Ahhhh....tomatoes. The taste of summer. And homegrown tomatoes or those from the farmer's market TASTE like tomatoes. They SMELL like tomatoes. Those from the grocery store rarely do. Thus, I am a strong proponent of everyone who values all that is juicy, red and delicious in this world devote a corner of their balcony, yard or deck to the honorable tomato! Honestly, it's the thing I look forward to the most out of the garden.
Now, there are 2 basic types of tomatoes: determinate and indeterminate. The determinate varieties are busy & compact. They set fruit within a 2 week period and then start their decline. Here is a selection of determinate seeds. Indeterminate tomatoes are probably what you think of when you envision a tomato plant. This type grows tall and must be supported by a stake, tomato cage or tepee of twigs. Here is a selection of indeterminate seeds.
What do tomatoes need to thrive and grow? A good amount of sun, for one thing. Like 6-8 hours of direct light (aka full sun). However, if you're in a hot climate like Florida, you'll need to have partial shade in summer afternoons otherwise your darling tomatoes will get scorched dead. You also need a neutral soil pH (5.5 to 6.8). Most counties, state agriculture departments or universities with a school of agriculture will do soil testing for free or cheap. Otherwise, you can buy a kit online or at your local garden center. For Virginia, here is info on how to submit soil samples. Merrifield Garden Centers and Meadowlark Botanical Gardens definitely have the packet of forms you need.
Plant tomatoes one week after your last expected frost. If you live in a cooler climate you can speed up the warming of the soil by covering the planting site with plastic bags weeks ahead of plant date. If you're starting from seed, sow indoors 6-8 weeks before the last frost date. The packaging of your seeds should say exactly how many days your variety will mature. Rodale (my garden bible) recommends planting 2-4 plants per person.
Hints & Tips
- I learned last year tomatoes need a consistent level of moisture. If they go from dry to soaked often they will have poor calcium intake and develop blossom-end rot (a brown mushy part at the bottom of the tomato). To prevent this, mulch & make sure plants are constantly watered and soil has sufficient calcium levels. Adding egg shells will help up calcium content.
- Tomatoes in pots require almost daily watering. This is related to #1, but worth calling out on its own. And, if you're wanting to grow your tomatoes in containers, you can use a 5 gallon bucket with a hole drilled in the bottom for drainage or a really big pot.
- Birds like red. Or maybe it was a squirrel. But a few lovely, bright red tomatoes had a bite taken out of them/hole poked in. I ended up covering my tomato cages with netting and harvesting fruit just before it was fully vine ripen. I just placed it on my kitchen window (which gets part shade) and it finished ripening in a few days. Less than ideal but you gotta do what you gotta do!
- Plant tomatoes deep. If you're buying a tomato plant, strip off bottom leaves and plant it so that it's only ultimately like 4 in. tall. Where the leaves were roots will grow giving you a sturdier plant. You can do this by digging a trench if you're planting in a yard.
- Make fried green tomatoes at the end of the season. Here in Arlington it can get cold before the tomatoes are still green. When life gives you green tomatoes, fry them up! I'll share my recipe with y'all when the time comes.