En español | What makes a great tomato? One ingredient may be nostalgia.
"We're always chasing that memory people have of that homegrown tomato that they went out into Grandpa's garden and took a bite of, fresh off the vine,” says Rick VanVranken, a county agricultural agent at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station associated with Rutgers University.
That joy of biting into a fresh, tasty tomato, as opposed to a bland supermarket fruit, has inspired many home gardeners to grow their own.
"That's the advantage of growing them in your own backyard — you can go out there and pick them when they are bright, red, juicy, full of flavor, and then eat them right away,” says VanVranken, who notes that New Jersey is known for its tomatoes. That's partly because of the Rutgers variety tomato developed in the 1930s that was so flavorful it was used in Campbell's tomato soup and was known colloquially as the Jersey tomato.
There may be more advice in books and on the web for growing tomatoes than any other crop, but VanVranken and other experts say you shouldn't be intimidated.
"The biggest tip if you're growing them yourself is not to get too worried about it,” VanVranken advises. “Tomato plants are fairly forgiving and easy to grow.”
You can grow them in the garden, in raised beds, in containers, even in straw bales, according to North Carolina tomato grower Craig LeHoullier, a chemist by profession and author of Epic Tomatoes as well as a book on straw-bale horticulture. This year he'll grow 60 tomato plants in his home garden, about half of the “overwhelming” number he grew last year.
LeHoullier admits that tomatoes, like roses, can be a bit persnickety, but “it's a perfect hobby for someone who really wants to be in the garden and enjoy it."
If you're ready to tackle tomatoes, here are tips for yielding that delicious summer treat you remember.
1. Know what you're growing. Tomatoes are either determinate (that is, compact and bushy) or indeterminate (vining, which can climb up to 8 feet tall). The type you plant will determine how you need to support the plant. Paste or plum tomatoes, like Romas, are usually determinate and tend to ripen within a short period — say, two weeks. Indeterminate tomatoes, including most older varieties, such as Brandywine, keep growing and producing until frost.
2. Choose heirloom or hybrid. Heirlooms — varieties that can be reproduced from their own seed — are the rage right now, particularly among seed collectors like LeHoullier. He estimates there are 10,000 tomato varieties, and, as a member of the Seed Savers Exchange, he has collected seeds for about half of them. Hybrids are a cross of varieties and can't be duplicated from their own seed. They were developed to be more disease- or pest-resistant, VanVranken explains. Both have their advantages, growers say, and there's nothing inferior about hybrids.
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3. Match your tomato to your garden. The amount of sunlight tomatoes need depends on their size, LeHouillier says. “The big beefsteak types, those probably do benefit from having six to eight hours of direct sun a day, but as the size of the tomato decreases, the amount of sun it needs to be happy decreases, as well,” he says.
If you get only three hours of sunlight on your patio, try cherry tomatoes in a container. If you're buying tomato plants, buy locally. Even big-box stores are likely to have purchased plants from regional growers, and plants will be conditioned for your area, VanVranken says.
4. Go deep. Tomatoes grow roots all along their stems, says Elizabeth Casteel, “the Tomato Lady” of Spokane, Washington, who this year grew 6,000 tomato plants — which she calls her “babies” — that she sells from her barely half-acre home garden. When she transfers seedlings to gallon-size pots, she puts them as low as she can, leaving a couple of sets of leaves above the soil. “I cover up the leaves that are [buried] because they'll compost …. I don't rip them off,” she says. She tosses in some finely crushed eggshells to provide calcium and prevent damping off, a fungal disease.
5. Provide support. Garden catalogs and YouTube experts offer all kinds of ways to support tomato vines, from stakes to cages to string to fancy trellises. Rutgers has instructions for a stake and weave system that commercial growers use and that is adaptable for home gardeners who are willing to spend the time. Whatever system you choose, getting plants off the ground can increase your yield by 30 percent because you'll avoid soil-borne diseases, VanVranken explains.
6. Prune your plants — or not. Too many side shoots crowd fruit, particularly if you're using cages for support, VanVranken says. And many growers prune off lower branches to avoid leaves that attract pests or fungi from the ground. But if you don't stake, pruning may be less important, he says, because branches will flop down on their own.
Or skip the pruning and just plant more tomatoes, Casteel suggests. In her own garden, she doesn't bother with pruning. “With 30 plants, I don't need 500 pounds of tomatoes per plant,” she says.
7. Water from below. Always water with a drip or soaker hose, rather than a sprinkler, all three growers say. “You don't get as much evaporation, and the water is right where it's supposed to be,” Casteel observes. The goal is to reduce the amount of standing water on the leaves and make them less attractive to pathogens, VanVranken adds.
8. Fertilize mindfully. There are probably as many different tomato-fertilizer philosophies as there are varieties. Be wary of too much nitrogen, VanVranken says, as the plants won't produce the flowers they need to fruit.
Casteel plants her tomatoes in Pro-Mix, a soil with an additive fungi called mycorrhiza that helps plants absorb nutrients. She also adds kelp meal, alfalfa meal, steamed bone meal, worm castings and Epsom salts. “We do our tomatoes organically; however, when I run out of room in the garden, and I need to go into a container, I will use Miracle-Gro [fertilizer],” she says.
It can be challenging to keep a container plant fertilized, because frequent watering leaches nutrients out. “You really need to do a half strength [application] every two weeks, or even quarter strength, and that keeps them happier,” Casteel notes.
9. Go easy on the pest sprays. All three growers stop using sprays once the plant sets fruit. Be on the lookout for the tomato hornworm, a large green caterpillar, VanVranken cautions. If you pay close attention, you can just pick them off before they cause much damage. “Those can do significant damage to a tomato plant and chew on the fruit as well,” he says. “They end up being a great example of how you can get biological control going in your garden.” If you spot a hornworm with tiny white pods sticking out of its back, leave it, he says; the pods are the cocoons of a parasitic wasp, and when the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the insides of the caterpillar.
Aphids are another pest. They can reproduce quickly and suck the nutrient-rich liquids out of the tomato leaves. Clemson UniversityCooperative Extension warns that overuse of nitrogen fertilizer can encourage them. The extension service has a factsheet on aphid control that includes tips ranging from specific mulch to biological controls like lacewing eggs and parasitic wasps.
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Susan Moeller is a contributing writer who covers lifestyle, health, finance and human-interest topics. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she also writes features and essays for the Boston Globe Magazine as well as her local NPR station, among other outlets.