I have to admit that the main reason for my garden is the tomatoes. Most grocery store tomatoes are varieties that have been bred for appearance and shipping durability, but are often mealy and tasteless. There is an almost endless variety of tomatoes available in the seed catalogues and garden centers, with varying color, size and purpose. There are beefsteaks, grape, cherry, Roma, pear, zebra striped, yellow, orange, purple, and green tomatoes. They’re all good if you ask me.
Tomatoes need to be started from seed indoors under a grow light, and they’re not ready to put in the beds until they’re 8 weeks old. I’ll do a separate post about seed starting in a later post. I have found great plants in the local home improvement garden centers and other local nurseries. One problem with these plants, however, is that they’re often either mis-labeled or the plants cross pollinated. In other words, I’ve been surprised when the “beefsteak” I purchased turned out to be an Early Girl, or Celebrity or other type of tomato. They’re all good; it’s just that when you raise you plants from seeds, you know exactly what you’ll get.
Tomato plants fall into 2 categories, determinate and indeterminate. Determinate plants are smaller than indeterminate, and produce their fruit all at once. Roma, bush tomatoes and some others fall into this category. Indeterminate plants grow tall, some up to 9 feet! They produce fruit over a longer period of time, usually throughout the season. Beefsteaks are usually indeterminate plants. These take up the North end of most of my beds. I like to have at least 6 tomato plants growing, and like to stagger the crop, so I plant Sweet Baby Girl tomatoes which ripen first, then I’ll also have Early Girl or Fourth of July, early 4″ tomatoes which will ripen while I’m waiting for the beefsteaks to mature. I love Burpee’s Brandy Boy tomato, a large pink beefsteak, and it takes about 2 – 1/2 months to ripen.
It’s important to cage the plants. I know some people stake them, but the beefsteaks grow so tall that two cages are a lot easier. As the tomato grows, I just tuck the branches in to the cages. I secure the cages to the trellis so that the wind doesn’t blow them over.
Here’s an example of how I plant a tomato bed:
You’ll notice that I put the large two beefsteak plants at the North end of the bed, and put smaller, determinate tomatoes in the South end so they don’t shade the beefsteaks. I tuck herbs like parsley in the front, basil in the middle, thyme and dill in the back, and onions and marigolds around the rest of the bed. These are all great companions to the tomatoes.
Tomatoes like to be planted deeply. For this reason, I plant them lying down (the tomatoes, not me!) Simply determine where you want your plant and dig a trench the length of the plant as deeply as you can. Strip off the lower branches of your plant, leaving 3 or 4 branches at the very top. Carefully lay the plant in the trench (tomato vines will break easily), water it well and cover it with soil, leaving the top of the plant poking out. Place a stick or marker where you put the root ball of the plant so you don’t accidentally dig there. Every where you stripped the branches off, roots will grow. This will give your plants a great foundation.
I know you organic snobs out there will hate this, but I fertilize with Miracle Gro for Tomatoes. I mix it in the sprayer with an organic kelp fertilizer called Sea Magic, and if I spray the plants once a week, I get a ton of fruit. Both work well as a foliar feed (meaning that the leaves absorb the nutrients) as well as a ground feed.
It’s important to succor the plants once the fruit begins to form. What I mean by this is that I’ll trim off the branches that don’t have blossoms or fruit on them, I’ll strip off the bottom branches, and I’ll try to encourage one or two main vines to grow. This concentrates the energy of the plant to growing the fruit.
I usually harvest the tomatoes when they begin to blush. If I don’t, sometimes bugs begin to munch on them. Green tomatoes are also delicious lightly breaded and fried in a little butter.
And one main rule: NEVER REFRIGERATE TOMATOES! This ruins the flavor and texture. There’s an enzyme that breaks down under 40 degrees and you’ll lose that great flavor. They’ll do just fine in a basket or large bowl on the counter.