Yowza! It is almost time for…tomatoes! We were beginning to wonder if the ground would ever warm up enough for our favorite summer crop. But spring has indeed sprung – and tomato season is on our doorstep.
You don’t need a lot of space for tomatoes – a large pot on a sunny patio or deck suits them fine. But note the “sunny.” Tomatoes need full sun to produce fruit. They love heat, and won’t thrive in cool soil. Cover the planting area with black plastic a couple of weeks before planting; those extra degrees will translate into earlier tomatoes.
Plant tomatoes deeper than they come in the pot, all the way up to the top few leaves so that the plant will grow roots along the stem and will make for a stronger plant. Laying the tomato sideways in a trench works; the plant will grow up to the sun. We recommend amending soil with a nutrient rich compost. Lobster Compost, a product produced by the Coast of Maine, contains composted lobster and crab shells and sea kelp – rich in calcium, perfect for tomatoes.
Water deeply and regularly while the plants are developing. Irregular watering – like missing a week then drowning the plants to make up for it – leads to blossom end rot and cracking. The rule of thumb is at least 1 inch of water per week, but during hot, dry spells, they may need more. If your plants start to look wilted for most of the day, give them a drink.
Once the fruit begins to ripen, you can ease up on watering. Lessening the water will coax the plant into concentrating its sugars, resulting in better flavor. But don’t withhold water so much that the plants continually wilt; stressed plants drop their blossoms and possibly their fruit.
There are two types of tomato plants. Determinate tomatoes are compact growers, good for containers. They set and ripen their fruit all at one time, making a large quantity available all at once, so these are often preferred for canning or sauce-making.
The big, juicy beefsteak tomatoes we all crave grow on indeterminate plants. These plants keep growing – and producing tomatoes – until killed by frost. They grow tall and require staking or caging for support. Pinching off the tips of the main stems in early summer will encourage them to put their energy into flowering. This is also a handy trick toward the end of the summer when you want the last tomatoes to hurry up and ripen.
Another way to classify tomatoes is by their shape.
Globe tomatoes are smooth, round, and medium to large in size. These days the globe tomato is the norm; they are the most common tomatoes you’ll find at the chain grocery stores.
Cherry tomatoes are small, round, two-celled tomatoes that also include the type known as currants. They range in size from one to two inches in diameter. Cherry tomatoes come in many colors. Sun Gold, Honeybunch, and Sweet100 are common varieties.
Beefsteak are large to very large tomatoes that are typically wider than they are tall. The larger specimens tend to be even squatter. They can be irregular in shape compared to the other tomato types. Brandywine is a beefsteak tomato.
Elongated tomatoes are plum or pear. The pear shape is distinctly smaller near the stem. The plum is more uniformly elongated than the pear shape. Roma tomatoes are plum tomatoes and are traditionally used to make tomato sauces.
Heirloom tomatoes are back in demand – and for good reason. The seeds of these varieties have been collected and passed down, often through several generations, because of their valued characteristics. In the past decades, we’ve lost many of our heirloom varieties, along with the many smaller family farms that supported heirlooms. The multitude of heirlooms that had adapted to survive well for hundreds of years were lost or replaced by fewer hybrid tomatoes, bred more for commercial convenience – they ship from field to store well, whereas heirlooms can be fragile. But thanks to the resurgence in popularity, heirlooms have become more widely available in the commercial market. Seed companies, like Seed Savers Exchange, offer a good selection of heirloom seeds, and growers, like us, are beefing up selections of heirloom plants for home gardeners.
Nothing tastes quite as wonderful as a juicy tomato right off the vine, still warm from the sun. And if you follow these basic planting rules, you can be plucking your homegrown tomatoes for salads, sandwiches or sauces all summer long.