By: Lauren Pearce
Can you remember your first childhood encounters with a tomato? Were you a tomato hater or covered in tomato juice? I can very vividly recall my parents making BLTs on classic white bread with a thick layer of mayonnaise. As a little girl, I deemed them "soggy sandwiches" and turned my nose up at the combination. Pass the bacon, but hold the tomato, please!!! Now, one of our little family's favorite pastimes is figuring out which tomato variety makes the best BLT, which tomato variety makes the best Caprese salad, and which tomato variety is definitely going in the seed starting line-up for next year. The race to the first ripe tomato on the counter has become a summer rite of passage.
When I started gardening in 2016, tomatoes immediately became one of my favorite types of crop to grow and eat. These plants come with their own challenges. Each of the 17 different varieties of tomatoes growing in my garden is susceptible to a number of diseases and it’s important to keep them well fed, remove diseased fruits early, and pick them at the right time. I have learned a routine over the last several years to help avoid end blossom rot and other diseases.
Also, our hot and humid summers are enough to drive even the toughest Mississippian inside to the AC after 5 minutes of being outside. However, tomatoes are tropical vining plants and really appreciate getting that nice temperature adjustment. They really take off with our hot weather. Before you know it, you are looking at a tomato plant that is taller than you and large enough to hide a small animal or sprawl into your neighbor's yard if not staked and pruned properly. So, here are a few tomato tips from your resident CHG “tomato fangirl” to help you survive the summer and send you straight into your own tomato variety taste tests
7 Tomato Tips
Tomato plants do need a lot of nutrients. Mrs. Huttos' Bedding Mix does provide a fair amount of great ingredients for your plants for the growing season but you should be fertilizing once a month on your “First Friday Fertilize” days. I love a liquid fish fertilizer in the beginning of the season like Alaska Fish to promote good green growth. But once I see those first few tomato blossoms, I like to switch to something like Neptunes’ Harvest Tomato and Veg liquid fertilizer. This season I bought a fertilizer sprayer dispenser that ties directly into the hose. This has been a game changer and makes it much easier to fertilize without having to mix up solution in a watering can.
2 Provide support
As mentioned, tomatoes are naturally vining plants. They have one initial stem that grows upwards and forks into many different side branches. The
plant needs extra support to keep growing upwards. Otherwise, the weight of the tomatoes will cause the branch to flop over and be more prone to disease. Even some of the shorter 4-5 feet dwarf varieties we have been growing in our CHG gardens this summer do appreciate a stake to keep the plants off of the ground. I personally like a central cedar stake or bamboo pole with a large cage around the plant. Garden twine and tomato velcro strips are always in my garden toolbox.
These plants want to produce as much offspring as possible. Tomato plants produce “suckers” which are basically mini clones of the mother plant in between the main stem and side branches. It is totally fine to leave the suckers on if the plant is supported well. However, if the plant is growing on one or two stakes, only 1 or 2 suckers should be allowed to remain. In addition, prune off any branches that fall and are touching the ground.
4 Remove Disease
This one is relatively easy. If you see a leaf with dark spots or yellowing, prune it with garden shears and throw it away (not in the compost). If diseased leaves are not removed, the disease will spread faster.
5 Pick at 'Breaker Stage'
We do not want to be fighting with birds/ squirrels/ cats/ dogs/ rabbits/ neighborhood children for the fruits of our labor. Picking a tomato when the blush of color is coming from the bottom of the fruit upwards is the perfect time to take that tomato inside and let it ripen on the counter (not in the fridge). I like to leave a bit of the stem on the tomato if I can.
6 Top the Plant
“Jungle July” in the garden does not have to be the rule when it comes to tomato plants. When the tomato plant overwhelms your cage or stake, trim off the top of the central stem and other main branches just above the last set of flowers you see. This will send energy to the plant to make larger and better tomatoes as well as help your plant not overwhelm the tomato cage (and you!).
7 Share the Wealth
This maybe is my favorite tip! I get so much joy out of sharing tomatoes with friends, family, and neighbors. There’s no good reason for a perfect garden tomato to rot on the counter!
Hopefully these tips and tricks will help you be able to focus more on the fun tomato things, such as, “But does a Cherokee Purple tomato really taste better than a Thorburn’s Terra Cotta tomato???” Happy tomato taming and tasting!