Gardening ripe and delicious tomatoes is an art unto itself.
One of summer’s simplest and sweetest pleasures? The taste of ripe tomatoes eaten straight from the vine.
And with the price of store-bought tomatoes at least $2-$4 a pound, growing your own tomatoes also makes sense for the wallet. Time is of the essence though. The first week of June is the optimal time to transplant tomatoes.
So let’s get gardening.
There are numerous tomato types. To select the ones most appropriate for your garden, it’s important to know some basic facts and terminology:
Determinate tomato plants stop growing once they reach maturity (about 50-60 days). Their fruit appears at the ends of the plant’s branches. These varieties typically need no more than a stake to support them. They thrive in pots and require minimal pruning.
Indeterminate tomato plants continue to produce fruit until the first frost. They can grow as high as 8 to 15 feet, usually requiring caging or trellising to support their weight. Their fruit appears all along the plant’s branches.
Heirloom tomatoes are passed down through the generations without being cross-bred. They come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, colors and flavors. Some believe they are more flavorful than hybrid types. They are indeterminate, growing best with full sun in moist, well-drained soil and have low resistance to disease. For best results, pick off diseased branches regularly. Typically, these plants take 70 to 90 days to mature. Some examples of heirloom tomatoes are Brandywine, Cherokee Purple and German Johnson.
Hybrid tomatoes are cross-bred to be disease-resistant, hearty and uniform in appearance. Typically, hybrid plants yield more fruit than heirloom plants, but some say hybrid tomatoes aren’t as flavorful. Hybrids can be determinate or indeterminate, grow to 5 feet, and reach maturity in 55 to 65 days. Examples of hybrid tomatoes are cherry tomatoes such as Sweet 100, Sun Gold and Sweet Million and paste tomatoes such as Roma, San Marzano, San Remo and, for eating, Early Girl.
Tomatoes range in size from as small as ½ ounce to as large as a pound. They come in a variety of shapes — round, long, heart-shaped and oval — and a wide array of colors including red, yellow, orange, pink, black, burgundy, green and striped. There’s a tomato for every taste — sweet, salty, smoky or tart — and purpose — sauces, juices, canning, pickling or just slicing and eating. Tomatoes can be grown in the ground, in a raised bed or a pot. Regardless of where they’re grown, tomatoes love heat!
To grow in the ground or in garden beds:
- Transplant tomatoes when soil temperatures are higher than 60 degrees and nighttime temperatures are in the 50s, generally around the first week in June.
- Grow plants in full sun (six to eight hours a day), in well-prepared, fertile soil.
- Plant tomato plants deep in the soil with three to four leaves appearing above the plant’s soil line.
- Install tomato cages immediately after planting.
- Don’t crowd tomatoes, leaving at least 3 feet between each plant.
- Plants require an inch of water per week, but may need more watering during times of drought.
- Mulch planting area with newspaper and straw to maintain plant moisture, control weeds and prevent soil-borne diseases.
To grow in pots and containers:
- Use large pots (15 inches diameter by 18 inches deep) to provide room for a strong root system.
- Plant tomatoes in fresh, premium quality potting soil.
- Support plants with a stake or cage.
- Water plants daily and add mulch to keep the soil moist.
- Once plants are 3 feet tall, remove leaves from the bottom 1 foot of the stem to avoid fungi.
- Pinch and remove suckers (undesirable shoots) that grow in the joints of the plant’s branches. These shoots won’t bear fruit and will rob the plant of needed energy.
For all settings:
- Use fertilizer low in nitrogen (2 to 4 percent) but high in phosphorus. Phosphorus promotes flowering, which will produce a more abundant harvest. Liquid fertilizers can be used but granular slow release formulas are preferable. Always read labels when using fertilizers.
- To prevent disease, always water plants at the soil line, never at the leaves.
- Pluck tomatoes as soon as the first blush of color appears.
- Ripen tomatoes indoors in a sunny spot or place them in a paper bag with a ripening banana.
- Keep a journal to record dates of planting, fertilization, maturity, insect activity and taste.
Rebecca Brown began her career as a horticulturalist more than 25 years ago and studied at the New York Botanical Gardens. She has been a University of Maryland, Baltimore County master gardener for three years and is a backyard beekeeper.
Norman Cohen is a retired chemist. He has been gardening for 38 years and has been a University of Maryland, Baltimore County master gardener for nine years. Cohen also provides gardening education to the public at local farmers markets.