Any way you slice it, homegrown tomato's a winner
By Amy Winter
Copley News Service
Homegrown tomatoes add flavor to your summer meals and save you money at the grocery store. Choose your favorite varieties and plant them in your backyard. If growing from seeds, plan ahead in the spring in order to have a juicy harvest by the summertime.
Ed Hume, who owns Hume Seeds in Washington state, says variety is a key element in growing ripe tomatoes. Since tomatoes come in many assortments, Hume mentions a few of the most popular. Common cherry tomatoes include sweet 100, red cherry and Tiny Tim. Yellow plum and golden jubilee are some well-known yellow types. Larger, long-season growers that are better for slicing are known as beefsteak tomatoes (Brandywine, Caspian pink). Pik red, which produces large tomatoes with less seeds, is considered a popular early beefsteak grower. Early girl, a medium-sized tomato, also serves as an early bloomer. Bob Price, owner of www.tomatobob.com, mentions green zebra, Cherokee purple and black krim as other tomato favorites.
Kenneth Point, an avid gardener who writes and publishes the Web site www.veggiegardeningtips.com, recommends checking with local growers to see what varieties develop the best in your area. Point prefers planting heirloom tomatoes in his garden. Although heirlooms may be less resistant to disease and will probably produce less fruit than newer varieties, these selections are more flavorful. Brandywine, known as an Amish heirloom, is one of the most common.
Tomatoes need full sun in order to grow - Hume recommends the south or west area of the garden. Marie Iannotti, a gardening columnist on www.about.com, says it must be a steady 50 degrees F for tomatoes to develop. Plant after the last frost has hit; frost will immediately kill seedlings.
"Plant in the spring and grow in the summer," says Iannotti. "They like warm weather."
If you live in a cold weather region, start your seeds inside. Price plants his seeds inside six to eight weeks before the last frost day. Use potting soil in containers. Hume puts heating pads under the container to encourage root growth. Place growing lights or fluorescent bulbs 3 inches above the plants to promote top growth. Call your local agriculture division in order to find out the last frost date. Then prepare to move plants outdoors.
Give tomato plants some space in order to create better air circulation and sunlight exposure. Helpfulgardener.com suggests placing tomato plants about 2 to 3 feet apart from each other, especially when it comes to indeterminate plants whose vines grow longer than determinate plants. Develop the soil prior to planting in order to limit care during the growth period. Hume suggests adding compost or processed manure as well as peat moss with existing soil to produce more organic humus. Make a hole about 18 inches across and 12 inches deep. Hume plants his tomatoes upright, but some gardeners choose to plant crops sideways, burying part of the stem in order to develop a better root system. Before planting, use all-purpose vegetable gardening fertilizer. Only add more fertilizer if the leaves start to turn yellow.
"Prepare the soil well and it should not be necessary to fertilize the plants again," says Hume. "Overfeeding can encourage too much foliage growth instead of proper fruit production."
Regular watering is important for proper fruit development but it needs to be consistent, according to Point. Inconsistent watering can cause cracks in the fruit, due to the inside growing faster than the skin, and blossom end-rot. Hume recommends watering at ground level or use the irrigation method. Allow the hose to run at the base of the plants instead of hitting the leaves.
Using cages or fencing supports the plant but also enables it to grow freely. If you decide to prune the plant, don't pull off too many leaves; the sun can scald the unprotected fruit, according to Hume. Watch out for tomato hornworms and fungal diseases, such as septoria leaf spot. Once the fruit turns red and is easy to pick off the vine, it is ready to eat.
If gardeners prefer, tomato houseplants can be found at local garden centers. Although there is less selection of heirloom tomatoes, it saves time to purchase plants rather than starting them from with seeds.
Whatever method you choose, enjoy your tomato crop this season.
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