What to know and how to grow.
Considered the home garden’s most popular vegetable, tomatoes are nutritious, low in calories and easy to grow with a little guidance. Did you know one medium-sized tomato gives you 57% of your recommended daily allowance of vitamin C, 25% Vitamin A and 8% iron, with just 35 calories? With all the hype about the newest super foods, tomatoes have always been an unassuming powerhouse.
Adding them to the menu is easy, sliced on sandwiches, diced for bruschetta, omelets, salads, salsa or sauces, stewed, fried, juiced or pickled. It’s especially easy when you can pluck yours straight from the vine and turn them into lunch or dinner.
Tomatoes cannot handle frost or freezing weather. Always plant when the danger of frost is over in your area. Some want to have the earliest possible fruit so they will plant early and baby the plants by covering them with blankets on frosty nights. In central Kentucky, the best time is to wait to plant your tomatoes until at least Derby Day or Mother’s Day. From that point forward, you can plant tomatoes in intervals until the end of June. By staggering your plantings, you can have beautiful tomatoes until the first of October.
There are a few things you should know before you grow. Things that will make it easier to grow what you love to eat, harvest when you’re ready to use and avoid disease.
Tomatoes are available in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from round, slightly flattened or pear-shaped and from bite-size cherry types to giant beefsteak slicer tomatoes. The choice often depends on how and when you will use the fruit.
Most people recognize them in red, but tomatoes also grow in yellow, orange, deep burgundy and pink. Tomato cultivars can be classified according to their growth habits, determinate and indeterminate.
Determinate (or bush) varieties grow to a pre-determined height and then stop. They are bush-shaped, with flowers appearing at the tips of their branches once they reach their mature height. The majority of their fruit comes within a few weeks time. Determinate tomatoes are good choices if you want your harvest early in the season and all at once (for canning or enjoying before a vacation, for example).
Most determinate plants do best with a cage, a wire support enclosing and supporting the plant. This also gives all your new growth support, something that means your plant will need little to no pruning.
If you decide against caging, a stake should be set in place at planting time to avoid any injury to the root system down the line. Use a sturdy pole at least 8 feet tall and 1 inch in diameter. Set the pole 1-2 feet deep and about 4 inches from the plant. Use a soft cord to secure the plant to the stake.
Indeterminate varieties continue to grow and produce fruit along the stems throughout the growing season. With so much growth, they do best with a very tall trellis or cage of 5 feet or more. You can prune back the shoots to control the size of the fruit or you can train them up your supports. Indeterminate tomatoes are good choices if you are able to use and enjoy tomatoes throughout the entire growing season (on salads, sandwiches or in fresh salsa or bruschetta).
Tomatoes are fairly versatile, but they love loose, loamy, well-drained soil. You’ll want to till or spade by hand to loosen the soil then apply 2-3 pounds of a complete fertilizer per 100 square feet of garden area. Do not use a high nitrogen fertilizer made for lawns.
Look for short, stocky plants with dark green color and straight, sturdy stems about the size of a pencil or thicker. Steer clear of plants with yellowing leaves, spots or other indications of disease, pest or stress damage.
Tomatoes are warm-season plants that do not tolerate frost or chilly temperatures. We normally recommend planting early to mid-May when the danger of frost has past and soil has had a chance to warm.
Be sure to save the sunniest spots for your tomatoes, this will give you optimum fruit production. This is one of the reasons we recommend container growing to beginners or people interested in a smaller harvest. Container plants can always be moved into the sun, closer to water sources and outdoor food prep areas.
For garden planting, space plants 1 ½ – 2 feet apart for small bush-like (determinate) plant or larger plants that will be staked. Space larger plants 3 – 4 feet apart to allow for caging. And be sure to water thoroughly to establish good root/soil contact and prevent wilting. We recommend watering in a starter fertilizer to get roots off to a good start.
STAKING & CAGING
Stakes should be set in place at planting time to avoid injury to developing root systems. Use a sturdy pole at least 8 feet tall and 1 inch thick. Bury the pole at least 1-2 feet deep and about 4 inches away from the plant. Secure the plant to the stake with soft cord.
Always keep in mind the mature size of your plant when choosing or building your tomato cage, a wire support that encloses your plant on all sides. A cage that’s 4 ½ inches in diameter and 4-5 feet tall will support most tomato varieties. We recommend setting up the cage when you plant so you won’t have to disturb the maturing plant.
MOISTURE & MULCH
Tomatoes need 1 – 1 ½ inches of water per week to maintain plant health and good fruit quality. A fresh 2-4 inch layer of organic mulch such as straw, hay or hardwood chips or even grass clippings will help seal in soil moisture and prevent evaporation. Mulching will also help prevent weeds from germinating and competing with tomatoes.
As you start looking through tomato varieties, you’ll begin to notice a variety of letters after each one. These letters stand for resistance to certain common tomato diseases. Most garden centers will offer some hybrid varieties that offer higher disease resistance.
V – Verticillium Wilt
F – Fusarium Wilt
N – Nematodes
T – Tobacco Mosaic Virus
A – Alternaria
St – Gray Leaf Spot
The most common tomato diseases in Kentucky gardens are Anthracnose, Early Blight and Septoria Leaf Spot, all characterized by spots on either the leaves or fruits. Fungicides are available to help in preventing them, but choose resistant cultivars whenever possible and pay attention to moisture needs to keep your plants as healthy as possible.
Both temperature and variety will influence the color and how fast your tomatoes ripen. Have patience, as some varieties will take longer than others (you can check the tag for average harvest time from planting).
Many gardeners like to pick their tomatoes vine ripened, which sounds good but can sometimes lead to sun-scald and cracking, so we recommend picking most of your tomatoes on the pink side and allowing them to ripen fully off the plant. Contrary to popular belief, light isn’t necessary, and even green tomatoes will ripen to a red color if placed in a dark, warm location.