OK, we give in! Tomatoes are the number 8 feature. Yes, the ones you have all been waiting for. Tomatoes steal the show, so we are reluctant to write about them in this series of posts.
Don’t get us wrong, they are some of our favorites too. However, for all their glory they have some downside as well. First, many hybrids have been developed to yield perfectly round, uniform looking fruits. Yes, tomatoes are fruits despite a Supreme Court ruling that states they are vegetables (click here to learn more about this topic).
Now back to the hybrid thing. Many of these hybrids were created to help growers ship their tomatoes to far off supermarkets where they are showcased like collectibles. We find such hybrids to lack the texture, acid, and flavors of a great tomato. Plus, we feel there is something special about a big, bulging, heavily creased heirloom tomato like the legendary “Mortgage Lifter” or the surprisingly great taste of a Black Krim.
Another downside to tomatoes is their siren call to plant more of them and allow them to grow to the sky like fairytale beanstalks. By August they often have overrun the entire garden and shaded themselves out to the point of no return.
Enough with the negatives. After all, what is an edible garden without tomatoes? Let’s focus on the positives and grow some great tomatoes in 2014 and beyond.
Tomatoes will produce really well if you cover a few key growing needs. First, be patient when planting them. We all want to get them in the ground as soon as Spring fever hits us. Our grandparents would tell us different. They would say wait until Mother’s Day. Some years this may be unnecessarily long to wait, but in 2013 you did well if you waited. The bottom line is make sure the weather has warmed sufficiently before putting tomatoes in the ground. One blast of cold air can stunt their growth all season long.
Whether you choose seeds or plants is up to you. We find buying the plants to be easier, but have also had luck with seeds as well. The past few seasons we have planted our tomato plants extra deep and had great results. We noticed better root development and much stronger plants.
Second, give them lots of sun and fertile soil. Mixing in a nice amount of compost when you are preparing the soil will be helpful here.
Third, do not over plant or plant too close. Your tomatoes need room to grow. Planting too many or too close may result in less yield, more potential for pests and disease, and a really unruly looking garden.
Fourth, water them regularly and keep spreading around compost. You do not need to flood the plants with water. Just be sure the soil is kept moist. The addition of compost will ensure much needed nutrients keep getting to the plants.
The fifth key growing need is a painful one at first. We have found it essential to “top” the plants and halt their efforts to reach into the clouds. Topping the plant allows it to focus on the fruits. Instead of expending energy to grow taller the plant will grow stronger main stems and better fruits. You will also get a tidier garden and not have to use such long stakes or tomato cages. On that note, we prefer using sturdy plant stakes about 5-6 feet long over expensive tomato cages.
Topping the plant is easy and we typically do it late in the gowing season as the plants reach the tops of the plant stakes. Simply look along the main stem for the highest set of flowers. Then count up two leaf stems and snip off the tip of the main stem. Repeat the process if your plant has more than one main stem. Many folks use their fingers to pinch off the stems, but we like to get a nice clean cut with a good pair of pruners or surgical scissors.
We also recommend removing “suckers” to enhance the fruit development and plant health even further. Suckers are sideshoots that develop in the crease between the main stem and the sidestems of the plant. In our experiecne, suckers usually point down. Our kids love helping with this part of the pruning process. We recommend you recruit yours to do the same!
Finally, have fun and enjoy the harvest. Tomatoes are ready to pick when they look and smell ripe. Let your senses guide you here and have some fun. Get your kids or grandkids involved too. Harvesting is a great lesson in gardening and nature in general. Did you know many plants evolved to send off certain signals right when they are at peak flavor? Think about it…