By Amanda Legare
According to the National Gardening Association web site, nine out of ten gardeners will grow tomatoes this summer, making them the most popular garden vegetable (although technically they are fruits).
If I could give just one piece of advice for growing tomatoes, it would be to get LOTS of compost into the soil. Whether it is from your own compost pile, purchased bags of composted manure or something from a local farmer, it makes a big difference.
In Vermont, Town Meeting Day, the first Tuesday in March, is the traditional date to plant tomatoes. This is too early for most home gardeners and they end up with leggy plants. Mid-April is better. Of course every greenhouse is going to offer tomato plants as well. The question then becomes — to buy hybrids or heirlooms; determinates or indeterminates?
Until last summer I had little luck with heirlooms. Yes, they have wonderful flavor, but they are more susceptible to disease and the yield is small compared to hybrids. And then I planted the heirloom Paul Robeson. The flavor and the yield were excellent. Paul Robeson was an African American opera singer and an equal rights advocate who stood up to the McCarthy committee in the 1950s.
This tomato is more maroon than red in color. I don’t grow many off-red tomatoes, but based on my success with Paul Robeson, this year I will try Kellogg’s Breakfast, an orange tomato. Supposedly it tastes better than Yellow Brandywine and is a better producer. I never would have considered growing a green tomato before, but I keep reading glowing reviews about Green Giant tomato, so that’s one more heirloom I’ll grow this year. Another unusual heirloom I will offer for the first time is Pink Berkeley Tie Dye. It won several taste tests. Catalogs describe it as “…the color of port wine with metallic green stripes.”
I grow both determinate and indeterminate varieties. Determinate tomatoes grow 3-4 feet tall and their entire crop ripens within 2-3 weeks. They are typically earlier than indeterminate tomatoes which keep growing until cold weather stops them. Most heirlooms are indeterminate.
There are a few growing techniques I repeat year after year. One is to plant the tomatoes deep. I remove the lower leaves and bury the stem. The little “hairs” on that stem turn quickly into roots. More roots mean more fruits.
I put straw or some kind of mulch at the base of the tomato plant to prevent water from splashing back up on the leaves, to protect the plant from disease, to hold the moisture and to reduce weeds. I give the plants a good watering as needed at their base, not on the leaves.
Last year I had a huge crop of tomatoes and no late tomato blight. I’d like to credit my fine gardening skills, but I think the weather had a lot to do with it. Other gardeners reported tomato success as well.
I have never liked tomato cages. I prefer using tall stakes and tying the main branch of the plant to the stake with soft cloth.
To “sucker” or not? Some serious tomato growers advise leaving the suckers on the plant, believing the more photosynthesis produced, the more tomatoes you will get. I often remove suckers because the plants get too crowded. This year I will plant them farther apart and try planting two of the same variety, suckering one and not the other. When the tomatoes on indeterminate plants start to ripen and the first frost is around the corner, I trim the top of the plant. My thought is that the energy should go into the existing fruit, not into new growth.
The quality of store-bought tomatoes has improved, but the lyrics of the song “Homegrown Tomatoes” still stand for me:
“What’d life be without homegrown tomatoes
Only two things that money can’t buy
That’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.”
Amanda Sessel Legare operates Amanda’s Greenhouses and Perennials in Cabot, where she has field-dug perennials and four greenhouses. www.amandasgreenhouse.com
•This column previously appeared in Danville’s North Star Monthly.