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Let’s Talk Tomatoes!

According to a site called Tomato Dirt, 93% of American gardening households grow tomatoes.  Many of our  customers, as well as many of us, have favorite varieties they plant year after year.  Regardless of the preferred type, tomato lovers all seem to agree that nothing beats the flavor of a home-grown tomato.  Both veteran tomato growers and newbies to gardening often have questions about the tons of varieties we grow:  What’s the difference between determinate and indeterminate?  What’s the difference between heirlooms and hybrids?  When is it safe to plant and how do I plant them?  Do I need to prune them?  Do I need to worry about bugs or anything?  So.  Let’s talk tomatoes!

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Determinate vs Indeterminate:

Tomatoes are classified by their growth habit.  Determinate plants, like Roma, Husky Red, and Husky Cherry Red will tend to be shorter and easier to manage than indeterminates.  Most won’t need to be staked and may have a tendency to bear fruit over a shorter amount of time.

Indeterminate plants, like Goliath, Brandywine, and Fantastic will continue growing and bearing fruit throughout the season and will need support of some kind.

Heirlooms and Hybrids:  

Heirloom tomatoes, such as Brandywine, Amish Paste, and Pineapple Hawaiian, are open pollinated and true to seed, meaning you can save seed from them to grow next year that will result in tomatoes identical to those from the parent plant.  Most heirloom varieties were introduced prior to 1940, and tend to be more flavorful and unique in both shape and color than hybrids.  However, they may take longer to mature and produce fewer fruits than a hybrid.

Hybrids, like Goliath, Celebrity and Early Girl, have been bred to be stronger, more resistant to common tomato diseases, more productive, and maintain consistency of size and shape.  While hybrids are the perfect shape for your BLT, they may not be as flavorful as an heirloom.

When is it safe to plant and how do I plant them?

In the Grand Valley, it’s usually safe to plant on Mother’s Day Weekend (later for higher elevations).  Tomatoes are tropical plants that will not tolerate a frost; usually our last frost is mid-May.  Planting them early risks death from frost (unless you have wall of waters) and often doesn’t gain much of a head start–tomatoes need warm soil and warm temperatures day and night before they’ll really take off.  A cool spring often results in not much growth until the weather warms.  Tomatoes are heavy feeders and enjoy organic matter in their soil.  Be sure to amend the soil with an organic compost, such as Soil Pep, Mesa Magic or Happy Frog Soil Conditioner, and include a time-released fertilizer.  Plant your tomato babies a bit deeper than they are planted in their pots; tomatoes will root from the main stem and this deeper planting will result in a stronger plant.  (Big exception to this deep planting in the case of grafted tomatoes, but that’s another post!)

Do I need to prune them?

Pruning tomatoes refer to cutting out suckers–new stems that form in the crotch between a stem and a branch.

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If you plant determinates, no pruning is needed.  Pruning indeterminates is a personal preference thing.  Some growers leave suckers alone for a larger  harvest–more but smaller tomatoes.  Some feel their harvest is better–larger but fewer tomatoes–if they prune.  Pruning is a sort of trial and error process to see what works best for your garden.  Pruning can help control the monster-like spread of an indeterminate, provide better air circulation and make harvesting easier.  According to About.com Gardening:  “As long as you have a strong main stem, it’s fine to leave a few suckers on the plant. The general recommendation is to leave 2 or 3 suckers to improve yield, but not to let every sucker grow. After that there is no general agreement.”  It’s best to prune suckers while they’re still small enough to pinch them off with your fingers.  (Image from About.com Gardening)

Do I need to worry about bugs or anything?

In a word, yup.  There are some viral diseases that tomatoes are not yet bred to be resistant to.  The one you’ll hear the most about is “curly top virus.”  It is transmitted by the teeny-tiny feet of a leaf hopper and is fatal for your tomato.  Tomatoes with curly top need to be pulled out and thrown in the trash–not the compost.  Less fatal, but huge in the ick department is the tomato hornworm.

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Hornworms are the caterpillar of the pretty hummingbird moth and can grow from tiny to gigantic in no time.  They can strip entire branches of their leaves overnight.  The best and easiest solution for them is to watch carefully, pick them off and squish them or drop them into a quart jar of rubbing alcohol.  (I prune off a bit of a branch with my nippers, take the beastie, branch and all, to a dirt place where I have an old shingle that blew off my shed.  I put the shingle on top of the bug and step on it.  Ick.  I know…but I’m never gonna let a bug beat me out of my yummy tomatoes!)  Another common tomato issue is blossom end rot–a black patch that forms on the bottom of the fruit.  This is most often caused by inconsistent soil moisture.  Tomatoes like their soil to be evenly moist–they hate to be wet then dry out, then be wet….  Mulching is a great way to help retain soil moisture.  Another cause for blossom end rot is not enough calcium in your soil.  Crushing up eggshells and working them into the soil around your plants can help, and Fertilome makes a spray to help prevent the rot.  One last issue to talk about: blossom drop.  When daytime temperatures exceed 85F, your tomato can feel stressed and might drop its flowers without setting fruit.  This will right itself as temperatures cool, and once again, Fertilome has a spray that can help.

That bug section got kind of big and scary, huh?!  Don’t be frightened away from growing tomatoes, though.  As picky as they can be, there really is nothing like that first ripe tomato of the season, still warm from the sun, maybe with a little salt…….

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The friendly folks at Mt Garfield are there to help, from selecting the perfect tomatoes for your garden space and culinary desires to finding solutions to any problems that arise.  🙂   Also, new this year–grafted tomatoes!  Squeeee!  So cool!  More on them in another post.  🙂

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