Tomatoes are the most planted vegetable in U.S. gardens, and probably in gardens around the world.
But they are probably also among the most poorly planted crops in the world, delaying the day you start harvesting those sun-warmed treasures from your own plants.
So here’s what you need to know about tomatoes to get them properly planted, with no setbacks.
First, find some varieties that ripen their fruit early to kick off the tomato season while your main crop plants are still maturing. Visit Territorial Seed Company’s online website (www.TerritorialSeed.com) and check out the varieties called Oregon Spring and Stupice. Both are early maturing types suited to a cool coastal climate such as we have in the West County down to The Carneros south of Sonoma. For main crop tomatoes, peruse the Tomato Grower’s Supply Company’s website at tomatogrowers.com, where you’ll find dozens and dozens of varieties.
The catalogs will tell you whether a variety you choose is determinate or indeterminate. Determinate types mature and set a big crop of fruit and then peter out for the rest of the season. Their advantage is that the big crop tends to ripen at once, which is fine if you are canning or freezing them, or canning up tomato sauce, Indeterminate types keep growing and setting fruit during the whole growing season, so always offer you some green, some ripening, and some dead ripe tomatoes. Here the advantage is that you’ll always have fruit at the peak of flavor for slicing on sandwiches and in salads.
You’ll notice that as the plants grow, they’ll send out side shoots called suckers from the leaf axils — the places where the leaves attach to the stems. My mom always removed all suckers from her plants because that’s what her mom did, figuring that the suckers drew energy from the main stem. Tests have shown however that when you allow the suckers to grow, you harvest more total weight of fruits than if you remove them. But if you remove them you’ll get larger tomatoes. So it depends on what you’re after.
As for how to feed the plants, tomato yields were compared for plants grown in worn-out cornfield soil, in pure compost, and in soil under lawn turf. The cornfield plants were scrawny and didn’t yield much fruit. The compost tomatoes loved it and grew lots of lush leaves and stems, but not much fruit. In other words, they were given so much nutrition that they didn’t see the need to reproduce. Life was too cushy in the compost pile. For the lawn turf trial, a circular piece of sod about a foot in diameter was cut in the lawn, lifted out, the soil that clung to the grass roots was knocked back into the hole, and the plants grew sturdy and thrifty and produced an abundance of fruit. So don’t overfeed your plants with too much nitrogen-rich fertilizer. A soil drench with compost tea every two weeks will be enough. Don’t let the plants get water stressed, but don’t overwater them. Overwatering reduces their flavor.
Now here’s the most important part of what you need to know about getting tomatoes off to a good start.
If you buy plant starts at a big garden center you’ll notice that many of them have lots of long, leggy stems but not a lot of roots. That’s because they’re grown almost hydroponically, with water containing liquid fertilizer. They get plenty of nutrition during their frequent watering. When you plant them out in the garden, those paltry roots have a hard time supplying the lush tops with water and nutrition, so the plants are set back — they take time off from growth and put energy into making more roots. This can delay fruiting for three weeks or more.
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