Everyone loves a big, thick juicy slice of tomato on a sandwich! Here in South Jersey it will soon is time to plant tomatoes. They are easy to grow and gardeners like to have some tomatoes to pick daily. The popular tomato plant is a tender, warm-season plant that is usually best planted well after the danger of frost is past. Now is the time to get the garden ready for the row of tomatoes and to decide which to plant. Although it is often best to buy plants, you can still start seeds for some rare varieties if you cannot locate the plants. They must be kept very warm and in a sunny spot in order for them to catch up and bear early enough to make it worthwhile.
How about a purple tomato? Or an orange or yellow one, or one with stripes? Hundreds of varieties of tomatoes are now available for the home gardener in many sizes, shapes, colors and plant types. Many folks like to try the heirloom tomatoes where a huge array of really different tomatoes is possible.
For those who want an almost purple tomatoes there is Cherokee purple, rumored to have been grown by Indians of that name in North Carolina. People either love this one or hate it, but those who love it say the large plant, which is not a heavy producer is well worth growing for its unique, tasty tomatoes.
'Brandywine' is considered the most esteemed late nineteenth century heirloom tomato. It has potato-like leaves and large, meaty, reddish-pink fruit.
'Cerise Orange' is golden-orange cherry tomato bursting with sweet, juicy flavor that is produced in large clusters on an heirloom variety from France. The fruit is only 1/2 to 1 inch in diameter, but has a big taste. 'Kellogg's Breakfast' is pale-orange color with 1 pound beefsteak type fruit. Tomatoes have very good flavor and are quite meaty with few seeds. A great sauce tomato is 'Dix Doights De Naples', which means "Ten Fingers of Naples". It is said to have flavor that is wonderful and a fantastic yield of fruits. 'Clusters' for paste tomatoes! These tall vines produce plenty of fruits in bunches of 3, 4 or more, hence the name.
Some folks insist on heirloom plants. A particularly large number of heirloom tomato varieties are available today, mainly because tomatoes normally do not cross-pollinate. Seed saved from fruits of non-hybrid varieties produce plants fairly identical to the parent plant. The plants are often large, sprawling and late compared to current commercial varieties. They are rarely have disease resistant, so it is important to plant them in a different place each season. There are hundreds with names like 'Black Krim' or 'Black Cherry', 'Blond Kopchen', 'Corni di Pompei', 'Stupice', 'Opalke', 'Earl of Edge Comb', 'Golden Pear' and many more. It is an adventure to grow heirloom tomatoes. Just be sure to mark which it is so if you love it you can grow it again next year.
Very popular plants are often the 'Early Girl' or 'First-Early Red' (60 or fewer days to harvest). These varieties have more compact plant growth than the main-season varieties and are short lived. But they work for the early fruit and are really good for areas where the growing seasons are shorter and the summers are cooler.
Buy transplants or start seeds indoors for tomatoes to plant in the garden when warm weather finally arrives. Some gardeners transplant their tomatoes too soon after the soil is prepared for spring gardening, when there is still a high risk of damage from freezing. This is not recommended as tomatoes are often stunted by cold weather. For best results with minimal risk, plant when the soil is warm, soon after the frost-free date which is usually early May in our area. I continue to plant tomatoes up until mid July to have fresh ones to harvest late in the season. For fall harvest and early winter storage of tomatoes, late plantings may be made until mid-summer; these plantings have the advantage of increased vigor and freedom from early cold weather diseases and produce a tasty fruit. Time late plantings for maximal yield before killing freezes in your area (up to 95 days from transplanting for most varieties).
Space small varieties 15 inches apart in the row, staked plants 15 to 24 inches apart and trellised or ground bed plants 24 to 36 inches apart. Some particularly vigorous indeterminate old-fashioned varieties may need 4 feet between plants and 5 to 6 feet between rows to allow comfortable harvest room. Staking tomatoes keeps them off the ground and easier to tend.
Prepare the soil with good compost in the spots where the tomatoes will be planted. Avoid fresh manure or high nitrogen products, as this will produce a jungle of leaves but little or no fruit.
Plant small plants deep enough to hold them securely. Long lanky stems can be buried; roots will come out of them. Sometimes I almost bury half of a lanky seedling. Hoe or cultivate shallowly to keep down weeds without damaging roots in and around plants. Mulching is recommended once the soil warms. I used cardboard last year and although I didn't like the way it looked, it worked well. Black plastic or organic materials are suitable for mulching.
Water the plants thoroughly and regularly during prolonged dry periods. Plants confined in containers may need daily or even more frequent watering. Side-dress nitrogen fertilizer (ammonium nitrate) at the rate of one pound per 100 feet of row (equivalent to 1 tablespoon per plant) after the first tomatoes have grown to the size of golf balls. (If ammonium nitrate is not available, use 3 pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer.) Make two more applications 3 and 6 weeks later. If the weather is dry following these applications, water the plants thoroughly. Do not get fertilizer on the leaves.
Many gardeners train their tomato plants to stakes, trellises or cages with great success. Not all varieties, however, are equally suitable for staking and pruning.
Tomato cages may be made from concrete-reinforcing wire, woven-wire stock fencing or various wooden designs. Choose wire or wooden designs that have holes large enough to allow fruit to be picked and removed without bruising. The short, small, narrow type often sold at garden centers is all but useless for anything but the smallest of the dwarf types. Most modern determinate tomatoes easily grow 3 to 4 feet tall and old fashioned indeterminate continue to get taller until frozen in the fall, easily reaching at least 6 feet in height if not pruned. Use cages that match in height the variety to be caged and firmly anchor them to the ground with stakes or steel posts to keep the fruit-laden plants from uprooting themselves in late summer windstorms.
So whether you plant one or one hundred tomatoes this year, enjoy the adventure of growing summer's most popular product, a Jersey tomato!
||Lorraine Kiefer is the owner of Triple Oaks Nursery and has been a garden writer since 1972. Click here to email her.