Tips for Top Tomatoes

By Steve Trusty

The best-tasting tomatoes are those you have picked at their prime right off your own vine. If you have some space, you should still be able to get a good crop this year as long as started plants are available. The first choice is location. Whether planting in the ground or in containers, the plants will need at least six hours of sun per day. Light shade in hotter climates will protect plants from excess heat. Tomatoes don't fruit well when temperatures get above 90 degrees. The soil should be rich and well-drained. Do not plant tomatoes in the same soil that has had tomatoes for the last two or three years.

Choosing varieties. Choosing the best tomato can be personal. One thing to consider is use. Do you want the fruit for salads (sliced or whole), cooking, canning, or drying? Do you want different flavors or colors? Do you want one large crop or a season-long harvest? Size matters; do you want large, small or some in-between?

Your first decision is between determinate and indeterminate varieties. Determinate don't take up as much room and bear one crop. Indeterminate varieties bloom and fruit over an extended period and, generally, take up more room and are best staked or caged. If you are planning to process the crop, having them all ready at about the same time is a plus. For fresh eating or cooking, indeterminate is your best bet.

While there may not be a large selection of plants available at any one place as the season moves on, there are hundreds of varieties to choose from. There are the small fruits like cherry, pear, and plum. There are midsize and large fruited slicing tomatoes. There are early, midseason and late tomatoes. There are tomatoes for paste and other cooking. There are now hundreds of heirloom varieties.

Tomatoes are not just red and yellow. You can now choose from white, black, purple, cream, pink and brown. There are some that stay green when ripe and combinations of any of the colors. The more room you have, the more you can experiment. I like the small varieties for their sweetness and for salads. When I harvest, I can pop one in my mouth for every few I throw in the basket. I like the midsized for slicing for sandwiches and for cooking. The large varieties also work well for just about any use except a quick snack.

Choosing plants. At this stage of the season you will be better off selecting for plant quality rather than being overly concerned about particular varieties. Select the healthiest plants you can find. Avoid plants that are spindly, those with yellowing or spotted leaves, and those that have overgrown their pots.

Planting and care. If you have purchased plants that are fairly large, in bloom, and in large enough pots so they are not root bound, plant them at the same depth as they are in the pot. If they are in good shape except in smaller pots and the roots are starting to circle inside, carefully score some of the roots and plant them as deep as possible. More roots will form from the scored one and sprout from the buried stem. The better the root system, the sturdier the plant, and the better the crop.

Indeterminate tomatoes will yield better, be less prone to disease, and be easier to pick if staked. Stakes, cages, towers, or trellises should be put in place as soon as possible. Whether planting in containers or directly into the ground, moisture control is key. Tomatoes don't like to be dry or to have wet feet. Whenever watering is needed between natural rainfalls, apply enough water to reach the deepest roots, but don't leave puddles. Let the top inch or so dry out before watering again.

Keep a lookout for insects and diseases. If leaves start to show any speckling or spots, remove those leaves and destroy them, don't compost them. Check leaves and stems for any holes or signs of worm droppings. If you see any, look more closely for tomato hornworms. The best control is to find them and smash them. If you have a lot of plants, you might want to spray with the natural microbial insecticide Bt, but this will be most effective early on when caterpillars are small.

Enjoy the fruits of your labor! Tomatoes taste and store best at room temperature. Leave the stem on until ready to wash and eat.

Steve Trusty has a degree in horticulture from Iowa State University. He has been helping gardeners receive more enjoyment from their lawns and gardens for years through radio, TV, books, magazines and websites.

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