May 18, 2014
All things tomato, right from the start
by Henry Homeyer
This year I met a life-long goal of growing an edible tomato in the house, though I have to admit it was quite by accident.
Last fall I dug up an avocado plant that had started itself in the compost pile. Mixed in with the soil were seeds that germinated, including a tomato, a pepper and, of course, weeds. I let the tomato grow and harvested a ripe tomato May 10.
The plant has been in a west-facing window, and, although I did provide some supplemental lighting, that was only for a month or so. I don’t know what kind of tomato it is, but the flavor was excellent — a combination of sweet and tangy.
A few words about “volunteer” tomatoes: I get some in my garden each year but never let them develop because many are not particularly tasty. Most modern tomatoes are hybrids (Big Boy, Jet Star and Sun Gold are all hybrids). That means someone figured out that specific crosses of the parents would produce a tomato with desirable characteristics. But seeds from these hybrids will not breed true. Seeds saved from a Big Boy will most likely revert to one of the parents of the fruit, which may not be especially nice.
As you clean up your garden this spring, I recommend that you yank the babies.
What we call heirloom tomatoes do breed true. Tomatoes, unless manipulated for growing seed, are self-pollinating. Heirlooms such as Brandywine, Purple Cherokee and Ox Heart will produce seeds that you can save each year and get just what you had the generation before. Heirlooms are not often sold at the grocery store because they are often of irregular size and shape (hard to package) and don’t have the tough skins needed for shipping and handling. But they have amazing flavors.
I grow both heirlooms and hybrids each year — usually a total of about 30 plants. So why do I grow hybrids if heirlooms are so wonderful to eat? The modern hybrids have been bred for disease resistance, which is important. There are a variety of fungal diseases that can kill the leaves or even the entire plant.
The worst disease for tomatoes is late blight. If it hits your garden, your tomato plants may well turn into a soggy, blackened mess of inedible fruit and dead stems in just a few days. Late blight also affects potatoes and was the cause of the Irish potato famine.
One hybrid tomato, the Defiant F-1, which was developed by the plant breeders working for Johnny’s Selected Seeds, is listed as “highly resistant” to late blight with “intermediate resistance” to early blight, another pest. I’ve grown it and like it. It has nice medium-sized fruit and good flavor, and it matures early.
There is much talk about GMO labeling in Vermont right now — the Legislature just passed a law that will require many processed foods to indicate if there are genetically modified ingredients. As far as I know, there are no GMO tomatoes or other garden vegetables on the market. One GMO tomato was developed in 1994, but the public objected and the market for it was nil.
This year I started my tomato seeds indoors March 24, three weeks earlier than usual. I transplanted them into bigger pots in early May, and they are growing like crazy. But the plants are getting huge, which is a problem: They are too big to fit on my plant stand. I’ve had to remove a shelf so the plants can continue to grow.
If you have long, leggy plants like mine, you’ll need to plant them sideways when the time comes. I will dig a hole for the root ball and then a trench for the long stem. I’ll pinch off all the lower leaves, then cover the root ball and the stem except for the very top cluster of leaves. I’ll bend the tip of the stem up so the leaf cluster is above ground level.
The plant will straighten itself up in a few days. The long stem will turn into roots. Alternatively, you could plant the root ball deep, burying part of the stem.
Whether you grew your tomatoes from seeds or bought plants at the garden center, it is important to harden them off before they go in the garden. That means introducing them to the sun’s powerful rays and the wind’s drying effects a little each day until the plants are ready to go out in full sun.
Put them near the house on the north side so they get just a few hours of morning sun, then gradually give them more sun. Just like a fair-skinned toddler, plants can burn if they get too much sun. Greenhouses provide a lot of protection. And bring them in on cold nights.
A soil thermometer is a useful item at this time of year. Cold, wet soil is not good for most plants, and tomatoes in particular. Sixty degrees is a good minimum soil temperature to attain before planting.
I don’t plant frost-sensitive plants until well after the last frost, though a few warm days always tempt me. But lettuce, peas and other frost-hardy things are going in now. I’m ready for summer.
Henry Homeyer can be reached through his website www.Gardening-Guy.com. He is the author of four gardening books and lives in Cornish Flat, N.H.