grown in the ground. Most of my cherry tomatoes don’t make it into the kitchen. They are snacked on by the grandkids and by me taking frequent gardening breaks. One of my fondest grandma memories is of my grandson when he was barely a year old toddling up to a cherry tomato plant growing in a pot on the back porch and biting off the hanging fruits like a fawn without using his hands!
Tomatoes need a lot of sun and a long growing season for the fruits to ripen on the vines. I like to plant a few varieties like Early Girl that don’t take as long to ripen. Other identifiers I look for on the seed packet are the letters F and V (for Fusarium and Verticillium resistance). These are two of the common fungal diseases that cause the plant to wilt and die. Finally, I look for the word DET which indicates that the plant is a “determinate” while IND or INDET indicates that the plant is an “indeterminate” variety. Determinate vs indeterminate for tomatoes is like bush vs pole for beans in the way they grow. Determinate varieties are also preferred by commercial growers because they tend to produce the fruits all at once and the fruits are harvested within a short period of time whereas indeterminate varieties bear fruits throughout the growing season, so they are preferred by most home gardeners like me. If the packets don’t contain this information, a google search of the variety can often produce the answer.
Gardeners with confined space for growing food may want to try growing dwarf tomatoes in pots. Most dwarf tomatoes do well in 3-gallon pots or smaller. This year, I’m trying a new variety of dwarf cherry tomato called Tiny Tim. It can grow in a 1-gallon pot inside the house on a windowsill like a houseplant that bears edible fruits.
One year I had a bumper crop of tomatoes so I invited some friends to come pick their own. A Chinese grandpa came with his daughter to see what I had to offer. He started chortling when he saw how bushy my tomato plants had grown. “You need to manage your tomato plants,” he said with the authority of a retired farmer, “You can’t just let them grow wild like this.” Even as I winced, he started showing me how to de-sucker them, saying they will produce bigger and sweeter fruits if I clip off the suckers which only sap the plant’s energy without producing any flowers or fruits. Since then, I’ve come to a compromise by de-suckering the lower suckers on some of my tomato plants, but without control experiments, I am not certain whether the fruits are really bigger and sweeter. There are definitely less of them. The suckers can be planted directly in the ground where they’ll grow new tomato plants. However, I’ve found that they are not as productive as the original mother plant and usually don’t bother to propagate the plants that way.
There are at least a dozen companion plants for tomatoes. I use only a couple of them – basil to increase their flavor and calendulas and marigolds to repel pests including hornworms.
Given our short growing season, I give my tomato plants an early start by starting them from seeds in March, and keeping them growing in the sunroom house until mid-April or early May. By using towers of water around them, or planting them under frost cover with jugs of water surrounding them to keep them warm, I can usually put them out in late April. I stake them or use tomato cages to keep the leaves off the ground to minimize the chances of catching soil-borne diseases. Instead of watering from above, I use a drip system, or a buried soaking hose, or deep root watering through a half-buried gallon milk jug with small holes punched in the bottom and weighted down with small gravel inside. This keeps the soil from splashing onto the leaves, minimizing soil-born infectious diseases. Tomatoes don’t like uneven watering, which causes blossom-end rot. I use a moisture meter to determine when they need to be watered, typically every 2-3 days as needed, and feed them compost tea or other home-made organic fertilizers every month.
Tomatoes can be picked when they start to blush (turning color) before they are completely ripe without sacrificing the flavor. I usually wait a few days after they’ve turned color rather than wait until they are completely ripe to compete against squirrels getting to them first.
You can continue to enjoy tomatoes even after the first frost. They can be picked as green tomatoes for a variety of dishes including my very favorite green tomato relish. I let mine continue to ripen in a basket on my kitchen counter. Some people make the mistake of putting them in a sunny window, but that tends to rot rather than ripen them.
I’ve tried pulling up entire plants and hanging them upside down in my spare room (we don’t have a garage) but the dead leaves made a big mess!
What type of tomatoes are you growing this year?