If you love tomatoes in your salads or sauces, know that you can cultivate your own and that this prolific plant will not delude.
All About the Tomato
Known as the “Pomodoro” or golden apple in Italian, the Italians certainly got it right when describing this vegetable. The original wild species call South America’s Andes Mountains home, in fact, the name originates from the Aztec word “tomatl”. It is known to have been brought to Europe in the 16th century by the Spanish, and they along with the Italians were among the first to adopt it as food. Northern Europe was slower to accept it as botanists identified its relation to poisonous nightshade and belladonna. The roots and leaves are of the tomato are indeed toxic because they contain the neurotoxin solanine.
Nonetheless, the fruit botanically known as Solanum Lycopersicum or tomato is a vegetable garden favorite for its fruit which is edible. It is classified as a vegetable due to its nutritional value including as a source of vitamins C. The plant’s fruits can be eaten raw or cooked as well as sun-dried or pickled.
A warm-season crop, tomato plants take two forms: vining, known as cordon or indeterminate, and bush referred to as determinate. The vining type, a single stem plant, will feature quite a bit of branching spreading up to 72 inches and require pruning and support. Bushy plants with lots of stems will appear upright and much more compact. The Bush type is ideal for container cultivation and does not need pruning.
There are several that are classified as semi-determinate that grow just like the indeterminate varieties, only shorter.
Foliage will be somewhat hairy, odorous, and can grow to lengths of 18 inches. When in bloom, flowers are yellow with five petals. The actual tomato fruit is a berry that will differ in diameter and color including red, green, yellow, and even purple, as well as in shape. The tomato will contain a minimum of two cells with seeds enveloped in pulp.
How to Plant Tomatoes
Tomatoes can be grown by purchasing young plants from a nursery or garden center or from seed. These plants love the sun and do not tolerate frost, so it is fundamental to not plant them in your garden bed too early. They can require as much as two to four months from seed to harvest depending on the particular variety you wish to grow.
Growing from Seed
Sowing should be done from the end of January through late March. Seeds should be planted in 3-inch pots of moist compost without peat. Compost is to be topped with a light layer of vermiculite and watered. Cover your plants with plastic wrap and place them on a warm sunny windowsill or as an alternative in a propagator if you have one.
When the seeds have germinated, remove the plastic or remove the germinating seeds from the propagator. Keep the compost bed damp. When the seedlings grow to approximately 1 to 1.5 inches in height, move them to a 2-inch pot with multi-purpose compost and replace them on a windowsill. Watch your plantlets and continue to repot if necessary. Also support plantlets with soft string and sticks if necessary.
You can seed your garden bed directly if you have a sufficiently long growing season. Soil temperature should reach at least 55°F while the ideal temperature for seed germination is 70°F.
If you don’t wish to grow your plants from seed, make sure to buy from a reliable garden center. Starter plants ideally should be short, dark green, and with a stem at least the thickness of a pencil.
Avoid purchasing plantlets that have yellow foliage, spots, or that appear stressed. They also should not have begun flowering or producing fruit.
Transplanting Tomato Plants
Before thinking about transplanting begin by hardening your seedlings. Place them outside for several hours daily but in the shade. Gradually increase outdoor time to include a little direct sunshine.
Once the final frost has passed, usually in May, select a sunny spot with some shelter to transplant your tomato plantlets. The soil bed needs to be prepared by tilling at least one foot deep and amended prior to planting with matured garden compost. You should allow amended soil to sit for at least two weeks before transferring your plants.
If you are doing container planting, pots should be at least 20 inches in diameter with drainage holes, or you can place several plants in a growing bag. Select determinate varieties for pot growing and keep the soil moist.
Tomatoes can also be grown in greenhouses where the growing season will be prolonged but will require shade in excessively hot conditions.
In northern climates, your plants will require 8 to 10 hours of sun exposure daily, while in southern regions, afternoon shade is best.
Place tomato stakes or cages in the soil while you are transplanting. These are necessary to keep the tomatoes off the ground and support the plant in growing upright. You can also place organic tomato fertilizer in the hole as you are transplanting. Avoid high-in-nitrogen fertilizers.
When planting, lower leaves should be above the soil bed surface. Plant your plantlets approximately three feet apart as crowded plants will not receive adequate sunlight.
Tomato Plants Care
Plants should be watered preferably in the morning to assist plants during a hot day. Water thoroughly the first several days and then continue watering approximately two inches weekly throughout the growing season. Avoid watering overhead to prevent foliage from getting wet. Mulching with straw, bark chips, or hay a month after transplanting can help retain moisture.
Once plants have reached an inch in diameter, side-dress plants with organic fertilizer by moving a bit of mulch, feeding, watering, and replacing the mulch. Feed your plants every three weeks until the first frost.
Cordon (Indeterminate) Tomatoes
The vining or tall-growing tomatoes need pinching of the side shoots and support or staking. This is done by tying the plant to rods or canes with soft string. When little tomatoes appear, foliage underneath should be removed to improve air circulation and sunlight access. When four flower clusters appear pinch off the plant’s tip.
Bush (Determinate) Tomatoes
Bush tomatoes will sprawl as the plant grows. Should the tomatoes be hidden under foliage, you can thin it out to allow sunlight in for ripening. Branches heavy with tomatoes can be supported from underneath by overturned flowerpots or similar to prevent them from snapping or breaking from the weight.
Harvesting Your Tomatoes
Tomatoes should be left on the plant until they ripen for increased flavor. As you reach the end of the growing season prune back old foliage for increased sunlight access and to avoid grey mold from infecting your plants. Should your weather take a turn colder, harvest branches to allow any remaining tomatoes to ripen indoors.
To enjoy tomatoes to the fullest eat them freshly harvested. Tomatoes do not freeze particularly well but they will keep at room temperature for approximately a week. Storing tomatoes in a refrigerator will change their texture. If you have a large harvest, you can make tomato sauce and store it or freeze it.
Be aware that if your plant doesn’t flower, it is not receiving adequate water or sunlight. The same will hold true if the plant flowers but does not produce fruit. This can also be due to temperatures that are too cold or too hot or from a lack of pollinators.
Flowers that form and then drop are usually due to an excess of heat. If your area has low humidity (under 40%) this can also interfere with pollination so, try misting your plants.
Tomatoes are susceptible to pests like aphids or tomato Hornworms. Aphids can be removed with jet sprays of water while larger insects should be removed manually and disposed of. Spray your plants with an organic insecticidal soap or with organic neem oil.
To avoid diseases, also consider planting disease-resistant varieties. Major tomato diseases include:
- Blossom-End Rot – a disease that causes the tomato bottom to have dark sunken spots. It is usually a result of calcium imbalance or improper watering.
- Cracking – caused by too rapid growth or uneven moisture/watering.
- Early Blight–a fungal infection causing leaves to drop. In July with an increase in humidity and warm nights. It appears in the form of brown or black spots on lower leaves and stems. Remove lower leaves at the first sign to improve ventilation.
- Fusarium wilt – begins with one side of the plant yellowing and wilting. Plants affected must be destroyed*.
- Late Blight–a fungal infection that creates grey-colored mold spots on foliage and fruit. No solution.
- Mosaic Virus – Foliage appears distorted and new growth will be twisted. Leaves turn a mottled yellow. Plants must be destroyed*.
- Powdery Mildew- a fungal disease that places light-colored dust on leaves.
*Avoid placing infected plants in compost piles.
A Final Suggestion
Using your tomato harvest, make fresh tomato juice blended with fresh basil from your herb garden. Enjoy!