Best Practices: Growing great tomatoes

The tomato is a relative newcomer to the domesticated vegetable (actually classified botanically as a fruit) gardening world. It is native  to parts of south America, as are its cousins, the pepper, potato and eggplant. The  modern tomato is very different from its ancestors. The conquistadors brought back with them to Europe from the “New World.” They we’re once thought to be poisonous like their “Nightshade” cousins. Once the Europeans overcame their fear of this luscious fruit the breeding and selecting took off. Thank you Gregor Mendel. Though he wasn’t to be born for another few centuries… But I digress…

Tomatoes, like their cousins mentioned above, are in the nightshade family. (Solanum) This includes the aforementioned deadly nightshade and potato, eggplant, pepper, tomatillo, ground/husk cherry AKA Cape Gooseberry, tobacco, petunia (yes, really), datura, browallia and Chinese lantern.  The cape gooseberry actually has low levels of nicotine in the fruit we eat. YUM!

Tomatoes aren’t overly fussy garden critters, but they do prefer somewhat fertile soil. They will produce best in soils high in magnesium, as do all their cousins. A thick layer of mulch does them great good as it keeps the large root system cool and helps retain soil moisture. A plastic mulch works well as does a natural mulch of grass clippings or leaf compost. We put down several sheets of our local paper then pile on the grass clippings. This can all be tilled into the soil later and feed the worms, beneficial fungi and soil microbes. Your soil IS… or should be… Alive! The more “Alive” your soil is, the better all of your crops will fare. One more benefit to mulching is that it prevents soil from splashing up on the lower leaves. That helps prevent a few diseases from taking hold. The French grow their tomatoes like grapes. They remove any leaves and suckers from the lower third of the plant thus eliminating a potential route of disease transmission. Tomatoes are heat lovers, but there are many new cultivars which are cool/cold tolerant and will perform very well and not sacrifice flavor. Tomatoes do most of their ripening during warm late summer nights which can sometimes be a problem in the northern climates or at higher elevations. Night time row covers or rudimentary greenhouses made with sticks and ordinary plastic sheeting can trap heat and assist in fruit ripening. You wouldn’t want to trap heat during the day, so take care to remove them before the sun gets too high and stews your “Maters” right out in the garden.

We trellis our tomato plants mostly. Stakes are good, but can rot and break at the soil level unless they’re made from good solid hardwood. Metal cages are OK but not our personal favorite, mainly because people always purchase undersized cages not really up to the task. Thing BIG folks! If you have great soil, your plants are going to respond with lots of healthy growth and literally as much as 100 pounds of fruit. It’s disheartening to see tomato plants fully laden with fruit all tipped over and laying on the ground after an intense summer storm where the mice and slugs can feast on them. If you’re like me, you jealously guard those tomatoes like they were your own children… better perhaps. LOL

Insect predation can sneak up on us because the plants can get very large and a wee tiny mama bug-a-boo can sneak in unnoticed until her devil spawn children hatch and begin to devour your plants as you sleep or while you’re at work. (!) Horned Tomato Worm are masters of disguise as they blend in perfectly with the color of the plants, they’re like garden Ninja’s, Colorado Potato Beetle doesn’t just eat potato plants, Japanese Beetle can sometimes be an issue as can aphids, thrips and a whole host of others. I tell ya, it’s a jungle out there folks. Vigilance will win the day. We prefer NOT to water most of our plants from above, it cuts down on disease issues. Drip watering offers many benefits.

Top recommendations: Select tomato varieties best suited for your specific climate and region. I always ask new customers about their specific micro-climate. This has resulted in tomato success for people who’ve never been able to successfully ripen a tomato before. Mulch mulch mulch! Trim back excess side shoots and lower leaves. Drip water plants whenever possible. Watch for BUGS! Learn the warning signs of disease. Cover plants at night during later summer to improve ripening. Get Michelle’s recipe for tomato cheese pie! OMG!

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