Tomatoes are a garden's gift, a reward for nurturing care and labor. Their deep glorious color, sweet juice and fragrance capture the essence of summer's peak. The perfect tomato captivates the senses. And on the other end of the continuum: a soft, flavorless tomato with an equally dissatisfying mealy texture - oh, how this sad state of vegetable mediocrity disappoints.
In light of their seemingly fragile nature, is cultivating a tangy, succulent crimson fruit even possible? Yes, answer the tomato-growing experts.
First start with your soil. Submitting a soil sample for a professional analysis sets you straight regarding how to prepare and fertilize your beds.
"No matter how perfect you think your soil is, you should have it tested," says Brad Bergefurd, an Ohio State University horticulture extension educator. "It's the only way to know just how good, or how bad it is." Bergefurd recommends gardeners contact their county extension office for recommended area testing labs, to learn the diseases and pests to watch and treat, and for the best growing guidelines and recommended varieties in your climate.
Ideal soil is loamy, well drained and slightly acidic (pH 6.2-6.8), fortified with organic matter and nutrients. The soil test results define a gardener's fertilizing strategy. "Too fertile soil produces beautiful plants but little fruit," says Bergefurd, who has assisted Ohio tomato growers for 15 years. "You need to find the balance between too much fertilizer and not enough." Using the fertilization guidelines from the soil analysis, begin preparing the soil two weeks before planting to fortify the young plants during the early growth stages.
Raised beds are one answer to poor soil. By creating a frame out of railroad ties, a gardener has complete control of the soil composition, says Dr. Richard Snyder a professor and vegetable specialist at Mississippi State University. "With the raised beds you mix your own soil, controlling the quality. Raised beds are also good for dealing with poor soil, like clay that doesn't drain well." They also fight off stubborn weeds you can't normally kill.
Tomatoes are warm season plants and are sensitive to low night temperatures, which can effect fruit production. For optimum growing satisfaction, choose tomato varieties that are suited to grow best in your climate.
When the Cornell University Cooperative Extension's Green Teen Community Gardening Program grew tomatoes for their own salsa recipe, they picked two different varieties of plum determinate tomatoes. Determinate tomato plants set their fruit at one time, resulting in simultaneous fruit production. Most varieties produce firm and dry fruit, good for canning.
"We grew Classica and Red Agate. We were looking for a paste tomato, which has less water content than other types of tomatoes and would be best for making salsa," explains Brian Farmer, extension community educator and Green Teen program coordinator "We also needed the tomatoes to be ripe by mid-August when we were going to make the salsa."
Indeterminate plants grow and produce fruit until killed by frost. To accommodate this continuous production, indeterminate tomatoes have large vines, take up considerable space and require staking. Indeterminate tomatoes are often tasty, juicy and hold up well when sliced. Cherry tomatoes, also indeterminate, are pop-in-your-mouth bites of candy - often consumed long before they make it into the salad.
Tomato growing season is long. If starting by seed, begin the plant indoors using individual pots or peat pellets in March or April. Starter or transplants are best for Northern climates because planting must wait until after the threat of frost. When purchasing cell packs or individual plants, look for strong pencil-thick stems baring 4-6 young leaves. You do not want to see blossoms, fruit, insects or disease.
The Green Teen Community Gardeners started their tomatoes in the greenhouse at the Poughkeepsie Farm Project in March. "We started about 200 plants for the program," says Farmer. "We planted the tomatoes in the ground at the end of May."
Space plants in rows 2-3-feet apart with 3-4-feet between rows. Sink plants so one inch of soil covers the peat pot. For the best harvest, most experts agree that you should stake or cage your tomatoes. Staked and pruned plants generally produce larger tomatoes, but less quantity than caging. Set the support system at planting time to avoid damaging the root system. Set stakes one-foot into the ground and about 4-inches from the plant. As the plant grows, secure it to the stake with heavy string, used nylon stockings or strips of cloth. If you use cages, two or three stakes driven around the cage perimeter add stability.
Prune all branches or suckers that sprout at the base of the plant: they are unproductive. Leave the next stem under the first flower cluster and remove all others below that.
Scouting for pests and diseases regularly can save you time and trouble. "Walk your garden everyday," says Snyder. "It is best to deal with problems by catching them early when they are manageable. A few aphids are much easier to control than when the entire plant is infested."
While on your daily plant patrol, monitor the plant's watering needs. Soak the soil 6-8 inches once a week during the growing season. Deep soil soaking prevents weak root growth and encourages new root development. In the hottest months - July and August - more water may be necessary.
"A well-cared-for plant can produce 10-40-pounds of tomatoes," says Bergefurd. What's not to love?