Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Growing Tomatoes {Watch My Garden Grow Series}

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Tomatoes. Mmmmmmmm..... Garden tomatoes are absolutely amazing. Absolutely. So amazing, in fact, that I just don't buy tomatoes from the grocery store. I can't do it. Even in winter. I do it maybe 5 times a year.

Some people say tomatoes are one of the easiest things you can grow in your garden. Growing tomatoes can be easy, yes, but there is probably no other food grown in gardens that is surrounded by more opinions. People will tell you how to support them, how to prune them, what to plant with them, how often to water them, how to fertilize them...and that is just to take care of a normal tomato plant. Just wait until your tomato gets some problem with it. That opens a whole new world of advice. 

My opinion--tomatoes aren't easy, but they also aren't hard. You can do it. Expect to have to do some experimenting to find out what you like and what you don't like. Ultimately, tomatoes are worth it. If I could only plant one thing in my garden, it would be tomatoes. 

some cherry tomatoes

What you need:
  • Soil
  • Shovel
  • Tomato starts (buy these at your favorite nursery). By the way, I have found the smaller plants actually do better than the larger plants. You can pay more money for the larger plants, but my theory is it is harder for them to be transplanted. I have done a lot of experimenting over the years and consistently find this to be true.
  • Water
Also handy:
  • Tomato cage
  • Wall of waters if planting when frost is still possible
  • Tomato fertilizer
Tomato Varieties
One difficult thing about tomatoes is that there are so many options out there on what to plant. Tomatoes are grouped by two main categories, determinate and indeterminate. Determinate means that the tomatoes will all ripen on the plant at about the same time. Indeterminate tomatoes bloom and continue to grow more tomatoes until the plant is killed (typically by frost). So how do you decide which type to go after?

One factor is when you want to pick them and what you will use them for. If you just want them for general eating, indeterminate makes a lot of sense because you can pick some throughout the season. If you want to can, determinate are popular because they are all ready close to each other. If you get early frosts, determinate can be nice because you just get them all at once. 

Another factor to consider is where you are planting. Determinate are supposed to be able to stand without a cage. These are smaller plants and can be in containers. Indeterminate get too large for a container and need cages to help stand. 

Different tomatoes taste different. If you don't really care about the factors listed above, go for what taste you like. Try different ones and write down what you like and don't like about them. And of course, pay attention to what grows and produces well in your area.

Let me tell you what I have planted and what I think:
  • Early Girl. Indeterminate. This tomato isn't one of my favorite tasting, but it is ready very early (52 days). I always plant one of these.
  • Better Boy. Indeterminate. I have planted this for years, but this year I chose not to plant it. There wasn't really anything about this that made me want it. There are much better tasting tomatoes and they take 75 days to give food, so it isn't fast.
  • Celebrity. Indeterminate. This is one that people often list as a favorite. I have also grown this for years, but chose to not plant it this year. The good things about this tomato is that they are easier to grow--they are resistant to a lot of the problems that plague tomatoes. But they don't yield a lot of fruit per plant and I have found plants I like better.
  • Pink.... Indeterminate. I am not sure which "pink" it is I plant. It is pink, and it is delicious. Last year was my first year planting it and I repeated this year. It is a milder flavor. 
  • Roma. Determinate. These are very popular for canning. In all honesty, a Roma from your garden is not that different than your Roma from the grocery store. An interesting thing the owner of my favorite local nursery told me is that tomatoes in the grocery store are bread to be grown in green houses, so a Roma is a Roma no matter where it is grown. I plant 1-2 plants each year. Not my favorite, but it is good to have a determinate around.
  • Sunsugar. Indeterminate. These are little, orange cherry tomatoes and they are AMAZING. Seriously amazing. Every person I have given these tomatoes to plants their own the next year. We plant one every year. We used to plant two, but they take off in a major way so one is plenty.
  • Cherry tomato. Either. I always plant a cherry tomato each year, but I don't have a go-to each year. I still experiment. I like them to be indeterminate so I can have some throughout the season.
  • Beefsteak. Indeterminate. Similar to this is the Whopper and Goliath. These are giant tomatoes that some people just love because you can slice them and have just one slice on your burger or sandwich. I find them to be difficult because the tomatoes are so large that if the plant is covered in them and a wind storm comes up, the plant has a hard time standing up and not losing fruit. So I do this type of tomato sometimes, but not every year. 
  • Moscow. Indeterminate. This is my favorite tomato. I tried this last year for the first time, and that is why I axed the Better Boy and Celebrity this year. I wanted more Moscows. They are delicious. They are amazing for canning. The only trouble I had with them is that the bugs also much prefer these tomatoes over the others. They are so good. 
When to plant:
Tomatoes freeze very easily. You want to plant these after your average date of the last frost. You can plant them earlier if you use a Wall O Water. Our average last frost is May 10-20 and I typically plant in late April. 

Where to plant: 
Full sun. You can plant some tomatoes in containers, so you can do them on your porch or deck if you don't have a garden.

We plant our tomatoes now in one long row instead of clumped together. This makes it easier to get to the entire plant to pick the fruit. This is our tomatoes this year:


How to plant:
  1. Prep the soil. 
  2. Dig a hole.
  3. Put the plant in the hole.
  4. Add tomato food
  5. Water.
  6. Put wall-o-water over the tomato if needed.
Now, some years, we put the wall-o-water up for a couple of weeks before planting the starts. This warms the soil and reduces transplant shock. The only trouble with this is that the wall-o-water is then warm and we have found then tip over easier if they get moved around because we are planting. 

How to care for tomatoes:
  • At some point, most tomatoes will need cages. Go for the nicer, more expensive cages. This don't tip over. It is better to spends $20 once than $5 each year. You can also use fencing--if you want other ideas for supporting tomatoes, do a google search. We always cage ours as soon as the wall of water comes off. That comes off in early June. 
  • There are so many "do this" and "do that" ideas out there. Basically, you want them watered consistently--letting them get dry and then over watering leads to the tomatoes splitting open. Nice, consistent watering is best. Think of the split as a "stretch mark." Growing too fast causes splitting.
  • If your tomatoes split, have black bottoms (known as blossom rot), or look otherwise "wrong," there is something wrong. Look things up online or figure out what is wrong by talking to someone at a nursery. 
  • You don't want to use too much fertilizer. To much fertilizer leads to lots of foliage and not much fruit. The way I had it explained to me is that the plant is programmed to reproduce if it feels it is in danger, so that is why so many say to stop watering at a certain point. Then the plant puts all danger into ripening fruit so it can reproduce.
  • You can find much more on the internet.
How to harvest:
  • Harvest when the tomato is the right color and it is still firm. 
  • At the end of the season, you can pick them if they are the right size and they are still green or just colored slightly if need be. If tomatoes are outside when it freezes, they aren't so good. It is like putting a tomato in the freezer for a bit. 

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