Local tomatoes: Grow your own!
Ask a gardener what she grows in the kitchen garden, and the first thing she likely mentions is tomatoes. If you enjoy this nutrition-rich vegetable (technically, a fruit), nothing is better than a ripe tomato plucked from the vine in your own back yard.
What tomatoes need to grow
Tomatoes have a reputation for being finicky, but backyard gardeners have success growing them in the ground and in raised beds, and many varieties grow well in containers on the deck or patio. They do need plenty of sunlight – the most successful plants grow in at least six hours of direct sun.
In the ground or in raised beds, work the soil to a fine texture at least six inches deep. A fertilizer especially made for vegetables (such as Espoma Organic Garden-Tone or Tomato-Tone), worked into the soil at planting time, will help provide necessary nutrients.
Choose your tomatoes
Tomato plants are either determinate or indeterminate. Determinate varieties grow to a shorter height and set fruit that ripens over a few weeks, with short harvest intervals. ‘Bradley,’ ‘Roma,’ and other “paste” varieties are determinate. Most of the juicier varieties, such as ‘Better Boy,’ ‘Cherokee Purple,’ Mortgage Lifter’ and many smaller varieties such as ‘Chocolate Cherry’ are indeterminate, which grow taller and produce fruit throughout the summer until the plants are killed by frost.
Which type you choose depends on how you plan to enjoy them. For making sauce or paste, select a determinate variety, which will yield sizable harvests of sturdy tomatoes all at once. For the very best BLT sandwiches all summer, choose a big, juicy variety like ‘Big Boy’ or ‘Beefmaster.’
Planting tomato transplants
After the danger of frost is past, plant tomato transplants deep enough to completely cover the root ball. Transplants that have grown tall and leggy can be planted even deeper, which allows the plant to develop roots along the buried stem. Leave enough space between plants – 18 to 24 inches – for them to grow and spread. Indeterminate varieties will need to be staked or supported in cages to keep the plants and their fruit off the ground, and it’s best to install those at planting time to avoid damaging the plant’s roots later.
Water the transplants at planting time, and plan to provide ½ inch to ¾ inch of water to the root zone twice a week if it doesn’t rain. Mulch that covers the ground around the plants helps retain moisture in the soil and suppresses the growth of weeds in the garden bed. As the plant grows, you may want to remove suckers – secondary shoots that grow in the joint between a branch and the stem – to reduce the overall sprawl of the plant.
One of the most common problems with ripening tomatoes is a disease called blossom-end rot, which causes a dark, leathery patch to spread on the bottom – where the tomato formed from the flower – of each tomato. The cause is an inadequate level of calcium in the fruit, which gets its nutrients from the soil.
The best advice is to have the soil tested before you plant a garden, which will allow you to know the soil’s pH level and whether you need to add garden lime (calcium carbonate) to the soil. Lime raises the soil’s pH, the measure of acidity or alkalinity from 0 – 14, with 7 being pH- neutral. A pH number below 7 is considered acid soil; above is alkaline. Tomatoes grow best in soil of pH 6.1 or above. Maintaining uniform soil moisture helps plants take up the calcium dissolved in soil.
Harvest the fruit when it begins to turn from green to red. They will ripen further after they are picked, and you can soon enjoy the rich summer flavor of those home-grown tomatoes.