Thursday, April 26, 2012

How to Grow Great Tomatoes

Nothing beats the taste of a vine ripened tomato, except the taste of a vine ripened tomato harvested from your own garden. Growing great tomatoes is relatively easy and a small garden can produce a lot of tomatoes.

The tomato originates from South America and Mexico. The Spanish explorer Cortez took the seeds to Europe after discovering the tomato being grown in Mexico in Aztec gardens. Italians were the first to eat the golden apple (early tomatoes were yellow not red) in the 1500’s but it still took more than 100 years for Italians to fully accept tomatoes and integrate them into their food. Can you imagine Italian cuisine without tomatoes?

The tomato is classified as a vegetable thanks to a Supreme Court ruling in 1893 that subjected vegetables to import taxes, however technically a tomato is a fruit and part of the berry family. This vegetable/fruit is actually a perennial if left to continuously grow in a warm climate, however most areas do not stay warm enough so it is treated as an annual that has to be replanted every year.

There are basically 4 categories of tomatoes: the slicing tomatoes which are the standard globe, round and Beefsteaks; small salad tomatoes like the grape and cherry varieties; the Roma or plum which is mainly used for sauces; and specialty or heirloom tomatoes.

Tomatoes are also available in a variety of colors; reds, oranges, yellows and more varied colors like purples and striped varieties (these are the heirloom tomatoes; you would need to special order the seeds). If you are planning to incorporate the tomatoes into your landscaping you can create visual interest by planting several different colors and sizes of tomatoes.

The heat loving tomato is very sensitive to cold so it should not be planted outside until all threat of frost has passed. The tomato plant can die if temperatures fall below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Soil temperatures should be around 65 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer for the tomato to thrive.

You can start tomato seeds indoors 4 - 6 weeks before the threat of frost has passed. Peat pots and pellets make starting seedlings very simple. By starting your own seedlings you may have more choices in the type of tomatoes to grow since local nurseries and outdoor centers for major stores usually only carry a small selection of tomatoes while there are literally hundreds of varieties to choose from. If you just want the basics or you don’t have the time or space to start seedlings early, buying plants from the local nursery to transplant will do quite fine.

Choose the best plants for transplanting. They should be 6-8 inches tall and look healthy and sturdy. Though a slightly wilted plant can usually be revived, it is best not to take the chance. Never buy tomato plants that are already producing fruit unless it is in a large and sturdy pot that you can leave it in. A plant already bearing fruit should not be transplanted.

Purchase plants when the weather is right for planting. Tomatoes can be grown in many ways; in pots or large containers, in greenhouses, staked, trellised, caged, or allowed to vine out. They can be planted in wet or dry soil though they prefer rich soil full of organic matter with a pH around 6.5. If you plan to use lime in the soil, make sure to use a high magnesium lime.

When all threat of frost has passed and you are ready to transplant your tomatoes, water them 1-2 hours before planting. Dig a hole with a small trowel or your hands; it does not have to be very deep. The plant should sit 1-2 inches deeper in the soil than it was in the pot. You may have to pinch off bottom leaves when planting.

If the area you are planting the tomatoes in is a wet, boggy area, plant the tomato plants on a mound 4-6 inches higher than the ground. If the planting area is dry, plant each tomato plant in a depression - or plant them, then make an indented ring around the base of the plant to collect rain water. Disturb the roots as little as possible when moving the tomato plants from the container into the ground. If they are in peat pots, tear the pot to let the roots escape. Firmly pack the soil around the plant roots and water immediately after planting.

An average of 3 square feet per plant is needed depending on how you grow them. Staked plants take up less space and are easier to work around but you have to stake them, tie them and prune off side shoots that grow.

Staked plants should be planted 2 feet apart in a row with 3 feet between rows. If you let the plants vine naturally and grow along the ground they need more space to sprawl out. I prefer to use cone shaped cages that allow the plants to grow naturally up and around the cage. The cages keep them up off the ground while still allowing natural growth. Tomatoes are also great for trellising; you could plant them along fences, arbors, arches or decorative trellises.

Wait 4 - 6 weeks before mulching to make sure the ground has warmed up all the way. Then black landscaping plastic can effectively be used to keep the ground moist and deter weeds from growing in your tomato garden. Not only will the landscaping plastic keep weeds at bay it can also help prevent blossom end rot and it will keep the tomatoes clean and out of the dirt.

Great companion plants for tomatoes are cabbage, celery, carrots, cucumbers, onions and peppers. Herbal companions include borage, mint and pot marigold. Avoid planting tomatoes near corn, dill or potatoes which can attract pests and diseases to your plants.

Tomatoes need a lot of water but avoid over doing it. Too much water can drown them while too little water can cause weak roots and shallow root growth. Water early in the day at the base of the plants; do not get the leaves wet. If plants yellow or become pale green they may need more nitrogen. Tomato plants can quickly deplete mineral stores in the soil and will need fertilizing, especially if they are in pots and containers (I like to use Miracle Grow for vegetables). Do not use nitrogen until flowering has started then you can side dress with an ounce or so of a 5-10-10 solution in a ring around the plant base, do not get it on the leaves, it can burn the plant.

Tomatoes do not need to be pruned unless you are training them to grow on stakes or trellises. Then you will want to pinch off side shoots.

You will see that growing great tomatoes can be quite easy and very rewarding. After the original planting, tomatoes need little maintenance except regular watering and weeding. So you can sit back, watch your tomatoes flower, grow and bear fruit. Then you can reap tasty rewards when it comes time to harvest your very own, home grown, vine ripened tomatoes.

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