Grown in raised beds near the ocean these cherry and medium-sized indeterminate tomatoes may not look great, but with a hint of sea salt on their skins they are absolutely wonderful. ANDREW MESSINGER
With different tastes, sizes and colors, we’ve come a long way from the five or 10 varieties available at most garden centers. Will your harvest look like this?
Potted determinate tomatoes growing in an oceanfront, privet-walled garden in Southampton. Remember that determinates still need support. ANDREW MESSINGER
The tag says “Early Girl,” but it also says “Red Cherry.” Early Girl is actually an indeterminate tomato yielding 6-to-8-ounce fruits on 8-foot-tall plants. Not a cherry. Correct labels can be very helpful. Early caging is a plus, though. A cage for an 8-foot-tall plant may not be very successful, though. ANDREW MESSINGER
A Sweet 100 seedling that sprouted from a dropped fruit last summer. Will it pick up the soil-borne diseases resulting from poor sanitation practices? Stay tuned. By August, this 6-inch seedling may be 5 feet tall and 15 feet long with a root system covering 35 square feet. ANDREW MESSINGER
It’s peak tomato season. No, not for harvesting, but for planting, staking, feeding, pruning and primping those wonderful plants that give us the most widely grown home vegetable (actually a fruit) in the country. As with most garden projects, what you do with these plants now will have a major effect, positive or negative, on what actually gets produced.
No, by no means is it too late to buy and plant your tomatoes, but yes, it is too late to start them from seed. And while I didn’t buy any plants, nor did I grow any from seed, my garden seems to have other ideas. Last summer I grew two plants of a cherry tomato called Sweet 100. It’s been around for decades, and I had memories that pushed me to the point where I had to grow it again. But some of those memories had been forgotten, and I didn’t pay attention to one of the most important parts of tomato growing: knowing if the variety is determinate or indeterminate.
Determinate tomato varieties (which include bush types) like Italian Roma, Rutgers, Mighty Sweet, Veranda Red, Ace 55, Bush Beefsteak, Early Wonder and others will grow to a certain height, usually 3 to 5 feet, and fruit over a short period of time then stop. Determinate types are best for small gardens.
Intermediates, also called cordon and vine tomatoes, continue to grow (and grow) and set fruit until it just gets too cold. Varieties include Brandywine, Beefsteak, Margold and many, many others. There’s a great comparison chart of indeterminates here for your reference: bit.ly/3fSoF81.
I had forgotten that Sweet 100 was an indeterminate, and it literally wanted to take over my garden. With serious pruning and training, the two plants were somewhat contained. Somewhat being the keyword. When planting indeterminates you need to have a plan. Staking and caging is enough to hold up determinate types, but indeterminates need to be trained to grow on wires or horizontal structures. Remember, one of the worst things you can do is to allow tomatoes to grow along the ground — both the fruits and the foliage. This guarantees disease problems from water splashing on the ground and up onto the fruits and leaves as well as a range of feeders from slugs to mice and chipmunks.
Grafted tomatoes are all indeterminates whose shoot system, where the fruiting takes place, is grafted on to a superior rootstock for better disease resistance. Two important things to remember about these grafted types is that they fruit later than their nongrafted siblings and the graft needs to always be above the soil and never buried.
I’m not a fan of organic mulches around tomatoes as I think they harbor slugs and might encourage soil-borne diseases. If you are not diametrically opposed to using some plastic in the garden you can purchase red plastic mulch for your tomato areas. This red mulch has been shown to increase yields by 10 to 20 percent, but only the red plastic type. It also increases yields on peppers.
If you are growing your ’maters organically make sure the soil has a small amount of fertilizer in it at planting and once planted add another small amount and work it into the soil surface around the plant. Use a fertilizer low in nitrogen but high in phosphorus with a ratio of about 1-2-1. Two weeds after planting, apply another dose of fertilizer in a ring around the plant’s drip line (the place where rain would fall to the ground as opposed to on the foliage). Work this into the soil so the soil microbes can begin to break down the nutrients. Depending on rain and irrigation, reapply every 14 to 21 days. Liquid organics can also be used but only as a drench for the soil and not on the foliage.
For those choosing to use chemical fertilizers, the easiest way to do this is by using a time-released fertilizer such as Osmocote (for tomatoes). Mix it into the soil or container mix and forget about fertilizer for the rest of the summer. There are also liquid chemical fertilizers like Miracle-Gro, but these products are fast acting, can burn if not properly used and rapidly leach from the soil down toward the water table, bay, pond or ocean. Granular chemical fertilizers are also available, but again, burning can be an issue. Burning is rare, very rare, with organic fertilizers.
In finding a planting location keep in mind sun, sun and more sun. Also consider these two adages: Never plant tomatoes in the same place every year. And of course, just to make things challenging, tomatoes grown in the same place every year seem to taste better than those always on the move. Go figure.
Stakes, cages, wires and trellises should all be in place just after planting. Do some quick reading on pruning your tomatoes to make them healthier and to produce larger, more accessible yields. You can get the basic season-long pruning instructions here: bit.ly/3grOhaX.
You’ll also need ties to attach your plants to the support structures. There are many materials available, but be careful not to use anything that will cause the stem or stalk to break when it gets windy. String can do that while foam-covered wire gives superior support all season and can be reused. Tomatoes should always be kept off the ground.
Never ever water your tomato plants with a sprinkler or watering device that will get the foliage wet. Always try to water the plant at the soil. This can be done with a low pressure soaker, a hose-end watering wand at soil level or other devices. It also helps at planting to make a small moat a distance from the main stem. This moat can be filled with water that will gently sink into the soil.
Consistent watering is another key to success, especially once fruit are set. Allowing the soil to totally dry out, especially for long periods, followed by copious watering or rain, causes a sudden surge of water throughout the plant and into the fruits. This can result in the ripe fruit cracking or splitting. Essentially, the fruit gets bloated and the skins crack, then the fruit rapidly deteriorates.
Water-holding crystals are always a temptation for use in hanging posts and containers. They’re great until we get a wet spell when they can “bubble” out of the container, look gross and retain so much moisture that rot can set in. It’s a gamble.
Insects can always be a challenge, but most can be avoided. The two of most concern are aphids and whitefly. Both excrete honeydew, a sweet material that sooty black mold will grow on. More concerning though is that both are capable of transmitting a number of diseases to tomatoes that will be nearly impossible to control.
I would never suggest using a chemical insecticide on any vegetables. We have adequate organic and biological controls so they’re not necessary. Soapy water can knock down aphids and reduce the whitefly populations, but you may need stronger allies in the way of an organic insecticide. Only use these early in the morning and in the evening as even organic insecticides can kill bees and other helpful insects. Never ever use tomato dusts. They drift in just the slightest breeze and most are indiscriminate in what insects they kill.
Tomato hornworms may show up from time to time but can easily be picked off and discarded. Slugs can be managed with organic commercial slug baits (for use in veggie gardens), coffee grinds and of course, beer in pie plates.
OK, time for me to get outside and thin my Sweet 100 seedlings. Oh, they’re back. They reseeded from last year’s dropped fruit. A bad sign that the Hampton Gardener did not keep his tomato patch very tidy last year. Shame on him. Keep growing.
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