Growing tomatoes is often where new gardeners begin the all-consuming gardening hobby. Nothing, and I mean nothing, compares with the taste and texture of a home-grown tomato. The tomatoes you find in the grocery store are but pale shadows of the real thing, and whether you grow tomatoes in containers or end up with enormous raised beds filled with tomatoes as I have, you’ll never go back to buying tomatoes once you learn how to grow tomatoes at home.
Since it’s July when I am writing this, most of my readers already have tomatoes planted in their gardens. They’re either busy harvesting them or wondering why nothing is happening. I’ll try to provide a basic overview of growing tomatoes here, with future articles devoted to some of the possible problems you may encounter with tomatoes as well as solutions.
Tomatoes are part of the nightshade family of plants, and when they were first introduced by the Spanish to other Europeans, they were shunned as potentially poisonous. The Native Americans of South and Central America called them “tomati” and domesticated the wild tomati. Thomas Jefferson was one of the first and probably the best-known proponent of the new discovery, nicknaming tomatoes “love apples” and experimenting with their cultivation in his extensive gardens at Monticello, his home atop the mountain in Virginia.
Today, we have the benefit of at least three hundred years of experimentation and notes on growing tomatoes thanks to their popularity in the home garden.
Tomatoes thrive in warm weather. They can’t take a frost, and extremes of any kind aren’t tolerated well by tomatoes. Blossom drop, a common problem in tomatoes, occurs when the days are over 90 degrees and the nights below 60, or when both day and night temps are high,, with night temperatures higher than 75 degrees (told you that tomatoes were finicky). If you wait to plant them until the frost-free date for your gardening zone, you should be fine.
Tomatoes need rich, well-drained soil. They don’t need a lot of room, which makes them perfect for containers. Tomatoes need a narrow range of pH from 6.5 to 6.8. While they will still grow if the pH is outside of that range, they have trouble absorbing and utilizing available calcium in the soil if the pH is off. That can result in blossom-end rot, a condition in which the bottoms of each fruit are black and flat.
One thing I can say for sure is that tomatoes are hogs when it comes to fertilizer. In other words, they are heavy feeders. Look for ‘tomato food’ at the nursery and garden center. Good fertilizer blends to nourish tomatoes have a low first number, high middle number and high or medium last number. Examples include fertilizers marked 6-24-24 or 6-12-18. The numbers refer to the percent of nitrogen, phosphorous and potash in the fertilizer itself. Of course, compost, compost tea and natural fertilizers, including Epsom salts, are welcomed by tomato plants.
Speaking of Epsom salts, I’ve seen recipes circulating online for tomato foliar sprays made with Epsom salts dissolved in water. Be careful with these and any other homemade recipes. Although I love trying experiments in my garden, I’m in favor of time-tested, scientific ones, or ones developed by our wonderful Cooperative Extension services.
Water your tomato plants well, and stake them or provide them with support. Tomatoes will grow new roots from any stem that touches the ground, so if you don’t stake them, the trailing stems will root and you’ll end up with a big gigantic mess. How do I know? Let’s just say experience is the best teacher, shall we?
This year, I’m using tomato cages in my vegetable garden. It has pluses and minuses. One the positive side, my tomatoes have beautiful form and vigor this year. On the minus side, I didn’t stake my cages well and they fall over in a high wind. Oh well. Live and learn!
Types of Tomatoes
There are many types of tomatoes available now for the home gardener. Cherry, patio and salad tomatoes all refer to the small, round marble-sized fruits commonly served atop salads at restaurants. Each plant can produce 8 to 10 pounds of tomatoes, so the average family only needs a few to be happy! Other tomatoes are grown for making sauce, such as Roma tomatoes. These tomatoes have less juice and more pulp, making them ideal for long, slow cooking required to make great tomato sauce. Still others are large, beefsteak types which are great for slicing and eating on sandwiches.
A new craze for heirloom tomatoes caught my attention many years ago when I was working at Martin Viette Nurseries on Long Island. At that time, “Brandywine” heirloom seeds were introduced as cultivated plants, supposedly saved by Pennsylvania Amish from extinction. I don’t know if that story is true, but I do know that many heirloom tomatoes provide flavors, textures, and even colors you’ll never find in grocery stores. They’re worth experimenting with if you love tomatoes. Best of all, many heirloom varieties are exceptionally insect, disease and drought-tolerant.
Colorful tomatoes are also a wonderful addition to the garden. I’ve seen green zebra stripes, purple tomatoes, orange ones and yellow ones! My only problem with weird colored tomatoes is, how do you tell when they are ripe? By feel, mostly, or by smell. A ripe tomato smells heavenly, a little perfume of tomato that I’d bottle as the scent of summer if I could.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this very brief introduction to the wonderful world of growing tomatoes. The photos accompanying this blog posts were all taken this year, in fact this week, in my garden. The plants are prolific and healthy, with minimal signs of blossom end rot and fungal diseases that often plague my garden. I rotated my tomatoes this year, planting them in different locations in the garden than in years past. Liberally mixing compost and mushroom soil into the raised beds also helped tremendously, as did leaving a teaspoonful of Epsom salts and fertilizer in each planting hole. I planted them extra deep this year and didn’t prune them at all on the advice of a fellow Master Gardener, Liz the tomato queen who gives wonderful workshops in tomato growing. I hope I lived up to her advice and become her “prize student” as the summer progresses.
In the meantime, it’s tomatoes for dinner…and breakfast…and lunch…and snacks.
Here’s to growing tomatoes!
You may also want to read on Home Garden Joy:
- How to Plant Tomatoes
- Totally Tomatoes
- Biological Control for Tomato Hornworm
- RECIPE for Tomato Caprese Salad