Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
August, 2007
Regional Report

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These exquisitely sweet persimmon tomatoes are an heirloom tomato lover's dream.

Tomatoes, Tomatoes, Tomatoes!

Tomatoes are coming in! It seems the luscious sweet-tart flavor and easy culture have made the tomato one of the most popular vegetables to grow in the home garden.

The usual image of a tomato that comes to mind is a soft, round, slightly shouldered orange-red fruit. But that's only a very small sample. Tomatoes come in all shades of scarlet and crimson, orange, yellow, pink, and white. Some are striped, and some are dark enough to be called black. Pink tomatoes are actually red-fleshed tomatoes with translucent skins, and white tomatoes are yellow-fleshed tomatoes with translucent skins.

Size and Shape
The standard slicing tomato, perfect for a burger, ranges from 2 to 4 inches and is usually round or squatty in shape. But don't stop here. There are countless other sizes and shapes that make tomato growing and eating much more interesting.

Container or patio varieties grow less than 2 feet high and bear small 2-inch or less fruits. These plants do just fine in the garden but were actually bred to perform especially well in containers when space is limited.

Salad or cherry tomatoes produce tiny, early, tangy or sweet fruits that are superb for snacking. They may be round, oblong, or pear-shaped.

Beefsteak types produce very large fruits, up to 6 inches, and usually mature in late summer and early fall. These types often have the most intense tomato flavor, but they take more attention to culture and harvest timing to keep them from splitting or falling before ripening.

Paste tomatoes contain less water than the other types of tomatoes, making them perfect for processing into sauce, paste, or ketchup. The flavor is not quite as intense for fresh eating as the other types, mostly because the tomatoes have thick flesh with little of the juice that really gives a tomato its zing. Paste varieties are usually about 3 inches long and oblong or pear-shaped.

Growth Types
Although it may seem less important than taste, knowing the growth habit of the tomato you choose can mean the difference between a successful crop and an out-of-control mess. Paying special attention to growing methods will give you an abundant, plentiful crop, regardless of the type you choose.

Determinate tomatoes grow to about 2 feet, then they stop growing and produce blossoms. All the fruits then ripen over a two- to three-week span. Determinate tomatoes don't need any pruning and can be grown without support, although a loose cage helps keep the fruit off the ground and clean. A determinate tomato in a cage will only take up about 4 square feet. If you plan to process your tomatoes, determinate varieties are ideal since you want the entire crop to ripen at once.

Semi-determinate types grow 2 to 3 feet high, producing flowers and ripening tomatoes over a slightly longer period than determinate types. They perform best if caged or supported.

Indeterminate types continue to put out new growth even after fruit has set, and will bear ripe fruits for several months, often until killed by frost. These tomatoes must be supported, and many gardeners prune them to help manage the size of the plant.

Heirloom vs. Hybrid
As technologically advanced as we become with our World Wide Web and superconductors, there are some ties to the past that will always be there. This desire for a connection with the past is demonstrated vividly by the resurgence of heirloom vegetable varieties in home gardens. And heirloom growers swear that heirloom tomatoes have the closest flavor to childhood memories of true tomato taste.

Although the argument is often made for the vigor and disease resistance of hybrid vegetables, some hybrids are developed for commercial use, at the expense of taste. Heirloom tomatoes generally have superb taste, and some of them are also somewhat disease-resistant.

Tomatoes are well known to be great nutritional sources of beta-carotene, which is plentiful not only in red types but also in yellow ones. Tomatoes are also packed with vitamin C, folate, lysine, and antioxidants.

Orange and yellow tomatoes are often touted to be lower in acid than red tomatoes, but in actuality, they merely have more sugars that disguise the acids. Most tomatoes have comparable acidity, regardless of their flavor or texture.

Growing Tomatoes
Tomatoes require a relatively small growing space and 6 to 8 hours of sun a day. Although they will grow in almost any soil, they perform best in rich, well-drained soil with a pH of 6.0 to 6.8. If you have poor soil, improve it by adding organic matter such as compost, well-rotted manure, or shredded leaves. A week before planting, work the soil to a depth of about 6 inches.

So, however you slice it, plan on plenty of tomatoes in your garden.

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