Gardening With Robin
~~ Tomatoes ~~
Tomatoes, for quick snacks, salsa, pizza sauce, salads and more – they are a very versatile fruit!
Frost will kill a tomato plant and very little growth occurs when air and soil temperatures are below 60 degrees so, as a general rule, most Lunenburg gardeners wait to plant outdoor tomatoes until at least Memorial Day. I started my tomato plants from seeds over six weeks ago, indoors, on a heating mat, and under grow lights. I plan to set them all into the garden this week. If you want to grow tomatoes, it is too late to start them from seeds if you want to get a good harvest before frosts return in the fall, but you can still find a wide variety of tomato plants for sale at our local farms and nurseries.
If I grew nothing else, I would grow tomatoes. I grow small cherry tomatoes for snacking and salads. This year, I am growing Sunrise Bumble Bee cherry tomatoes. They are an experiment; I couldn’t resist their name. I also grow paste tomatoes because I preserve enough pasta and pizza sauce to feed my family for the year. My favorite paste tomato is the heirloom Amish Paste. In addition to making great sauce, I like it in salads, tomato sandwiches and it has a very thin skin that peels easily for making salsa. A friend gave me two Speckled Paste tomato plants to try this year as well. My plants are not even in the ground as I write this, but I am already dreaming of flavorful summer tomatoes!
Tomatoes are not the easiest vegetable to grow, but I think they are worth the effort. Tomatoes love warmth and appreciate full sun, good drainage, soil that is rich in organic matter, and good air circulation around the plants to prevent diseases. Consistent soil moisture keeps the plants vigorous and healthy and will prevent the tomato fruit from splitting. I find a good layer of mulch around the plants helps to keep soil moisture levels more consistent, suppresses weeds, and prevents soil from splashing up onto the plants when it rains, helping to prevent disease.
There are two types of tomato plants and each grows quite differently:
- Indeterminate tomatoes grow all season, producing new leaves and fruit until they are killed by frost in the fall. They perform well when they are staked or trained along a trellis. To prevent wild growth, pinch off any side shoots coming off the main stem or suckers which sprout up from the bottom. Give good physical support to the main stem, which will continue to grow and produce fruit. I often train Amish Paste, an indeterminate tomato, along a fence with good success. Because I don’t always remove all the side shoots, my tomato plants tend to grow a little wild each summer.
- Determinant tomatoes’ stems only grow until they produce a certain number of flower clusters and then they stop to concentrate on developing the fruit. If you allow them to grow suckers from the bottom, the plant will produce more flowers and fruit on the new stems. Determinant varieties grow well in cages and some smaller and bush-like determinant tomatoes may not even need much support. Determinant tomatoes are often a good choice for cold-temperate climates like ours, because they ripen over a shorter period.
When you are buying tomato plants, ask to make sure you are getting a kind of tomato that will work in your garden space.
Over the years I have learned a few lessons the hard way
I am sharing these because I want to help you avoid some of the challenges I have faced over the years. With a little planning, you can grow beautiful and delicious tomatoes!
- Start small. Don’t plant more than you can tend. It is better to have fewer, well staked, and tended tomato plants than many untended plants with problems, leading to a smaller harvest despite having more plants.
- Give your plants plenty of space. When plants are small, it is tempting to plant them a little closer together so that you can fit more plants. By the time they are grown, if you haven’t spaced them apart, they will grow into each other, reducing air circulation and increasing the likelihood of diseases or blight. Proper spacing means at least two feet apart and as much as three or four feet apart, depending on the growth habit and support structures of the tomatoes.
- Cultivate healthy soil. Soil nutrient imbalance caused by too much nitrogen, wild fluctuations in moisture, and insufficient calcium available for the plant can lead to a condition called “blossom-end rot”. It starts with a small watery area where the blossom was, which expands and develops into a hard, brown or black leathery area at the bottom of the fruit. I have tried many things over the years, including adding crushed egg shells, crushed oyster shells, lime, and even antacid tablets to each hole at planting time, but the most success I have had is using my home-made compost and generously using it to create healthy soil where I plant my tomatoes.
Enjoying Nature in the Garden
If you grow tomatoes, watch for furry bumblebees to come pollinate your tomatoes for you. Tomatoes are both wind and bee pollinated, but only certain types of native bees can pollinate tomatoes successfully. Bumblebees collect pollen for their young using a unique method called “buzz pollination”. If you listen to the bumblebee as she visits a flower to collect pollen, you will hear a buzz that sounds like a musical middle C (if you are musically inclined) as you watch the flower vibrate. Imagine a bee wrapping herself around the flower’s reproductive parts, securing herself to the flower with her jaws, and then rapidly vibrating her flight muscles to shake the pollen free from the flower’s anthers. Each anther has a only small slit from which the pollen falls during the shaking process. Because the bee is right below the flower, the pollen falls onto the bee’s body. With extra pollen clinging to her body, she will then fly to another tomato flower, bringing the pollen to the receptive stigma of the new flower. If you are lucky enough to have bumblebees come to your tomato plants, your tomato harvest will be much more successful!
This picture is of
a Two-Spotted bumblebee
worker pollinating my tomato plant last July.
Look at the bright orange pollen she has already gathered
in the pollen baskets on her hind legs!
More Information about Tomatoes
If you want to learn more about growing tomatoes, check out this basic information from UMass Amhearst's Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment: Tomatoes - Growing Tips, or, for even more detailed information, Tomato Growing II.