Tomatoes are the most popular garden vegetable in America, and for good reason: You can grow them strictly for taste – not ease of shipping, shelf life, looks, or any other requirements of supermarket tomatoes. At the farmers’ market now and then somebody will say, “Jeez, that’s pink, not red,” or “That’s not really round,” so we offer samples. End of discussion.
SEEDING: I only wish writers would stop making tomato growing so complicated. For example, everyone says the starting mix must be at least 75-90˚F. Nonsense. Mine germinate just fine at 70˚F. in a week or so, just as they should. I put two seeds in each cell and snip off the weaker one later. Don’t start the seedlings more than 8 weeks before planting them outside lest the plant become root-bound or start setting blossoms, which will stress it at transplant time and result in poor yields.
I start mine under two-bulb fluorescent shop fixtures, using standard cool bulbs, which I suspend an inch or two above the seedlings as they grow. In 3-4 weeks, when the plants are about 2” tall, I transplant them into 4-inch pots right up to the upper leaves so the plant can root off its stem. You shouldn’t have any lower leaves at this young point, but if you do, snip them off.
Finally, brush a hand over your seedlings twice a day, or put a fan on them lightly for an hour or so to stimulate a hormone called cytokinin, which encourages thick stems and sturdy growth. Outdoors, breezes take care of this.
And that’s it. My potting mix has sufficient nutrients that the plants won’t require any more until transplant time (see “Potting mix”). Bone meal and compost in the mix assure a good phosphate content which tomatoes need for root growth.
VARIETIES: Tomatoes I believe come in more varieties than anything but salad greens. It makes life interesting. And there are no wrong answers as to what to grow (or how to garden), so I’ll just stick with what I’ve had the most success with (taste in particular) and what sells best at our farmstand or farmers’ market, both in Tennessee and Massachusetts.
I grow only beefsteak (slicing), cherry, and sauce varieties.
Beefsteak tomatoes: I go mostly for heirlooms; open-pollinated (non- hybrid) varieties that are rugged and grown only for taste. Most all of these are “indeterminate,” meaning they grow large and produce through a long period. “Determinate” tomatoes have a more bushy habbit and produce over a short time. My heirlooms may or may not be as productive or pretty as hybrids, but taste sells. Disease resistance has never been a problem. My favorites are Brandywine [often doesn’t produce well], Prudens Purple, Cherokee Purple, Arkansas Traveler, Moskvich, and Hillbilly Potato Leaf. Down South people love a variety called Bradley, an open-pollinated type first grown at the University of Arkansas in 1961, so I may try them up North this year.
These are the mainstays, but I grow others as well, including some hybrids for their predictable good production. All the above are long-season varieties with big fruits, except Moskvich which is an early, smaller-fruited, but delicious type.
Cherry tomatoes: Here I grow only Sun Gold, and don’t grow them to sell because they are such a pain to pick and package. I grow them for myself and to offer as free samples at the market. Snacks for the kids.
Sauce tomatoes: Here I grow only San Marzano, because they’re prolific and delicious, and my wife always favored them.
GROWING: Before planting out, harden your plants off for a week or two by setting them outside for increasing periods during the day. After that, the trick to successful tomatoes lies in knowing that, no matter when you plant they’re not going to take off until hot weather arrives. And planting them in soil too cool can stimulate blossom end rot, as can a shortage of calcium. The soil temperature should be at least 55-60˚F.
Again, plant the tomato stem several inches below soil to encourage rooting off the stem. Only the top 4 or 5 inches should show.
If your soil is rich in organic matter, you should have no problem with tomatoes so long as you irrigate regularly. Too much water suddenly applied can cause leaf curl or splitting tomatoes, so keep the soil evenly moist. If your soil isn’t rich in compost and organic matter, fertilize with a high-phosphate fish or seaweed emulsion. A half-cup of powdered milk added to the planting hole provides calcium for the plants, a tablespoon of epsom salts provides magnesium for plant vitality, and a handful of bone meal aids root growth.
Cultivate lightly against weeds until the soil warms, then mulch your plants well against weeds and drying soil.
Determinate varieties may be planted 1-2 feet apart, depending on your soil fertility, and generally need no staking. Space staked indeterminate varieties about the same.
STAKING: This can be done any number of ways. I shun tomato cages because they’re too expensive, too short, and crumple under a heavy load. Some drive a long stake into the ground and tie off the growing tomato to this, but I like my tomatoes to grow up at least six feet, so I plant a sturdy post at least two feet in the ground and suspend a 10-foot fence rail between two posts. For posts I try to scrounge used or slightly damaged 4-by-4 fence rails from local fence companies and cut these down to 8 feet, soak one end in boiled linseed oil for two days, and plant it. From the overhead rail I hang strong twine down to the tomato and wrap it around the stem four or five times. As the plant grows I keep wrapping and friction holds the twine in place. Little plastic clips are also handy for this.
I train each plant to a single stem, whenever possible, and prune off suckers weekly – those sprouts that show up between the stem and main branches. These seldom produce many tomatoes. When the plant reaches the upper rail, I pinch off the growing tip to encourage more blossoming and fruit below.
SPRAWLING Most gardeners and farmers train their indeterminate tomatoes vertically off the ground, and I too have done it this way for years. But I recently recalled how I used to do it, to great effect, and that is to let the plants sprawl along the ground as they would naturally. Some say they’re more prone to pests and diseases this way, but that’s not my recollection at all. I recall harvesting an enormous amount of tomatoes off each plant, with most of the fruit held off the ground in the foliage. Once in a while some would rot by sitting on the ground too long where I hadn’t found them, or nibbled by slugs, but that was it.
You need more room of course, spacing the plants at least 3 feet or more apart in a long row that will spread about three feet wide. The canopy of tomato leaves chokes out weeds, keeps the soil moist, and worms love it in there. What’s more, every place a vine touches the soil it will put down roots, making the plant even more productive.
Mulch heavily under the plants and between the rows with leaves, straw, or some other mulch. This helps prevent damage from slugs and such, and prevent soil-borne pathogens from splashing up on the plants – but like I say, most tomatoes are held within the foliage, and if the paths are mulched, no hard rain splashes up soil.
This method also makes it easier to cover your tomatoes with floating row covers to protect from early frosts.
PESTS AND DISEASES: Because our soil is so rich, I’ve never had problems with the standard pests and diseases that affect tomatoes. The only exception is an occasional hornworm, and leaf curl, or roll, caused by days of heavy rainfall in our Tennessee clay soil. Well-aerated and well-drained soil prevents this.
In any case, you can read about tomato diseases all day and scare the wits out of yourself, so I’m not going to cover it here. Maybe in another post later. Gardening is too much fun for all these little fears.
RECIPES. Besides eating a tomato like an apple, my favorite treat is a tomato and cucumber sandwich, which involves two slices of bread, sliced tomatoes and cucumber, mayonnaise, and salt and pepper. Yum.
With green tomatoes, slice them, dip in egg, then cornmeal and salt and pepper, and fry them. I think they made a movie about that.