The little girls who live next door keep a watchful eye on my gardening activities. Earlier in the year, when they saw my tiny tomato seedlings growing under lights in the garage, they were even more curious. I invited them to ruffle the leaves and take in the unmistakable scent — that’s the smell of summer, I told them.
Indeed, homegrown tomatoes are the highlight of the summer garden. It’s been a weird spring so far (more like winter-summer) but there are still plenty of tomato plants at the garden centers — so don’t miss out on the terrific taste sensation, made even better when they’re growing right out your back door. Here are my top tips for tomato success:
Know what you grow
So many tomatoes, so little time and space. It’s hard to decide what to grow. I devote space for four or five plants, choosing varieties for all possible eating situations: a slicer, a cherry, a Roma, a pretty heirloom and one wild card, something unusual or unique. All told, I really enjoy cherry tomatoes; they start bearing earlier than other types. Sure, the salsa is a little seedy, but the flavor is good.
Plants labeled “determinate” are more compact in form and produce the entire crop within a short period, making them popular for canning or freezing. “Indeterminate” plants bear fruit for a longer period and grow to a larger, sometimes sprawling, size.
Heirlooms are varieties that are at least 50 years old and open-pollinated, meaning you can save the seeds from them to plant the following year. They come in all shapes, colors and sizes but may not be as vigorous as modern hybrids. They usually mature later, as well. Hybrids combine desirable traits, and are more disease-resistant and prolific.
Location, location, location
Sunlight is the key. When they say six to eight hours of full sun, more is better. If you have a sheltered sunny area, take advantage of this warm microclimate to see your tomatoes ripen faster, especially toward summer’s end.
Tomatoes thrive in fertile, well-drained soil. I build my soil by adding manure and compost every year. If you have soil issues (hard clay, too wet, etc.), raised beds work wonders because the soil warms fast and you can control its composition. Containers are a solution, too, but go for the biggest you can find, and remember to water more frequently than in-ground plants.
If you can, plant your tomatoes on a cloudy, windless day to avoid transplant stress. There are two ways to plant: the deep hole or the trench method. With the deep-hole method, the idea is to bury much of the stem to form an extensive root structure. Snip off the bottom leaves before planting. With the trench method, dig a horizontal hole and gently lay the plant sideways and bury except for the top leaves that remain above the surface.
Close access to a water source is sometimes overlooked. Lugging watering cans across the yard gets old quickly. Consistent watering is vital. Tomato plants need a good, deep soak once a week, more if it’s hot. Fluctuations in watering can cause blossom end rot, that black mushy spot on the bottom. I compare this to a “first pancake” problem; it usually resolves itself as the season goes on.
Strike the right balance with fertilizer; too much, and you’ll have lush foliage and little fruit. Use a water-soluble fertilizer when planting, and then again when the first flowers appear. Support the plant with a stake or cage, crucial for air circulation and keeping fruit off the ground.
As the vines progress, watch for signs of fungal disease. The usual suspects are early blight (brown or black spots) or late blight (pale green spots on lower leaves). Verticillium or fusarium cause leaves to turn yellow and wilt. In all cases, trim off the affected leaves and dispose of them. Spores are the culprits; they can travel from soil to leaves in splashing water, so apply a layer of mulch to avoid this. Newspaper or straw is best; never use wood mulch in a veggie garden.
Hornworms are the worst pest for tomatoes. You’ll have no doubt of their presence when you see the big, ugly caterpillars but you may see the holes they munch first. Handpicking and squishing is effective.
Vine-ripened tomatoes are the goal, picked at the moment they turn red and soften slightly. Everyone knows not to put them in the fridge, right? As the season comes to an end, you can ripen the fruits in a newspaper-lined cardboard box, placed in a single layer with space all around them. Some people take the whole plant and hang it upside down in their basement. For a quick trick with just a few tomatoes, put them in a paper sack along with a banana. If that fails — fried green tomatoes!
My all-time favorite tomatoes
Silver Fir Tree
New for me this year
Tasmanian Chocolate (Renee’s Garden Seed)
Atlas (Burpee Garden Seed)
Rhonda Fleming Hayes is a Minneapolis-based garden writer who blogs at thegardenbuzz.com. She is the author of “Pollinator-Friendly Gardening: Gardening for Bees, Butterflies and Other Pollinators,” available at Amazon.com.