Nearly everyone with a garden is interested in growing tomatoes. To my mind, tomatoes are the best reason to grow your own. There is nothing – NOTHING – like walking into the garden, picking a perfectly ripe tomato, giving it a quick sluice under running water and then eating the thing as fast as you can. OK, you can salt it if you must. Most heirloom tomatoes are indeterminate, which means they will just keep growing, unlike hybrids that typically grow a certain number of feet and stop. You can stake them, trellis them, or just let them sprawl. There are advantages and disadvantages to each method, which I discuss in the section on staking plants. This is also one of the heirloom groups that still has lots of offerings. Colors: red, purple, green, pink, white/creamy, orange, striped, black, peach-colored and yellow. Shapes: rounds, teardrops, pear shapes, fluted and pleated, and in sizes from currant tomatoes not much bigger than a raisin to two-pound or larger whoppers. They’re also extremely versatile in the kitchen.
Tomatoes and Nutrition
Color and ripeness affect a tomato’s nutritional qualities. A raw green tomato, for example, contains 2 grams of fiber and 7 grams of sugar. A raw ripe red tomato has the same amount of fiber but 4 grams of sugar. Red tomatoes have more vitamin E than green tomatoes. Tomatoes contain lots of antioxidants, like vitamin C, and other good-for-yous like lycopene. Cooking tomatoes decreases the vitamin C content but increases the lycopene content.
Growing Tomatoes – The Basics
Tomatoes are not quite as easy as summer squash, but they aren’t as finicky as something like cauliflower, either. If you have good soil, enough water and adequate sunlight, almost any tomato variety will produce for you. Tomatoes are one of the crops that really should be bought as transplants or seeded well ahead of planting time. When you see ‘days to maturity’ on a tomato seed packet, remember it usually means the days from plugging transplants in the ground. Add at least six and preferably eight weeks onto the maturity figure from the seed packet when growing from seed.
Tomatoes supposedly benefit from being transplanted more than once, as each move forces them to develop a stronger root system. That may be the case, but mine do fine with one move, from seedling container into the ground. Why do the extra work if it really isn’t necessary? When you put them in their final growing spot, you can (and should) plant them deep enough to cover part of the stem, which will send out more roots. Not only is this a good solution for the slightly-too-leggy transplants you grew on the windowsill, it increases feeder roots, which supply the plant with nutrients and water. Clip off the leaves on the section you will be putting underground.
Although it’s more work, I find tomatoes generally do better when staked (that includes determinate varieties). Tomatoes left to sprawl become a jungle that makes it hard to harvest. Sprawling tomatoes are also more susceptible to ground-dwelling insects, especially if they’re mulched. The effort of staking is worthwhile, but I don’t think it’s worth it to prune the plants to a single stem or to remove suckers, as some people do. I prefer stakes or trellises to cages, as it makes it easier to reach the ripe fruits. To stake, hammer the stake into the ground, plant the tomato about six inches away and you’re done. Used pantyhose make good plant ties – they’re soft and stretchy, but incredibly tough, and won’t rot. Cut the leg of the pantyhose crosswise into sections about one inch thick. As the plant grows, tie the main stem loosely to the stake with a figure-of-eight knot. Since they’re stretchy, you rarely have to go back and loosen the tie to prevent them from injuring the stem, as is often the case with plastic ties. However, they may stretch enough that the tomato will fall over unless you space them (the ties, not the tomatoes) fairly close together.
I also discovered a unique way to attach tomatoes to a stake one year when I accidentally planted what I though were bush beans next to the tomatoes. They were – ahem – pole beans. Quickly creeping across a few inches of soil, they promptly twined up the poles, snugging the tomato stems to the pole with no effort on my part (let’s all cheer for the beans!). To do this deliberately, I’d suggest you plant the tomato transplant, pound the stake in next to it, and plant four to six pole beans around the tomato a couple of weeks later (the tomato needs a slight head start).
When you get to the harvest stage, make sure you know what color your tomatoes should be when ripe. If you’re growing Brandywine, for example, it is more of a deep pink color than red. Amish Paste and St. Pierre are true deep red from top to bottom. The so-called black tomatoes seem to me to be the hardest to judge. No matter what the final color, it should be the same on all surfaces – yellow shoulders mean the fruit is not ripe. It doesn’t matter whether you pick in the morning or evening, since tomatoes don’t wilt like lettuce or other veggies. The tomatoes should be firm; if it’s starting to feel soft, pick and use immediately. For some reason, there’s a fad in gardening circles today to pick tomatoes when they first begin to color and ripen them off the vine. What the heck for? That’s what the commercial growers do, and we know how their tomatoes taste. Once you get toward the end of the tomato-growing season, decrease their water or stop watering entirely – that will push them to ripen their fruit faster and it will still taste like a real tomato.