Nothing says summer quite like a plump and juicy tomato. Although technically a fruit, most everyone refers to the tomato as their favorite vegetable. Even those folks who do not tend a garden, usually have one or two tomato plants because, truth be told, they are almost as fun to grow as they are to eat.
Since they are the ultimate backyard crop, no other fruit has received more attention from plant breeders and seed savers. The result of this can be both good and bad; although there are so many varieties to choose from, making a selection becomes harder and harder.
Before ever perusing the tomato aisle at your local greenhouse, you may want to decide if you want just some juicy fruits to eat or if you are looking for tomatoes to can and make salsa, spaghetti sauce, etc. There are two basic types of tomatoes, determinates and indeterminates.
The determinate type stops growing when the fruits reach a certain size. Often referred to as bush tomatoes, they produce fruit all at once, usually over a two to three-week period. This can be great if you simply want to can them all at once but not so great if you were planning on fresh fruit throughout the summer. They do well in containers or planted close together.
The indeterminate type keeps growing and producing fruit the entire season up until the first frost. Because they continue to grow, the plants become quite large and need support like trellises, stakes or cages. One word of caution if using cages, splurge a little and buy the sturdier, better built ones because the lighter weight and less expensive ones tend to bend with the weight of the plant, which renders them next to useless.
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One of the big questions when growing tomatoes is whether to prune or not to prune. Most folks do remove some of the suckers that form between the main stalk and the side branches during early growth. Pruned plants bear earlier and larger tomatoes but the fruit is fewer in number. Over pruning can cause sunscald which is a yellow, sun-burned patch that blisters. Unpruned plants yield twice as much but it takes longer for the fruit to ripen.
Whichever way you lean on the subject of pruning, be sure and never prune determinate varieties or you will end up with only a few clusters of fruit because they bear their fruit on the ends of their branches, the very part that would be pruned! Pruning also indirectly affects the flavor. With little or no pruning, there is more foliage which means more photosynthesis is going on.
When this happens, more sugars are produced which makes the fruit sweeter. You have to strike a happy medium though. You want enough foliage to provide enough shade to make the fruit sweeter even though it will take longer to ripen but, on the other hand, if the leaves are too thick no fresh air can circulate.
As far as watering goes, tomatoes need one to two inches of water per week on a consistent basis. Uneven watering can cause blossom end rot and can cause the tops to crack open. Too much nitrogen and high soil acidity can also cause this disease. Stressed plants remove calcium from the fruit and send it to the shoots so they will keep growing.
When it comes to feeding, listen to your plants. If you see yellow leaves, then the plants are lacking in nitrogen. Be frugal when adding this nutrient because if tomatoes get too much nitrogen you will have lush foliage with little or no fruit.
If you see purple leaves, the plant is crying for more phosphorous which you will want to pay attention to because phosphorous is the most important nutrient for fruit production. To stay away from giving the plants too much nitrogen while feeding, it is best to side dress with compost, liquid seaweed or fish emulsion.
Of course, seasoned tomato growers have a few tricks up their sleeve that they swear helps the plant produce the best fruit. One of the more popular "secrets" is to put crushed egg shells and coffee grounds in the hole when planting the tomatoes. Others feed the plants bone meal or a pinch of Epsom salts.
When choosing varieties, there are several to choose from in each category. Some are better for making juice, others like beefsteaks are better for slicing and putting on sandwiches. Romas cook up to make a thicker sauce and are not as juicy. Yellow varieties are easier on your stomach as they have less acid.
Since I am a lover of tomatoes all ways, I prefer a variety. Each year I do a couple ones that are tried and true and also experiment with a couple new types. Whatever you do, don't forget to have a couple cherry or grape tomato plants. There is nothing better than picking them off the vine and popping them right in your mouth!
Tomatoes really are one of the easiest plants to grow. If you haven't tried growing them before, you may want to give them a try, especially if they are one of your summer favorites. Even the worst home-grown one tastes better than any that are store-bought.
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