Behold the Beloved Tomato

Frank Williams
Adams County Master Gardener

Yvonne Young Tarr writes in The Tomato Book that "the tomato is the superstar of the vegetable world- the most popular and widely grown plant in the home garden."

Thomas Jefferson, in 1781, recorded his having a tomato crop, perhaps the first written record of such in this country. But the practice of eating tomatoes fresh did not take hold until early in the nineteenth century. What a treat our early citizens missed!

Planting: Those who share Tom's and my love affairs with the tomato have long since placed their 2004 plants in the soil and will soon be picking some for consumption. Hopefully, you have cut off some lower stems and placed the plants deep in the soil to allow for good root growth.

Care: Keep the soil moist as the plants are growing and developing fruit. Deep watering is best; a small well around each plant is helpful for collecting rain water and to absorbing hand watering as well. Some mulch around the plants also assists in keeping moisture around the roots. Weeding is best accomplished by hand to avoid damage to the roots. Pinch off suckers on staked plants (the indeterminate or continuously growing types).

For sweetest taste and juiciest tomatoes, allow them to ripen on the plant.

Disease Prevention and Control: Fortunately, we tomato growers do not have to worry too much about insects attacking our plants since they carry a built-in repellant (called solanine) which many insects find distasteful. Helpful allies in fighting infestations such as ladybugs and praying mantises may help fend off minor infestations of insects. Keep in mind, also, that a chewed leaf or two does not a true infestation make; at times, spreading a gritting mixture of root powder or wood ashes may help. Spraying plants with cold water or a light mixture of soap and water often discourages early stages of certain insects.

More dire measures: Occasionally, one must take more serious measures to ward off disease. A biological control such as bacillis thuringiensis is useful in controlling caterpillars and grubs. Japanese beetles can also be sent elsewhere by an application of basillis popilliae. Both of the above are available under a variety of brand names but also apply according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Snails and Slugs: Snails and slugs (not insects but mollusks) hide by day and feast by night. The wood ashes mentioned earlier- or even sand- dispersed around plants may be useful. Shallow pans of beer often attract slugs; they have a delightful evening and then drown. (This treatment is not recommended for recalcitrant spouses!)

Fall tomato tending: If Mother Nature cooperates, your tomato crop will continue until well into September. Covering plants may protect against light frost. Picking those already showing color and bringing them indoors to ripen works well for me. The practice of wrapping tomatoes well when green and placing them in a cool, dry, dark place is successful for some. This procedure has never been very productive for me; it is the one area in which I truly have a "green thumb"- they seldom get red.

One fall piece of advice is especially useful. Always clean your garden bed of spent tomato plants, particularly if they are diseased. Destroy these completely or place them in the garbage to avoid over wintering pests that have been troublesome to your plants. Then, next spring place your tomato plants as far away as possible from this year's crop.

Read Frank's wifes (Sue Williams): The Beloved Tomato - Part II

Read other articles on growing herbs or vegetables

Read other gardening articles by Frank Williams