Tomatoes reign supreme as America’s favorite homegrown garden vegetable, even though it is technically a fruit. Commercially grown tomatoes will never match the flavor and juiciness of the homegrown tomato. But there is perhaps no other crop that has frustrated gardeners more than this fruit because of its susceptibility to pests and diseases. By taking a few simple steps, however, you can grow amazing tomatoes.
Choosing the Right Tomato
The first step in growing tomatoes is to choose varieties that have a high success rate in organic gardens in your region. If you live in the Midwest or Mid-Atlantic regions of the country, large-fruited, open-pollinated varieties seem to grow effortlessly. ‘Brandywine,’ ‘Early Girl,’ ‘Yellow Pear,’ ‘Black Cherry’ and ‘Roma’ are favorite varieties to try.
If you live in the lower South or Gulf Coast regions, growing tomatoes can be difficult. The hot, humid weather encourages soil borne diseases and weakens the tomato plants at the same time. ‘Better Boy’ is the Southern classic because of its flavor and vigorous production, regardless of the weather. Hybrid varieties, developed for their disease resistance, make it possible to grow luscious fruit in these difficult regions. If you wish to grow heirloom varieties, plant them in containers with a soilless potting medium or graft them onto disease-resistant hybrids.
The Northwest and North Central regions, as well as the Rockies, tend to have short summers and extreme temperature fluctuations. Weather resilience and a short maturity are the key issues in choosing tomato plants. Varieties with small fruits, such as ‘Super Sweet 100′, ‘Sungold’, and ‘Juliet’ perform well in these areas of the country.
In the arid Southwest, small-fruited cherry tomatoes are a gardener’s best bet. Larger slicing tomatoes are possible but tricky. They must receive just the right amount of water – too much or too little can cause blossom end rot and splitting.
In the Northeast region and coastal Canada, cool rains cause blight so badly that areas are often referred to as ‘blight-stricken’. The fungus that causes late blight is a ‘plant killer’ and very contagious. Once infected, a plant must be destroyed. The best way to protect your tomato plants is through careful observation, proper sanitation, and preventive sprays.
Site Preparation and Planting
Tomatoes develop their best flavor with at least six to eight hours of sunlight. Add generous amounts of organic matter such as compost or manure and remember to test your soil. Tomatoes prefer a PH of between 6.0 and 6.5.
Loosen the top 12″ of soil in your planting bed. Plant tomatoes deeper than they were in their containers and space plants about 18″ apart. Trim off any leaves that are touching the ground to prevent soil-borne diseases from spreading. Mulching the planting bed will help conserve moisture, moderate temperatures, and discourage soil born diseases.
Cage, trellis or stake your tomatoes to prevent the foliage and fruit of the rambling plants from making ground contact.
Most tomatoes are vulnerable to early blight, which causes lower leaves to develop dry, brown spots with a concentric, black ring. While not devastating to the plant, these diseased leaves should be removed and discarded.
Carefully monitor rainfall and water plants when necessary, to ensure consistent soil moisture. Extremes in soil moisture can cause fruit to split or develop blossom-end rot, a physiological disorder that affects the plant’s ability to absorb the proper amount of calcium.
In the Southeast and Gulf regions, Fusarium oxysporum, a prevalent soil borne fungus, causes plants to turn yellow and die. Crop rotation is the best way to prevent Fusarium wilt. Ideally, tomatoes should not be grown in the same planting beds more often than once every four years.
If your plants are stunted and sickly, with poor fruit set, you may have nematodes. Dig up the affected plant and examine the roots. Nematodes feed on the roots, causing knotty galls and swollen tissues. The damaged roots deprive the plant of moisture and nutrients. Growing resistant varieties, rotating crops, and planting cover crops of French marigolds will help combat these microscopic roundworms. The other option is to grow your tomatoes in containers with a soilless potting mix.
Tomato hornworms are the larvae of the five-spotted hawk moth. This large green caterpillar with white stripes is normally easy to control by handpicking. Daily observation is key. Usually found in small numbers, even one or two can strip a tomato plant in just a day or two.