Great Gardening: Some Expert Tips for Growing Your Own Tomatoes | Home & Garden

Of all native food crops, tomatoes are number one – our number one choice according to most polls. Nothing beats that first bite of a sun-warmed tomato from your garden. What a joy it is to say, “I grew these myself!” There is a place for tomatoes on a farm or patio. let’s grow

Paul and Gail Fenton of Fenton’s Produce (fresh market vegetable growers) have been selling plants and produce at the East Aurora Farmers Market since 1984. I asked him which tomatoes he recommends. He said, “First, I ask what do you want them for — canned goods, sauces, sandwiches, or salads?”

Then he asks how much space the gardeners have.

“Read how tall the plants are getting and give them space. I routinely advise at least 2 feet apart. Overcrowding limits production,” he said.

Home gardeners are also asking about old-growth tomato plants, which are said to be juicier and tastier than many modern disease-resistant hybrids. The good news, according to Fenton, is that genetic advances combine the beloved traits of some heirlooms with the reliability of hybrids. For example, San Marzano tomatoes (a type of meat paste) are often affected by viral, bacterial, or fungal diseases. But the upgraded version, Tiren, resists the problems while retaining the flavor and texture.

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1. Warm floor. Plant them when the soil is warmer than 60 degrees. (It feels nice in your hand.) Tomatoes planted in June often catch up with quivering specimens planted in mid-May, so don’t be late.

2. Full sun. That means eight hours of direct sunshine. If your wooded yard or patio doesn’t offer that, do the best you can.

3. Fertile, well drained soil (or soil mix). Use good quality potting soil in containers. For planting in the ground, loosen the soil to 12 inches and mix in plenty of compost or aged manure. They need decent drainage and an average soil pH (7 to 8).

4. water. Oftentimes, healthy tomatoes require the all-or-nothing factor of consistent, deep watering. Measure rainfall and your watering to ensure an inch — a deep soak — occurs weekly. New plantings need it more often.

5. Warm air temperature. If the nights are colder than 55 degrees or warmer than 70 degrees, or if the daytime temperature exceeds 85 degrees, the blooms may fall off or you may see a stigma (catfacing) pattern later in the season. Some gardeners cover the plants with plastic on cold nights (and remove it in the morning).

6. Room to grow. Is your plant a patio tomato or an 8 foot tall cherry tomato? Plants labeled “determined” have finite growth, but “indeterminate” means they grow like Jack’s beanstalk. Read the tags or labels carefully.

7. Support. Some people let the tomatoes spread out on the ground, which may be easiest and could reduce the need for watering during periods of drought. But it often leads to fruit rot, snail chewing, or other evils. See bracing and staking methods below.

8. Companion. Planting flowers and herbs between your tomatoes is both beautiful and useful. Companion plants can attract beneficial insects, repel some pests, compete with weeds, and keep the soil covered. My book Great Garden Companions (Rodale, 1998) covers companion planting in scientifically sound detail.

Plant the tomato lying down

Many of you have already planted them; No problem. But try this if you plant more. (This method of “laying down” does not require you to personally lie down on the floor…)

Where leaves (shoots) grow on the trunk, roots can also grow. The more roots, the more productive the plant will be. So, cut the shoots on the lower centimeters of the plant and lay the plant horizontally on the ground. Cover the root ball and the peeled stem with a few inches of soil. The roots benefit from the warmth near the soil surface and many roots grow quickly while the top quickly grows straight up. Remember to protect and water the area where the roots are.

For as long as humans have been growing tomatoes, there have been strong opinions on how to do it. Your choice will depend on your preferences, needs, skills, plant types, and the size of your property.

• The cage. The most common choice among home gardeners is the round wire tomato cage. I heartily recommend not buying the small, flimsy ones (and even the largest ones can fall over or bend under an enthusiastic plant). Strong, square cages (that can be folded for storage) work well. Just choose quality cages as this will not be the last year you grow tomatoes. You can build your own cages using tomato wire or hog wire (whatever you put your hand through to harvest). Staple the wire to a 5 or 6 foot stake.

• Pin and weave. This will require 7 or 8 foot bamboo, wood, or steel stakes (half as many as your plants) and nylon twine. Plant the tomatoes in a row. Once they are a foot tall, place a stake between every two plants. Tie the twine around the end stake about 8 inches off the ground and wrap it tightly around each stake going down the row. Loop around the last peg and continue on the other side. The plants will grow up between the ropes. Add another row of twine or rope every 8 to 12 inches to help the plants grow.

• Tie them together. My grandfather taught me that. Stick a wooden stake or two next to each plant and tie the trunk or large branches to the stake(s) with tights, strips of cloth or (these days) velcro as needed. Avoid zip ties as they can cut into plant stems.

When this happens, it’s usually because we haven’t provided good soil, adequate water, air circulation, or enough sunlight. Sometimes temperature extremes early in the season or cold soil later cause stunted growth. Late season, known as blossom end rot, is caused by uneven watering (poor calcium distribution) at flowering time. Hand pick the snails and carefully remove tomato hawkmoth caterpillars (which will turn into beautiful butterflies). Some diseases can occur (weather permitting), and late blight is a serious one. We will deal with problem solving another day.

But if you’ve followed best practices, you will definitely have tomatoes. Grow a variety of tomatoes and learn what you like best. Enjoy.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.


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