CAN I GROW TOMATOES?
Fruiting crops, including tomatoes, need full sun most of the day for good production of quality fruit. Good drainage is also important. In high to medium rainfall areas (more than 30 inches per year) work the soil into ridges and plant on the ridge or build raised beds 12 to 18 inches deep. Plan on setting out at least one cherry tomato and 4 to 6 large-fruited varieties depending on the number of fresh tomato lovers in your family. You'll need stakes or wire tomato cages to support the plants to keep the fruit off the ground where it would rot. To insure even and efficient watering, you will want to put in a drip or soaker hose system for watering. Finally, count on mulch to keep down the weeds.
Tomatoes originated in the South American Andes in a region that now makes up parts of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Eventually tomatoes were planted throughout Central America and into Mexico where Spanish explorers found them growing in Montezuma's garden in the sixteenth century. The Spanish introduced tomatoes to the world.
In Europe and the American colonies, the tomatoes got mixed reviews. Because of relatives in the deadly nightshade family of plants, many feared the consequences of eating tomatoes. Eventually these fears evaporated and the tomato became widely accepted.
Recently scientists learned the lycopene content of tomatoes was especially good for maintaining a healthy heart. This extremely nutritious vegetable is now considered America's favorite vegetable.
SEEDS OR PLANTS?
Tomatoes are almost always set out in the garden as transplants. It takes 6-8 weeks to grow a 4 to 6 inch transplant. Sow the seeds in flats with Burpee Tomato Formula soil mix, covering them with 1/4 inch of mix. Water the flat in carefully (some gardeners soak the flat in a tray of water).
Set the flat in a warm place (Burpee's Electra Grow mat works great for providing bottom heat) to speed up germination.
Plant several seeds in each container and thin to one plant per cell. Be sure to place the developing seedlings where they will get plenty of light. Try a sunny, south-facing window or use fluorescent lights. If lights are used, keep the plants within six inches of the bulbs. Raise the lights as the plants grow. Incandescent bulbs won't work because they get much too hot.
If tomato transplants get a bit lanky, they can be planted 4-6 inches deeper in the garden than they grew in the pots. Not all plants tolerate this treatment but tomato stems root readily. If the plants are really leggy lay the stem in a trench and carefully lift the top up. You can't bend it 90 degrees or it will break. It helps to keep the tomato growing upright if you'll tie it to a small piece of bamboo stake.
Tomatoes should be set 30 to 48 inches apart in the row with the rows spaced 48 inches apart. It's very tempting to put them closer at planting time, but if you get them too close you'll only increase the chance of disease. Wrap the stems with a piece of cardboard or wax paper that extends an inch above and below the soil to protect them from cutworms. A regular office stapler can be used to secure the material in a circle. After the stems toughen up in 3-4 weeks cutworm damage will no longer be a concern and the paper will have rotted away.
Use 1/3-strength tomato food dissolved in water as a starter solution when transplanting (one pint per plant). Then use the recommended application of the granules periodically throughout the growing season. Tomatoes demand lots of fertility once the fruit sets, but too much early in the season will grow a large plant but with fewer tomatoes. Using slow-release fertilizer pellets at planting time is also a popular technique. To reduce transplant shock, use Wall O' Water plant protectors at planting. These devices will protect the plants from late frosts and the drying effects of the wind. Fiber row cover wrapped around tomato cages after the plants grow too large for the Wall O' Water protectors will continue to protect plants from wind damage and it also helps to keep early insect invaders like aphids away.
Tomatoes need even watering to prevent blossom end-rot. Water thoroughly but not too often (twice per week should suffice at first) and try to water early in the day so that plants will dry off before evening. This helps to reduce disease problems. Using drip or soaker hose irrigation is the best idea. Water is used more efficiently this way and the leaves don't get wet.
Mulching can help to insure an even supply of moisture is available to the plant. Try putting down a layer of newspaper 5-10 sheets thick between the rows (soak the papers in water first, so they won't blow away) and then cover the newspapers with dry grass clippings, bark mulch, etc. Some weeds will eventually get through, but the tomatoes will be about finished by that time anyway. Also the paper will have decayed by fall so it can be tilled in to create more organic matter. Something new this year in mulches is Burpee's Red Mulch. It's a reflective material that works like black plastic to warm the soil early in the season, and it increases production of top quality early tomatoes.
To sucker or not to sucker. Whether to remove the side shoots that grow out of the leaf axiles or not depends on the support system used. Gardeners using stakes usually snap off these side shoots. They typically get earlier and larger tomatoes but overall production is smaller. If tomatoes are grown in cages the suckers are generally left on, although it's a good idea to pinch the tip out of them when they are 6-8 inches long. Regardless you may want to remove all growth from the bottom 6-10 inches of the plant. This helps to improve air circulation and reduce the spread of diseases like early blight. Wait until the plants are knee-high and, in the morning when the plants are nice and turgid, snap off the lower growth. Any plants that look sick with distorted foliage or have a mosaic pattern to the leaves should be removed as they may have a virus that can be spread to other plants. It's best to do this early in the season.
INSECTS & DISEASES
Early blight fungus is a major tomato disease. It begins as a few yellow spots on the lower leaves followed by the leaves turning completely yellow. The disease progresses up the plant and the leaves begin to turn brown. By this time it's too late to do much. Removing some of the bottom leaves will improve air circulation and reduce the spread of this disease. If you plan to use fungicides, start early and be sure to spray the underside of the leaves where the disease gets its start.
Spider mites begin to multiply rapidly as summer temperatures rise (especially in a dry season). Try high-pressure water sprays directed to the underside of the leaf and or spray with low toxicity, wettable sulfur.
Stinkbugs come along later in the season just as you're starting to 'lick your chops' in anticipation of the first ripe tomatoes. They puncture the fruit and suck out the juices leaving a corky, white layer underneath. Not, exactly what you were salivating over. Organic gardeners hand pick them or spray/dust with sabadilla. The few chemical pesticides left in the homeowner's arsenal can help to control them too, but you will need to check with your local Extension Agent for current recommendations. Persistent spraying is the key since stinkbugs seem to fly in from another weed patch just after you've sprayed to kill them.
Tomatoes can be harvested when they begin to show color, as they will continue to ripen. However, the closer you can get to vine-ripened the better the flavor will be. Bird damage usually becomes a concern at this stage. Birds love to peck holes in the fruit. Some gardeners say they're after water, so place some pans of water in the garden. Others claim red Christmas tree ornaments will fake the birds out and they will go away. Putting fake owls in the garden (move them around every few days), covering the plants with bird netting (just before harvest time) and wrapping clusters with fiber row cover are other techniques to try.
RECIPES & STORAGE
Entire cookbooks have been written about the tomato, but it's hard to beat a BLT. Crisp bacon on toasted whole wheat bread with mayonnaise and a crisp leaf of lettuce is just begging for a couple of scrumptious slices of tomato. Or make a batch of Willie's Salsa. Chop up 3-4 fresh, vine-ripened, juicy red tomatoes and sprinkle them with the juice of one lime. Add in 1/2 cup of fresh cilantro (chopped), 1-2 level teaspoons of seasoned salt, 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of coarse black pepper, 1 or 2 finely chopped jalapenos ('False Alarm' hybrid for 'twinkies' or 'Biker Billy' hybrid for macho types), 1 finely chopped onion and 1 minced garlic clove. Stir and let the flavors blend for an hour or so in the refrigerator and then break out the nacho chips. Real tomatophiles like them sliced 1/4 inch thick and spread out on the plate with a little salt and pepper and perhaps a splash of extra-virgin olive oil.