Regardless of whether you are into formal ornamental gardening or desire just a few planters of petunias on the front porch, there is something magic about a fresh tomato. In all of my years at “The Mill” few things have rivaled the enthusiasm people seem to have for tomatoes. Just as homemade ice cream signals the arrival of the 4th of July, the first home grown tomato of the season is almost a euphoric experience. Back when the Baltimore Orioles were in their finest days under the helm of Earl Weaver, he always found time to grow some tomatoes in the back of the stadium. He even marketed his own special fertilizer for a time.
Our customers have their favorite varieties and they will travel long distances to find them. When we can’t provide a variety on a given year, they will pop up early in the following season to repeat their request. I suspect we are not their only stop. They are kind of like sports fans rooting for a particular team. My favorite is Better Boy…Supersonic…Celebrity…Sweet 100 cherry…Brandywine…Ramapo…West Virginia Mortgage Lifter… They’re all good!
Tomatoes cannot tolerate any frost and they need warm soil in order to grow properly. While early plantings are done to “beat your neighbor” or have a tomato by the 4th of July, the serious grower begins in May in our mid Atlantic region. Make sure you have a good loamy garden soil with adequate drainage. Loose, rich soil will allow the root system become massive, thus providing the needed nutrients for this rapid growing plant.
Often times the plant will drop its first set of blossoms, particularly if the temperature is in the 90’s or greater. Don’t be alarmed, you will eventually get tomatoes. A more recent recommendation for vigorous tomatoes is red plastic as a mulch. I guess it gives the plant a rosy outlook on life. The mulch also gives the plant an even moisture level that is essential to proper fruit development.
Tomatoes like a slightly acid soil with a pH range of 6.0 to 6.5, but they have a need for calcium in order to avoid “blossom end rot”. Blossom end rot is where the nearly formed fruit becomes transparent or black on the bottom of the fruit and rots. The addition of gypsum (calcium sulphate) into the planting hole is an excellent way to combat this problem. Over fertilizing also promotes this problem, so easy on the Miracle-Gro.
Support of these tall plants is achieved by using wooden stakes or wire cages. A staked, well tended tomato plant can yield up to 50 pounds of tomatoes from early July to last frost. Taller plants are called “indeterminate” plants, meaning that the sky is the limit on their growth habit. “Determinate” plants only grow 3 or 4 feet tall and can be grown with little or no support, though the yield is usually less.
I recommend “suckering” tomato plants for the highest level of production and a good vertical growth habit. Whenever a branch emerges from the main stem, another vigorous and less productive branch will sprout out between the main stem and the primary branch. This “sucker” will try to steal the show. Simply pinch the sucker out with your fingers, allowing the more productive original branch to thrive.
Entire books have been written on tomatoes and I have only touched the surface. This column could go on and on, but I must go now.