Growing your own Tomatoes

Pam Van Pelt
Adams County Master Gardener

Nothing beats the taste of a homegrown tomato. ItĎs the ultimate taste of summer. You can grow them from seed or purchase seedlings from your local garden center. There are many varieties to choose from so read the label to determine what best suits your needs. If you want to make sauce or can tomatoes, you may want to consider the determinate varieties. They produce large quantities that ripen at the same time. If you want to harvest tomatoes over a long season, choose an indeterminate. These plants produce from summer to fall. After choosing determinate or indeterminate, you can choose between hybrids or heirlooms. Hybrids are more disease resistant and produce greater yields. If you are a beginning gardener, itís hard to go wrong with a hybrid.

Lately, people are expressing more interest in the heirloom varieties. Many heirlooms have been around hundreds of years. They are not as disease resistant and donít produce as many tomatoes as the hybrids, however, their taste is exceptional. In addition to their outstanding flavor, you can save their seeds and replant them next year and they will be identical to the parent. Hybrids will not be true to their parents because they are a cross between two different species. Collecting and saving heirloom seeds from tomatoes and other vegetables is a smart thing to do. A quick search on the internet will provide you with the details you need to learn how to save seeds.

There are a few basic rules for growing tomatoes. First, be sure to set the plant deep in good soil mixed with compost. Unlike many plants, you can plant a tomato with the bottom two thirds of the plant below ground. All the stems underground will become roots making it a much stronger plant. Second, be sure to drive heavy duty stakes in the ground around the plant at the time you plant it so you donít disturb the roots later. I know from experience that a heavy plant and high winds are no match for a flimsy tomato cage. As the plant grows, tie it to the stakes using material that will not cut the stems. Third, be sure it has at least eight hours of sunshine and good air circulation. Mulching around the tomato will help keep weeds down and retain moisture in the soil. Use a watering can and water at the base of the plant or install drip irrigation to prevent disease.

As the season progresses, the plant will get quite large, so continue tying the plant to the stakes. Eventually, it will bloom and small tomatoes will begin to appear. Monitor your plants on a regular basis to look for signs of disease or insect damage. Pull and toss any tomatoes that have bad spots on them. Occasionally, the first batch of tomatoes have rotten bottoms which is often caused by blossom end rot. It generally corrects itself as the next batch starts to ripen. One of the more common tomato pests is tomato hornworm. Hand picking them and dropping them in soapy water is an effective method of control and works for many insect pests. If you happen to see the hornworm with small white egg cases all over it, just leave it alone. These small white objects are the cocoons of a braconid wasp which will eventually kill the hornworm. Allowing them to complete their cycle will provide you with a larger army to fight future tomato hornworms. You might also try companion planting. Borage, marigolds and calendula are all great at deterring pests from your tomato plants.

Tomatoes are ready to pick when the color looks good and the skin gives a little. They can be picked before they are fully ripe and they will finish ripening on your kitchen counter. Be sure to continue picking tomatoes regularly so they donít fall to the ground and rot. Keeping the area underneath the plant free from debris will help eliminate disease.

Tomatoes are susceptible to a variety of diseases, including blight, verticillium wilt, leaf spot, anthracnose and blossom end rot. Many diseases survive the winter in the ground so moving your tomatoes each year will help reduce the likelihood of disease.

There are many ideas and suggestions for growing tomatoes. If you plant them deep, stake them, give them sunshine and water, youíll harvest tomatoes, regardless of whether you fertilize, prune, use special mulch, red plastic, pinch blooms, etc.. So, next spring, buy that plant and give it a try! I promise you, nothing beats the taste of a homegrown tomato.

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