By Steffie Littlefield
Tomatoes are totally the most popular vegetable to grow in one’s own garden. The reason is simple, store-bought tomatoes cannot even compete with the flavor, beauty and satisfaction of home-grown tomatoes. This single vegetable keeps farmer’s markets in business, inspires garden club contests, keeps county fairs interesting and resolves house-buying decisions because there might be enough sun to grow your own tomatoes. For once society is crazed for something that is actually good for us, full of vitamins and potassium.
Growing tomatoes is not as tricky as the Mr. McGregor type veteran vegetable gardener would like you to believe, but there are some tricks to the trade that will make it easier and alleviate frustrations. First, please choose a sight that is sunny. I mean 8 hours of sun uninterrupted by trees and buildings. To get this, raise the bed half way up the fence or garage wall, use the space next to the back door instead of the garage, cut down that weed tree or honeysuckle bush or put them in a pot on your balcony. None of these things will harm your property values; they will only enhance them when you tell a prospective buyer, “I can grow tomatoes!!”
Next in importance is soil preparation. If you are not willing to clear the area of weeds, till in compost and worm castings and maintain a clean bed, then build a raised bed, buy a large pot, Earthbox or Topsy Turvy – tomato planter. Water is also vital to getting a great harvest. Not just rainfall every other week but regular watering that is delivered evenly over the season. My choice is soaker hoses buried in the bed with a timer for twice a week deep watering; this may mean several hours at a slow soak. With good soil prep, fertilizer is not necessary, but if your bed or soil needs a boost try some of the great organic choices like Garden-tone by Espoma, Sea-Tea, or Pro-start. Never over fertilize your tomatoes; this will result in large healthy plants with little or no fruit – wrong result. I plant enough tomatoes for me and the squirrels to enjoy, but if squirrels become a problem, build a cage around your plants, they are worth it!
Choosing which tomatoes to grow becomes the hardest part of the process. There are so many different wonderful tomatoes available that can be grown from seed or as plants. Since it’s now May, the perfect time to plant tomatoes, we will focus on already started plants. There are many different sizes, colors, tastes and textures in the tomato family. So there are just as many different uses for them. There are slicing, sauce, salad, paste, cocktail, drying and canning tomatoes. Some grow better in a pot like Bush Champion, Micro Tom or Patio, because they are determinate, meaning they stop growing at a certain height rather than continue to vine, resulting in lower yields. I like to plant a large variety because I love to mix the colors and tastes in salads, salsas and on platters. I’ve even held tomato-tasting cocktail parties, where I present my guests with many different varieties; I then slice the luscious orbs in front of them to really get the excitement going before they get to taste them. My favorites are Principe Borghese for drying, Yellow Sun Pear and Sun Gold for snacking, Opalka for canning and paste, Brandywine and Celebrity for slicing, Orange Oxheart and Cherokee Purple and Marglobe mixed in my Salsas, and I always love Green Zebra or Aunt Ruby’s German Green as part of my party display with Golden Jubilee and Black Pineapple. Everyone wants to taste the green and black tomatoes. They act surprised and exclaim that they are delicious, but they really aren’t surprised, and they always want more.
Steffie Littlefield is a horticulturist and garden designer at Garden Heights Nursery. She has degrees from St Louis Community College at Meramec and Southeast Missouri State University and is a member of the Gateway Professional Horticulturist Association (GPHA) and past president of the Horticulture Co-op of Metro St Louis.