All You Ever Wanted to Know About Tomatoes...
and some things you didn't
by Ruth S. Foster
Once having picked a ripe tomato, still warm from the sun, and eaten it immediately, nothing tastes quite as good. Tomatoes are almost foolproof and easy to grow too. If I had only one vegetable, it would be tomatoes. Of course "almost "means Mother Nature doesn't take care of them. We have to do it.
Plant several varieties so there will be a long harvest. Start seeds indoors in early spring. Later on, buy seedling plants.
Fool Proof Planting First loosen the soil. Dig in a tablespoon of line if the soil tends to be acid and a teaspoon of 10-10-10 or something similar. A handful of old compost or old manure doesn't hurt either, but it has to be deep, and covered with plain soil. The roots will go down after it. Then plant the tomato seedling in the hole but cover the root ball with unfertilized soil. Granular fertilizer burns the brand new roots, but after a week or so, they will be fine and work out to the fertilized soil. If the plant is tall and leggy, lay the stem to the first leaf underground with the root ball, but don't try to straighten out the top. In a day or so the tomato will figure out which way is up and straighten itself up. If it's very hot and sunny, shade the plant for a day or two.
To State or Not to Stake If you use stakes or tomato cages, put them in a planting time so you won't cut a root later. I've read that staked tomatoes produce earlier, but tomatoes in cages produce more according to some tests, but I've never noticed a big difference.
Water Naturally water is the secret to successful transplanting and yield. Leave a depression or "saucer" around the plant. Fill it with water at planting time. That night fill it again and don't let the soil dry out for about a week. Then all summer water faithfully, at least once a week, more often during heat waves. Each plant needs about 5 gallons of water a week. One watering trick is to put 2 or 3 gallon plastic milk containers (each with a very small hole in the bottom) next to each plant. Fill the bottles, which will slowly drip right where needed. Wet leaves, especially at eventide, encourage fungus.
Mulch heavily because tomatoes hate hot feet. A red mulch is supposed to produce 20 % more tomatoes, but I don't know if this is absolute. Peppers supposedly prefer a white mulch. Aluminum foil supposedly fools aphids who get confused by the reflection.
Varieties Plant several kinds. Early, mid season, late, heirloom, cherry. Early plants stop producing after a while, then the later varieties take over. The days to harvest tell how long it will take to produce a crop. Determinate varieties produce a crop and then peter out. Indeterminate varieties produce until the weather gets too cold.
How Tomatoes Grow Each week one whorl of leaves with one set of tiny yellow blossoms is produced. They are wind pollinated, so flicking the flowers, very gently, helps fruit set. Best done at midday. It takes 6 weeks from flower to table.
Tomatoes are finicky about setting fruit. They won't set if it's below 55 degrees or above 90 degrees, or if it's too wet or too dry, or if the plant has too much nitrogen. Too much rich compost or manure produces lovely leaves and few fruits.
Fertilizer A side dressing to granular 5-10-10 or 10-10-10 at first fruit set, and then again each 4 weeks produces a better crop. There are also special tomato fertilizers (one dose of which is supposedly good for columbine and clematis in August). These are a little higher in potassium (the third number) as well as calcium and sometimes other micronutrients. Tomatoes need a little extra potassium and calcium to fruit well, but prefer a pH of about 6.
Old timers sprinkle a little wood ashes around the plants to supply these. (Blossom End Rot, which is a brown blotch on the end of the tomato may be the result of too little calcium in the soil.) Some folks use soluble fertilizers and get good results too.
Fruitfulness is genetically determined. Sweet 100, a cherry tomato, true to its name, produces hundreds of little fruits. Tomatoes ripen from the inside out. At between 65 and 85 degrees F. they turn red. Above 85 they will be orange.
Green tomatoes ripen best indoors between 55 and 72 degrees. They do not need light but ripe apples (which release ethylene gas) help. Sunlight and refrigeration deteriorate the flavor after picking.
At the Season's End pick off the blossoms which won't ripen in time, and remove the leaves that shade the fruit so it will ripen faster. Cut back on water in fall so fruits will ripen faster and to increase flavor.
When the weatherman first says, "Frost in the lowlands," cover the plants with a blanket overnight to protect them. You will get a month more of the harvest.
Fungus and Disease These can cause growing problems and a sour taste to the ripe fruit. Unfortunately they are hard to identify individually, but you sure know when you have them.
Fungus shows as brown or yellow blotches. If the leaves are left wet for 8 hours, fungi can insert their tubes into the plants and become established, so don't water overhead, except early in the morning. You can use a fungicide or buy resistant varieties. Fungicides do not cure infections, they just prevent more.
To prevent Early Blight (alternaria) put on a mulch so the bacteria from the soil don't splash up on the leaves.
Mosaic Virus (mottled leaves) is transmitted by aphids from milkweed, catnip, poke weed, ground cherry and cucumber. Spray for aphids if this problem appears. --To retard TOBACCO MOSAIC don't smoke in the garden.
Verticillium and Fusarium Diseases (sickly plants with yellow leaves) cannot be prevented except by growing resistant varieties. Some tomato varieties are bred for resistance to some or most of these problems. They are identified as "disease resistant" or may indicate resistance to one or more of these specific problems.
Insects and Other Problems
Tomato Hornworm Tomato Hornworm is a beautiful green and black striped giant caterpillar. And yes, it has horns. You can tell if it's attacking because suddenly all the leaves disappear entirely, chewed to the nubbins. The caterpillar is on the stem, Hand pick and drop into a jar for family viewing. It will change into a beautiful winged creature. Then let it go.
Aphids and White Fly Aphids and White Fly usually appear, especially if it's dry. Spray as often as necessary (sometimes twice a week) with a mild, non-poisonous soap solution. If the new leaves shrivel and turn brown, the solution is too concentrated. These insects are hard to control and some degree of infestation usually has to be tolerated.
Flea Beetles Tiny black creatures chew multiple tiny holes in the leaves, usually starting early in the season. At first sign, spray with a strong pesticide labelled for beetles. Repeat as necessary to control them. SLUGS A snail without a shell, these slithery creatures chew the leaves and worse gouge holes in the ripening fruit. There are many home remedies, most of which work poorly. Some are to spread ashes on the ground (slugs don't like the rough surface). Put out pans of stale beer (they climb in and drown, we hope). Hand pick them at dusk and dawn or on cool cloudy days. If picking doesn't appeal to you, sprinkle them with salt. Put a piece of wood on the ground for them to hide under during the heat of day. Turn it over and catch them. There are slug motel traps as well. One can use bait, for vegetables which is laced with the pesticide, but not if there are any children or pets around because it is poisonous and could be eaten.- Reapply bait after rains.
Animals Because the leaves are poisonous, animals rarely bother tomato plants. Thank Heavens for small favors. However they will eat the tender foliage of newly set out plants as well as ripening fruit.