Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Some Insight into Buying and Planting Tomatoes

Tomatoes are by far our most popular vegetable in the Garden Center. And I certainly understand why. Tomatoes are (and you can even confirm this on my Facebook profile) one of my all-time favorite foods; I eat them like candy. Whether you are slicing them for a sandwich, using them in Spaghetti sauce, or simply eating them like you would an apple (believe me, it’s good), tomatoes are an easy source of nutrition. And considering the price of growing your own, an invaluable vegetable. At Swindlers we sell a four-pack of tomatoes for $1.79. Considering that each plant will produce (on average) about fifteen to twenty pounds of fruit throughout the summer, you will have an abundance of fresh, home-grown tomatoes for less than two dollars. Now think back to that sale at Kroger’s; $1.99 per pound (and a four pack for over two dollars) is starting to look a little pricey. And honestly, the quality (and taste) of a home-grown (and locally bought) tomato is hard to beat. It is by far a more reliable fruit.

The first thing to consider when buying a tomato plant is—which one? Usually when a customer comes into the Garden Center I ask them what they want from their tomatoes. Do you want something you can slice up for a sandwich? Or do you want an Italian-style tomato for sauces and salsa? Are you canning your harvest? When we refer a tomato we usually go by five different groups: standard, beefsteak, cherry, plum, and heirloom.

A standard tomato is your typical slicing tomato. The fruits are usually between 8 and 12 oz. (except in the case of Early Girl, in which case you should expect about a 4-6 oz. fruit) and can be red, orange, or striped (the common variety for this type is Mr. Stripey). These are our biggest sellers because they are the most common. As with all tomatoes you can get a determinate or indeterminate tomato, which, contrary to popular belief, does not indicate the height of the stem. Determinate means simply that the plant will reach maturation and the fruits will be produced at about the same time in the season (so that they can be mechanically harvested). Indeterminate will provide fruit all throughout the season. If you are looking for the height of the stem you should ask whether it has a restricted or unrestricted growth pattern. Common varieties of standard tomatoes are:

  • Better Boy (indeterminate hybrid, more disease resistant than its predecessor Big Boy)
  • Heartland (indeterminate, bush—restricted growth)
  • Jet Star (indeterminate)
  • Mr. Stripey (indeterminate)
  • Early Girl (indeterminate)
  • Celebrity (determinate)
  • Golden Jubilee (indeterminate, orange fruit)
A beefsteak tomato can also be used for slicing, but is known for its “meaty” thick fruit. It typically has a large core and can reach 1-2 lbs. These have a great flavor, and are usually requested specifically by those who want a bigger fruit. Common varieties are:
  • Beefmaster (indeterminate)
  • Ponderosa Pink (indeterminate, heirloom)
  • Supersteak (indeterminate)
  • A cherry tomato has, as you can assume, a small fruit that is comparable in size to a large cherry. Fruits are typically only 1-2 in. in diameter. Common varieties are:
  • Sun Gold (indeterminate)
  • Sweet 100 (indeterminate)
  • Yellow Pear (indeterminate, heirloom, yellow fruit)
  • Tumbling Tom Red/Yellow (indeterminate)
A plum tomato is also known as an Italian tomato. These aren’t your typical round tomato—they are typically longer and more oval shaped. Plum tomatoes are usually used in salsa and in Italian-style sauces. Common varieties are:
  • La Roma (determinate)
  • Italian Gold (determinate, yellow fruit)
Heirlooms are an over-arching category. You probably noticed that some of the varieties listed above are described as being “heirloom” tomatoes. This simply means that they are older (some sources require they be in circulation over 50 years) and less disease-resistant than their hybrid counterparts. Based on this description you might wonder why we bother with them at all. The answer—they are delicious. These fruits have been around a while, just ask your grandmother, and are often requested specifically by name. Common varieties are:
  • Brandywine (indeterminate)
  • Yellow Pear (indeterminate)
  • Ponderosa (indeterminate)
  • Champion (indeterminate, often requested for canning)
  • Marglobe (indeterminate)
  • Mr. Stripey (indeterminate)
  • Valencia (indeterminate, orange fruit)
After choosing a tomato plant the rest is pretty easy (I promise). Plan on planting your tomato so that half of the existing plant is underground (the ground level should be around the first set of true leaves). Believe it or not, tomatoes will root all along the buried stem, so this will help stabilize your plant and will give it a wider root system.

Caged and staked tomatoes in our personal garden at Swindlers

Now for stakes and cages (sounds intense, I know). It is often tricky for those new to tomato plants to tell when/if a stake or cage is necessary. You typically stake tomato plants with indeterminate growth. This helps keep them upright and gives them some more stability. Simply buy a four to six foot stake, stick it in next to the plant, and (now this is optional) tie the plant, carefully, to the stake. For cages, just simply buy a metal cage that can surround the plant (it will have long stakes at the bottom to keep it firmly in place). This keeps your tomato within the cage and controls it a bit (tomato plants can get pretty crazy).

Now, for truth about the acclaimed upside-down tomato pots. You have probably seen the commercials: brands like Topsy Turvy advertise up to 30 lbs of fruit and claim that the pots funnel water and nutrients straight to the plant because, of couse, they grow down out of the pot and not up. All the hype surrounding these cool infomercial pots inspired many avid customers to scramble into the Garden Center looking for such pots. So, of course, we tried it out. And my own personal advice—don’t do it to yourself. And I say this for several reasons. First of all, as my Uncle Gerry says, you can’t trick Mother Nature. A plant’s natural instinct is to grow toward sunlight, meaning that although the plant originally grows down out of the pot, it will vine back up toward the sun (creating a plant that is nearly impossible to move, as its weight increases exponentially throughout the season). And then, to keep up with the growth you will be watering two to three times a day. A third pointer—these pots typically do not have enough soil to support a healthy plant. And finally, the idea that hanging pots keep tomatoes away from ground insects is misleading. The insects that usually go after tomatoes, aphids for example, are airborne. Honestly, at close to fifty dollars a pot, it’s just not worth it. Porch pots are great—the ground is free—but be wary of upside-down hangers.

I hope that this quick buyers’ guide will help you not only as you select your tomatoes this year, but as you plan your garden in future years. As always, let me know if you have any further questions!




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