Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Vegetables

Terrific Tomatoes

by Susan Littlefield

Tomatoes are by far America's most popular vegetable for the home garden. And it's not surprising. Nothing beats the taste of a perfectly vine ripened tomato -- certainly nothing you can buy at the supermarket! Whether you have the space to grow rows of tomatoes for canning and freezing or only enough for a few container plants, growing your own is a fun and easy way to enjoy the delectable harvest that only a homegrown tomato offers.

Choose Shapes, Sizes, and Color

The iconic tomato may be round and red, but there is a lot more variety than that out in the world of tomatoes. With fruits from globe to pear-shaped, in colors ranging from classic red-orange to yellow, pink, and orange, borne on vines that reach from a foot and a half tall to six feet high or more, there's a tomato to fit every garden.

With all this bounty, how do you choose? Here are some things to keep in mind to help you select the best tomatoes for your garden.

Hybrid or Open-Pollinated

Hybrid tomatoes, the products of modern breeding programs, generally offer the advantages of increased disease resistance and greater and more uniform fruit production. If you plant seeds saved from a hybrid, they won't come true, meaning they won't produce plants like the parent.

The seeds of open-pollinated varieties do come true and can be saved from year to year, if you choose. And many gardeners feel that these older varieties, some of which are considered heirlooms, have the richest tomato flavor.

Determinate or Indeterminate

Indeterminate tomato plants continue to grow taller and set fruits through out the growing season, up until the point when frost finishes off the vines. These types of tomatoes need sturdy stakes, cages, or trellises to support all that growth. Most heirloom tomato varieties fall into this category.

Determinate tomatoes are bred grow to a particular height, usually under 4 feet, at which point they set their all fruits. The smaller plants need less in the way of support than indeterminate types and are good choices for container growing. They are also a boon to those who plan to preserve their harvest by canning or freezing, since the all the tomatoes ripen together within a relatively short period of time.

Cherry, Paste, or Slicer

Do you want large "beefy" tomatoes to slice up for sandwiches? Cherry tomatoes to toss in your salad? Paste tomatoes for sauce making? Mild flavored low-acid varieties? There's a tomato that's just right for every table and culinary use. Experimenting with new varieties is part of the fun of growing tomatoes at home. Who knows when you'll discover a new favorite!

Here is a sampling of just some of the many delicious hybrid and open-pollinated (OP) tomato varieties we offer.

'Beefmaster' Hybrid (80 days) —This indeterminate tomato ripens fruits up to 2 pounds with outstanding taste and eating quality.

'Margo' Hybrid (72 days) —Growing only 30 inches tall, this determinate variety produces juicy and flavorful 6-ounce red fruits.

'Ponderosa Pink' OP (80 days) —The large, flattened, low-acid fruits of this indeterminate variety have a very mild flavor.

'Porter' OP (78 days) —This old-time, drought-tolerant indeterminate tomato with plum-shaped, dark pink fruits is a favorite is the Southwest.

'Roma VF' OP (78 days) —A great choice for making pastes and purees, this determinate variety bears its red fruits in large clusters.

'Yellow Pear' OP (78 days) —The mild flavor of the small, yellow pear-shaped fruits of this indeterminate variety tastes great in a salad.

To Prune or Not to Prune

You don't need to prune the suckers on your tomato plants to get a good crop, but pruning can be helpful at times. In general, determinate varieties do better with little or no pruning, since they are smaller plants and removing the suckers may take away too much foliage and leave the ripening fruits vulnerable to sunscald.

Removing the suckers on larger, indeterminate varieties can help reduce fungal problems by opening up the mass of foliage to light and air, especially if you are supporting your plants in cages. It can also help to keep the size of these continually growing plants in bounds. It will reduce the overall yield of your tomato plant, but pruned plants tend to produce larger fruits that ripen a little earlier than those on unpruned vines.

So exactly where are these suckers that you'll prune off? Look for the side shoots that arise in the angle between the leaf stalks and the main stem. When they are a couple of inches long, just reach in and pinch them off with your fingers by gently rocking the sucker back and forth until it breaks off.

Tomato Troubles

If your tomato plant has blossoms on it, but they drop off without setting fruit, this could be a result of exposure to temperature extremes. If it gets below 55 degrees at night or above 90 degrees during the day, your plants may not set fruits. When the weather turns more moderate, fruit set will begin.

Perhaps you've noticed puckering and corky brown strips on your tomatoes. Called catfacing, these stripes of scar tissue form when something interferes with the normal development of the tomato flower. This can be the result of temperature extremes, especially cold, or drought. It is most common on the first fruits of the season. Don't set out plants too early when the weather is still cool; wait until air and soil temperatures are nice and warm.

Tomatoes sometimes develop circular cracks, usually around the stem end of the fruit. This cracking occurs when the tomato suddenly enlarges too quickly as it ripens. Sometimes the cracks form concentric circles; sometimes they radiate out vertically. When tomato fruits are at the mature green stage and the water supply to the plant decreases, the tomato begins to ripen. The thickening of the outer layer of the tomato skin is part of this process. If the plant's water supply increases suddenly again, as when heavy rain follows a period of drought, the fruits enlarge rapidly and this tougher outer layer cracks. Some varieties, especially some of the older ones, are especially susceptible to cracking. To control this problem, try to keep soil moisture consistent by watering regularly, especially as tomato fruits are maturing, and make sure the soil around the plants is well mulched.

Question of the Month: Curling Tomato Leaves

Q: The leaves on my tomatoes are curling up. Is this a disease?

A: Tomato leaf roll is a temporary condition, the causes of which are not completely understood. It usually appears about the time plants are setting fruits and starts on the older leaves first. It often occurs when the soil moisture is excessive, such as after a period of heavy rain. When the soil dries out, the leaves unroll. Leaf roll is most common on plants that are staked or pruned. This condition doesn't seem to have any long-term effect on the growth of the vine or tomato production. Some varieties seem to be more prone to leaf curling than others. If leaf rolling occurs regularly in your garden, it could be an indication that you need to work on improving soil drainage.

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