Tomato Cheat Sheet: Grow Tomatoes Now!

Don’t let the challenges stop you from growing the most popular edible.
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Cherry Tomatoes

Cherry Tomatoes

Cherry tomatoes are perfect for growing in container gardens on patios. 

Cherry tomatoes are perfect for growing in container gardens on patios. 

Few things say summertime like a plump red juicy tomato. And few fruits can be as challenging to grow as one of them.

Excessive hybridizing by growers and less-than-ideal growing conditions have combined to put a host of hurdles in between gardeners—who covet a bountiful harvest each summer—and the garden’s most popular edible.

Tomatoes were introduced to European gardens in the 1500s, but were used mainly as ornamentals because they were thought to be poisonous. In fact, they did not even become popular in this country until the 1850s. 

Today, with more than 6,000 varieties to choose from in a wide array of colors, shapes, sizes, growth habits and yield dates, gardeners often find themselves scratching their heads when the seed catalogs come out each winter. 

One major consideration in choosing which type to plant are their two distinct growth habits: determinate or indeterminate. Determinate plants form low bushes with a cluster of flowers at the ends of stems that stops plant growth so that all the fruit forms at the same time. After several pickings, the plant is done and can be removed. Indeterminate varieties, grown on trellises or stakes, set clusters of fruit along a vining stem that grows all season, producing fruit until the first frost kills the plant.  

Beyond those two choices are four basic categories of tomatoes:

  • Beefstake—the largest fruit but smaller yields than other types.
  • Plum—fleshy fruit and rich flavors.
  • Cherry—berry-sized fruit, great for containers.
  • Heirlooms—variety of shapes and colors.

Here’s a basic guide to growing them:

When to plant:  Plant seeds or bedding plants in early spring once all threat of frost has passed. For successive plantings, choose early, mid-season- and late-maturing varieties. If you live in mild or warm climates, you can also plant an early and late crop for spreading the harvest from June through October.
Where to plant:  Plant in well-drained soil rich in organic matter in a site that receives full sun (eight to 10 hours daily).
How to plant:  Prepare soil by tilling or spading in composted organic matter and fertilizer such as 10-10-10. Set hills at least 2 to 3 feet apart. If using transplants, plant to the depth of the cell in the container they came in. If plants are leggy, plant them on their sides and lightly cover the base stem with soil.
Care and maintenance: Water regularly and evenly. Mulch plants to maintain even soil moisture. Tomatoes are heavy feeders, so give them a high-potash liquid fertilizer once the plants bloom, then twice a month once fruit appears. Stake bush-type tomatoes (determinates) with a cane, tying branches to them to alleviate the weight of fruit clusters. Vining-type tomatoes (indeterminate) will require a trellis-like support for tying in stems as they grow. 

Problems:  Choose disease-resistant varieties to avoiding wilting and yellowing. Use insecticidal soap on aphids and mites. The other major challenges are tomato blight and blossom-end rot. 

Blight is a family of diseases caused by a fungus that spreads through the plant, especially during wet weather, causing leaves to yellow, rot and drop. Remove the leaves to prevent spreading to other plants. Be proactive: Choose resistant plants, rotate crops, allow space between plants, mulch, and water only from below. 

Blossom end rot is a plant disorder that spreads quickly, forming a black spot or indentation at the base, or blossom end, of the fruit. Typically caused by a calcium deficiency or inappropriate moisture, it cannot be treated with fungicides. Calcium amendments can be used, but don’t expect a quick fix. Again, the best approach is prevention, including establishing a soil pH of about 6.5 for adequate calcium uptake and proper soil amendments.

Tomato Varieties

Here are a few categories to consider:

Mainstays:  'Berry Boy', 'Celebrity', 'Fantastic', 'Beefmaster', 'Delicious', 'Supersteak', 'Big Red', 'Beefeater', 'Pink Wonder'
Early harvest: 'Quick Pick', 'Bush Early Girl', 'Jetsetter'

Early to medium harvest: 'Red Sun', 'Mountain Spring'
Heirlooms: 'Tigerella', 'Purple Russian', 'Antique Roman', 'Green Sausage'

Cherry: 'Gold Nugget', 'Tumbling Tom', 'Chocolate Cherry', 'Gardener’s Delight'

Plum: 'Roma', 'Summer Sweet', 'Black Plum'

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