Reflecting on Tomatoes: December, 2013

By Susan Littlefield

The close of the year is a time for reflection on the highs and lows of the past twelve months, as well as a time for making plans for the upcoming year. So it's a great time to think back over how things went in the garden -- both the positives and the negatives -- and begin making plans for another season of growing. Tomatoes are the number one home vegetable garden crop in the country and one most of us include in our garden each year. How did yours do this past season? Did particular varieties become family favorites? Were your plants troubled by insects or disease? Did you have enough for all your canning or freezing needs? Here are some things to consider when evaluating your tomato crop, with an eye to an even more bountiful harvest next year!

A Tomato for Every Purpose

There are so many different kinds of tomatoes available these days that your biggest challenge may be trying to find space for all the ones that entice you! If you are short on space, choose varieties or types that fit best with how you plan to use your crop. If fresh eating is paramount, choose large, beefsteak types for slicing. Small cherry and grape tomatoes are perfect for snacking or tossing into a salad. Meaty paste-type varieties cook up into delicious sauces for canning or freezing.

Tomato varieties can be either determinate or indeterminate. Indeterminate plants continue to grow taller and set fruits throughout the season, stopping only when frost finishes them off. Many of the tasty heirloom varieties fall into this category. The continued fruit set makes them ideal for gardeners who want a regular supply of fresh tomatoes for the table. But these large vines needs sturdy support, whether it's stakes, cages, or a trellis.

Determinate vines grow to a particular height, usually under 4 feet, then set their fruits within a relatively short period of time. If you need a large supply of tomatoes at one time for canning or freezing, these are the ones for you. Determinate varieties also generally ripen the earliest, making them a good choice for gardeners in short-season parts of the country.

And have we mentioned colors? Red may be the iconic tomato color, but you can grow a feast for your eyes as well as your taste buds with a rainbow harvest of yellow, pink, purple, orange, even striped fruits.

Here are just some the many varieties of tomatoes we offer to try in your garden:

'Big Beef' (73 days) - A great all-around hybrid for home gardens, this indeterminate variety produces tomatoes that average 10-12 ounces.

'Celebration' (72 days) - A very adaptable determinate variety with large, deep red, uniform fruits.

'Jetsetter' (64 days) - Thus extra-early indeterminate hybrid shows great disease tolerance and sets big fruits with great flavor.

'Margo' (72 days) - Perfect for small spaces, this determinate vine grows only about 30 inches tall and sets red fruits that average 6 ounces.

'Rutgers' (80 days) - This open-pollinated, indeterminate variety produces red, globe-shaped fruits that are a good choice for canning.

'Ponderosa Pink' (80 days) - A low-acid type, its large, flattened, pink fruits have a very mild flavor.

Short Season Success

Bring in a great harvest of warmth-loving tomatoes in short-season parts of the country with a little bit of preparation and planning. Start with a determinate variety that's been bred to set fruit well in cool weather. Use raised beds and black or red plastic mulch to warm up the soil prior to planting. Lay the plastic down 2 to 3 weeks before you set plants in the ground.

Set out your main crop of transplants after all danger of frost is past and the soil is toasty -- usually a week or two after the last frost date in your area. But set out a few plants early with some protection, and in most seasons you'll be rewarded with the earliest homegrown tomatoes on the block. About 3 weeks before your usual planting date, set out transplants in beds that have been pre-warmed with plastic mulch. Surround each plant with a cage wrapped in clear, heavy plastic (or use a commercial product such as Wall-o-water) and provide some extra covering on especially cold nights. Be sure to remove this extra protection as the weather warms so you don't ″cook″ your tomatoes.

Tips for Hot Climates

Gardeners in the warmest parts of the country have the opposite problem from those is colder climates -- it gets too hot in summer for tomatoes! Tomatoes are like Goldilocks; they need temperatures that are not too cold, not too hot, but just right in order to set fruits. When temperatures get above 85-90 degrees in the day or remain above 70 degrees F at night, tomatoes may drop their blossoms and fail to set fruits. To avoid this problem, grow two crops of tomatoes -- a spring-planted crop that's harvested before summer's scorchers arrive, and a second crop set out in mid to late summer for harvest during the cooler weather of fall.

Growing Terrific Transplants

The best transplants are not necessarily the largest, especially if they are leggy and weak. Start your seeds 6-8 weeks before you plan to set them in the garden and make sure they get plenty of bright light. For most folks, this means providing supplemental fluorescent light to keep young plants growing strong. Give seedling 14 hours of light a day; don't keep lights on around the clock. This way you'll have sturdy, stocky seedlings that will get established quickly in the garden.

Brush your hands gently across the tops of your seedlings every day. This little bit of movement will also help seedlings develop sturdy stems. Or you can set a fan to blow gently across your young plants.

Avoiding Pest and Disease Problems

Rotating the location of your tomato plants and their relatives (peppers, eggplants, potatoes) can help to short-circuit some insect and disease problems. Try for a three-year rotation, if possible.

Choose disease and nematode resistant varieties. Look for ones with resistance to verticillium and fusarium wilts, tomato mosaic, and other diseases.

Keep plants watered consistently throughout the growing season to reduce problems with blossom end rot, a physiological disorder related to fluctuations in soil moisture. Even soil moisture will also reduce fruit cracking.

Clean up and dispose of all plant debris in the tomato patch at the end of the season. This will reduce the number of overwintering insects and disease spores that will be around to cause problems the following season.

Question of the Month: White Blotches on Tomatoes

Q: Last year my some of the tomatoes on my plants had large whitish blotches that almost looked like blisters. Later these spots started to rot. Is this some kind of disease?

A: Your tomatoes weren't diseased; they were sunburned! Called sunscald, this damage to tomato fruits occurs when they are exposed to a lot of direct sun when the weather is hot. It happens most commonly on staked plants that have been heavily pruned or ones that have lost a lot of leaves to disease. Sunscald usually occurs on the side of the tomato facing the sun. The damaged area first turns whitish and blistered, then later becomes sunken with a papery surface. Eventually rot may start in the damaged areas. Go easy on pruning and try to keep plants healthy to maintain good leaf cover for the developing fruits. Cover plants with shade cloth or row cover fabric during hot, sunny weather if there isn't adequate foliage left on the vines. Tomatoes with rot that's set in are not edible, but if you harvest before rot begins, you can cut away the sunscalded area and eat the rest of the tomato.

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