By a large margin, more gardeners grow tomatoes than any other home garden vegetable. And why not? After you've tasted the sweet, juicy flavor of a fresh, home-grown, sun-warmed tomato, you'll never be satisfied with the store-bought alternative again.
While tomato plants can be prolific, they can also be impacted by weather, and they can attract diseases, insects, and even critters ? I've watched squirrels steal cherry tomatoes! The first step to a successful harvest is to grow reliable varieties that are adapted to your area and offer disease resistance. While regional varieties exist and are fun to grow, most hybrid varieties have been trialed across the country and are the best choice for a beginning gardener or someone looking for a tried-and-true tomato.
Here are some outstanding varieties that should grow reliably anywhere in the country, and suggestions on how to get them off to a good start.
Most Reliable Tomato Varieties
Tomato fruits can be small or large, round or oblong, hybrid or nonhybrid, and they come in almost every color of the rainbow except blue! There are literally hundreds to choose from. The days to maturity are from transplanting into the garden to harvest. Indeterminate plants grow vigorously and need staking or caging. Strong determinate plants also need support, but don't grow as large. All the varieties mentioned below are hybrid.
'Better Boy' (75 days) ? This strong indeterminate tomato is a productive, disease-resistant variety that produces 1-pound red fruits.
'Big Beef' (73 days) ? An All-American Selections variety, 'Big Beef' produces uniform 10- to 12-ounce red fruits that have an heirloom quality. The indeterminate plants have good disease resistance.
'Celebration' (72 days) ? This determinate tomato produces uniform 8-ounce, oblate-shaped red fruits.
'Jetsetter' (64 days) ? An early, indeterminate, and highly disease-resistant variety, 'Jetsetter' produces 8-ounce smooth, juicy, red fruits.
'Lemon Boy' (72 days) ? This large, indeterminate, disease-resistant tomato produces mild-flavored 6- to 7-ounce fruits with unique lemon-yellow skin and flesh.
'Red Brandymaster' (80 days) ? This hybrid cousin of the popular 'Brandywine' heirloom offers the same great looks and taste as the older variety, but has better production and more disease resistance. It produces 1-pound red fruits on potato-leaved vines.
'Small Fry' (65 days) ? A strong determinate red cherry tomato, this variety has great disease and nematode resistance. The fruits weigh less than 1 ounce.
Start your tomatoes indoors 6 weeks before the average last frost date in your area. You can determine your average last frost date by visiting the National Climate Data Center Web site, asking your local garden center, or contacting a Master Gardener in your area.
Fill 2-inch square plastic or peat pots with moistened seed-starting mix and sow 2 seeds per pot. Put the pots in a 70-degree F room under artificial lights turned on 14 hours a day. Use Grow Lights or one warm-white and one cool-white fluorescent bulb in the fixture. Position the lights just a few inches above the seedling tops and raise the lights as the seedlings grow.
Gently brush the seedlings with your hand every day to promote shorter, stockier growth. You can get the same result by placing a small fan near the seedlings and blowing a gentle breeze on them. When the seedling height is 3 times the pot diameter (6 inches tall for 2-inch pots), transplant into 4-inch-diameter pots.
Plan to plant the tomato seedlings outside 1 to 2 weeks after the average last frost date in your area. One week before planting outside, harden off the seedlings. Do this by moving the plants outdoors on a cloudy, calm day for 1 hour. Then bring them indoors again. Each day extend the time the plants spend outdoors. The day before planting, leave them outside overnight.
Preparing the Garden
Unless you have sandy garden soil, plan to create raised beds for your tomatoes. You can build raised bed frames or rake the garden soil into 4"- to 6"-high mounds with flattened tops. As you build the beds, work a 1- to 2-inch-thick layer of compost into the soil. In cold areas cover the beds with red plastic mulch 2 weeks before transplanting. The mulch preheats the soil and the red color helps tomatoes produce more fruit. In general, space tomato seedlings 24" to 36" apart in the beds.
Question of the Week: Growing Asparagus
Q. I want to start an asparagus bed this spring. How should I prepare the soil and site?
A. An asparagus bed is permanent, so take care to prepare it correctly from the beginning. Choose a sunny site. Asparagus will tolerate some shade, but a lot of sun will help ward off disease and produce more vigorous plants. Asparagus likes sandy soil with a pH of about 6.0.
Plant asparagus in rows, spaced 4' apart. Dig trenches about 15-inches deep and 4 or 5 feet apart. Add a 4-inch to 6-inch-deep layer of well-rotted manure or compost in the bottom of the ditch. Add back some of the soil you removed, mixing it in with bone meal. Form a small mound along the length of the trench. Set out the crowns on the top of this mound, spreading the roots carefully and spacing them 2 feet apart. Cover the roots with about 6 inches of soil, packing it gently around the crowns. Gently water the newly-planted crowns. As the shoots emerge, keep adding more soil around them, until the trenches are filled to ground level. Ten plants per person should give you plenty of asparagus. The first year after planting, only a few pathetic spears will emerge. Don't be tempted to pick them! Wait until the third year to begin harvesting for good long-term results.