Tomato Garden Planning: Winter Dreaming

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Tomatoes are an integral part of any vegetable garden and winter is the right time to start dreaming about those sun warmed fresh from the vine vegetables known as tomatoes? Vegetables? They’re fruits right? Not according to the Supreme Court. In May 1883 the court ruled they are vegetables for the purpose of commerce. In my opinion the court has some misses from time to time. Botanically they are fruits.

There are hundreds of varieties available by seed, and the best way to ensure you grow the tastes and type you really want is to start your own seeds. If you are not already getting some of the dozens of seed catalogs available request some of them. It’s a winter tradition amongst gardeners and great bed time reading. Or browse the web as many of them are now on-line.

Think about what kind of tomatoes you want to eat and how you are going to use them. You may want to consult a few recipes now to plan ahead. If you are limited to a small amount of garden space you may want to grow a few of the large slicing types. If a patio or balcony is your garden consider growing cherry tomatoes. There are some dwarf “patio” plants producing less than tasty fruits. Any type of tomato can be grown in a container, although regular full size (indeterminate) varieties will need staking, produce smaller size fruit and yields. There are many choices of types (such as slicers, cherries, paste), colors, sizes, and flavors (highly subjective and not often described).

If possible you want to plant your tomatoes in ground that has not had tomatoes previously planted for many years. New ground tends to be uncontaminated by the spores of disease causing microorganisms like late blight, Phytophthora, which obliterated the tomato crop in the Northeast this past summer. Soil is not the only source of this disease. Mulching tomatoes, giving them plenty of air circulation, spacing plants far apart, and not visiting your garden while it’s wet may reduce spread of this and other tomato diseases

I prefer growing heirloom varieties both for their taste and honest beauty. Sources for these seeds now abound, and many old-school catalogs are selling a few of these of these varieties amongst their hybrid offerings. Good sources for heirlooms include the Seed Savers Exchange, Baker Creek, Southern Seed Exposure, Sand Hill Preservation Center, and Fedco. There are some good hybrids available, and, while they claim disease resistance, generally they aren’t better than the heirlooms. I still like some of the older Burpee varieties, the Boy and Girl series. Some hybrids have just had the taste bred out of them. Heirlooms can perform more inconsistently than hybrids and like vintage wines there are varieties that outperform some years and underperform in others. A number of new disease-resistant hybrid varieties are in the pipeline, it will be interesting to see whether they remember to make them taste good.

Wherever you reside if you have a good southern exposure window sill you can probably manage to grow a few plants. Starting under lights works great, and a little bottom heat will help them along. Start seeds about eight weeks before your last frost.

Rotate your plants so they get maximum exposure, and if you get some warm days in later spring you can put them outside in a partly shaded, wind protected location, and before planting make sure they are hardened off.

If you want buy plants try to buy them from a small nursery or farmer who grows them.

It is more likely the plants will have less or no chemicals on them, the quality will be much better than mass produced plants, and you are patronizing someone from your community. When buying plants look at them carefully – they should have sturdy stems, lots of foliage, a healthy mid to deep green color, and no yellow or brown spots.

Americans have a passion for tomatoes. Grow or buy the good ones. Try to keep your winter hankering to dreaming. Right now the store bought ones will generally be pretty disappointing. If you must, try some of the grape tomatoes, they haven’t been too bad.

Lawrence Davis-Hollander

LD-H is author ofTomato: A Fresh-from-the-Vine Cookbook, founder and former director of the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, principle of Dynamic Change Life Coaching,and co-director of Wellness Integral, Inc.