Getting Started with Tomatoes

By Charlie Nardozzi

With the turning of the new year, it's time to start thinking about the vegetable garden. While there are many great vegetables to grow, the one most gardeners crave is tomatoes. Nothing is better than a fresh, vine-ripened tomato picked from your own garden and eaten within minutes of harvest. The flavor, juiciness, and freshness top any store-bought fruit.

Luckily, tomatoes are easy to grow throughout the country. All it takes is selecting the right variety for your area and getting started early. While you can buy transplants from garden centers in spring, why not grow your own tomato varieties indoors this winter? You'll be able to try unusual varieties and have the satisfaction of knowing these fruits were nurtured by you from seed to fruit.

Here are the basics of starting seeds indoors and growing tomato seedlings ready for transplant in the garden.

The Right Varieties

Tomato varieties are grouped a number of different ways. You can select varieties based on fruit size, color, or shape, or by growth characteristics such as plant size, hybrid versus heirloom, or disease resistance. Before you select your varieties based on an alluring photograph or catalog description, make sure they will grow well in your area. There are varieties adapted to the high heat of the south and the short growing season of the north. Some varieties have special disease or insect resistance properties that are particularly important in various regions of the country. It's always best to select a variety suitable for your region before deciding on other characteristics such as fruit color or size. What good is a gorgeous tomato variety if it doesn't grow well?

Here are some tried-and-true varieties and some regionally adapted ones to try in your garden this summer.

Big Beef Hybrid - This widely adapted, All-America Selections winner is an indeterminate, midseason variety that's an improvement over the popular 'Big Boy'. It has better production and disease resistance.

Celebrity Hybrid - This standard variety can be grown throughout the country. It features a disease-resistant, strongly determinate bush and early-maturing, 7-ounce, red fruits.

Golden Boy Hybrid - For a tomato of a different color, try this gold-fruited variety. This indeterminate plant produces large, globe-shaped fruits that mature late in the season.

Patio Hybrid - For the gardener with little room to grow tomatoes in the yard, try growing this dwarf variety in containers on a sunny deck or patio. The plant only grows 1 to 2 feet tall and produces large, cherry-sized, red fruits in midsummer.

Ponderosa Pink - If you are looking for a pink tomato, try this indeterminate heirloom that produces low-acid fruits late in the season.

Porter - This heirloom has been grown in the southwest for generations for good reason. The drought-tolerant, indeterminate plant produces plum-shaped fruits late in the season.

Solar Fire Hybrid - This midseason variety is especially adept at setting fruits during the high heat of summer in southern gardens. Compact determinate, disease-resistant vines produce 8- to 10-ounce, red fruits.

Yellow Pear - For an old-fashioned flavor, try growing this midseason heirloom variety. It features yellow, pear-shaped fruits on an indeterminate plant.

Start Early

Unless you live in the deep south or southwest, you'll have to start your tomato plants from seed indoors four to six weeks before your last frost date in your area. Even if you live in these warmer climates, transplanting tomato seedlings versus sowing seed in the ground gives the plants a jump on the growing season and any insects and diseases.

Under grow lights, sow 2 to 3 seeds per plastic or peat pot, thinning to the strongest seedling after germination. Fill the pots with a soilless potting mix and keep the mix moist but not wet. Once true leaves form and the height of the seedlings is three times the width of the pot, transplant your tomatoes into larger containers.

To get the best performance from your seedlings, consider starting them in a germination station. This heating mat with a plastic dome adds extra warmth to hasten germination time and reduce the number of seeds that rot before sprouting. The dome keeps the humidity and temperature just right for quick growth.

Prepare the Garden

Tomatoes are heavy-feeding plants, so be sure to "beef up" the soil before planting. As soon as the soil can be worked, mix in a 2- to 3-inch-thick layer of finished compost. Create raised beds, especially on heavy clay soils, to speed the drying and warming of the soil so you can plant sooner. In all but the hottest climates, lay red or black plastic mulch on the soil one week before planting to keep the soil heated and weed free.

Once all threat of frost has passed, harden off your seedlings to get them used to the wind and outdoor temperatures before transplanting into the garden.

The Early Weeks

Your tomato plants' success is dependent on how well they grow the first few weeks in the ground. While older plants are tough and can take the vagaries of the weather, young plants are more sensitive to sun, wind, and cold. Protect young plants from the harsh sun in southern areas with a cloth shading plants in the afternoon. In the north, block gusty winds and keep the air and soil warm while the plants adjust to being outdoors. Protect your plants by laying a floating row cover over the seedlings. Side-dress transplants monthly with a balanced fertilizer to keep them growing strong.

For all but dwarf and compact determinate varieties, stake or cage the plants early in the season while plants are still small. By placing the supports in the ground now, you'll avoid harming the roots later in the season when the plants are larger.


Plastic versus Peat Pots

Q: I'm considering using peat pots instead of plastic pots to start my tomatoes this year. What are the advantages and disadvantages of using peat pots?

A: Peat pots offer a major advantage over plastic pots. When transplanting into the garden, you don't have to remove the seedling from the pot and disturb the roots. All you do is gently break the peat pot enough to help the roots get a head start growing into the soil.

On the other hand, plastic pots can be used repeatedly. Also, plastic pots don't dry out as fast as peat pots, and the seedlings slide out of the plastic pots easily. The best approach would be to grow some tomatoes in peat and some in plastic and see if you notice a difference in performance in your garden.

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