by D. Banner, owner Luxury Private Jets
If your idea of a great summer dining experience is to enjoy just-picked produce from your garden, then you are probably one of the millions that grow tomatoes. And while tomato plants yield scores of tomatoes from every plant, it is not as easy as it looks to get a consistently flavorful and disease-free harvest.
Here in the Midwest, certain fungi live in the soil, so the choice is either to manage that situation or grow your tomatoes in containers with fresh soil every year. Either way, you can enjoy one of the flavors of summer and their bounty with these tomato-growing tips.
The most flavorful tomatoes are either the heirloom varieties or the hybrid varieties. Hybrids are like bushes, they are best for containers and grow to about 3 feet tall. The heirloom varieties of tomatoes grow on vines, and will yield tomatoes as long as there is a growing season. Some people swear by heirloom tomatoes for their colors, their textures and most of all their taste. Heirloom tomatoes can be found at specialty groceries and are pricey – usually $4 a pound and up.
Hybrid tomatoes are the more disease-resistant type, but no type of tomato is completely disease-free. To manage the diseases that affect tomatoes, professional growers recommend that you consider these tips:
• Provide plenty of air circulation around each plant. This means planting tomatoes on the edge of the planting bed, not in the center.
• Use black plastic landscape fabric to keep a barrier between your plants and soil-borne (and disease-causing) spores. This will also keep the soil warm and offers weed control.
• By stripping the lower leaves from each plant, there is less opportunity for spores to migrate up the plant from the ground.
• Stake each plant at least 18” apart and prune them regularly.
• Don’t overfeed your plant. The faster they grow, the greater chance for diseases to form.
Tomatoes need at least 7 hours of full sun each day. If your planting bed doesn’t get that much sun, consider plating your tomatoes in large containers that you can locate in a very sunny spot. They also like a soil with a balanced pH of 6 to 6.5 and amended with compost as the weeks progress.
You can find tomato seedlings at nearby garden centers. Look for plants that are stocky and look hardy. Plants that are dark green and measure five inches in each direction are good choices. When you plant your seedlings, make sure that you feed them with a liquid fertilizer at the base of each plant to get them going. Plant from 18” to 2 to 3 feet apart and either stake or provide a cage for the plant to grow on. Caged plants need more air circulation than staked plants, so you will want to calculate a little more space for caged plants.
When you stake your tomato plants, you have to keep pruning them to manage the stems to a reasonable number – one or two should suffice. Staked plants will yield faster ripening and larger tomatoes than un-staked ones. Alternatively, when you cage your tomatoes, you will get a higher yield from each plant since there will be more stems and branches. Cages make great structures support plastic sheeting that will protect young plants early in the season from the wind and against frosts early and late in the growing season.
Tomato plants thrive with consistent watering – the equivalent to an inch of rain – applied with a soaker hose or drip hose. The end of a hose is just too powerful and too much volume for optimal watering. Water in the early morning hours is best so that the foliage has time to dry during the day. During the growing season, you will want to fertilize again just before the plants hit their maturity.
No matter which type of tomato variety you choose to grow, you will have the luxury of fresh-picked freshness for your next salad, salsa or pasta sauce. Even if you can’t abide tomatoes, your family and neighbors will appreciate the fruits of your labors all summer long with flavors that you can’t duplicate in store bought produce.