Home Grown Tomatoes – Key Ingredients to a Bountiful Harvest
Guy Clark said it best in his song, “Only two things that money can’t buy: that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.” Planning ahead for the summer season for many people includes picnics with skewers or fresh BLT sandwiches or a favorite salad with a variety of colorful vegetables – best if they are fresh from their own garden. None of these scenes are complete without one special ingredient: homegrown tomatoes!
The first step in growing tomatoes is deciding whether to grow from a tomato seed or purchasing a tomato plant. Tomato plants are favored by many growers. This is a big time saver, but lacks the satisfaction at harvest of knowing you nurtured the plant from a seed. If the growers decide to grow from the tomato plant, a healthy plant must be selected. The leaves should be inspected for yellowing or spotting, indicating a less than ideal tomato.
Next, check the tags on the plants to determine the disease resistance. Different plants are susceptible to different risks as far as viruses, spotting, or wilting. The letter on the tag describes which disease(s) these plants can resist. Modern forms of tomatoes are at lower risks of disease than older forms of “heirloom” tomatoes. Since the majority of fungus and disease-carrying substances occur in the lowest 12 inches of stalk, once the plant reaches a height of three feet, it is wise to remove the bottom leaves.
Once planted, adding compost to the soil may help the tomato grow. In cases where the soil is extremely wet, compost may not be necessary. In fact, with good dirt, fertilizer may be a waste for the plants whereas organic matter such as mushroom manure may be the best option to enhance growth.
The most essential ingredient to growing tasty, healthy, (and yes, happy!) tomatoes is to water them regularly throughout the day. If growers know in advance that they will be unable to water the plants for a short period of time, they may place a moisture crystal in the soil that will replace the need for watering. Additionally, a tablespoon of Epsom salt supports the plant by adding magnesium while crushed egg shells provide calcium.
To begin planting tomatoes, an environment must maintain a constant temperature of 50º F. However, the plants will not produce fruit until the temperature is a steady 55º F. To expedite plant growth, the soil may be heated.
In order to give the plants plenty of space to develop and grow without interfering with one another, maintain a distance of one to three feet between each plant. If the plants are being grown in a greenhouse rather than a garden, place a pole above the plants where they can hang. As the plants grow, the weight may require additional support such as supplying a stake.
Tomatoes should be planted in a very sunny place since the light is necessary for photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert light into food. If sunlight isn’t readily available, fluorescent lights are a good substitute. Whichever method is most easily available, the plants should be exposed to the light for about 12-14 hours a day to yield the best harvest. Be careful, however, because there is such thing as over-exposure to sunlight. To help these plants flourish, shade cloth may be a helpful asset. Shade cloth will help prevent the plants from “sun scalding.” Red shade cloth in particular, will benefit the tomato plants and balance the needed sunlight so they are not receiving too much nor too little. Select the proper shade cloth for the need, as the UV protection varies for different plants.
Tomatoes are fully prepared for harvest when they are ripe and beginning to soften. Once harvested, they should be kept in a dark, warm environment. They should never be refrigerated because once again, if the tomatoes encounter a temperature below 55º F, they begin to lose their flavor and freshness.
Tomatoes grown on the vine are typically best if consumed within three days of harvesting. If it isn’t possible to eat the supply of tomatoes, the best option is to make tomato sauce which will freeze well. Of course local shelters or soup kitchens would always be grateful for any leftovers.
Careful attention throughout the life cycle - from seed to ripe tomato can insure a bountiful harvest of delicious tomatoes. The only thing to add is “true love”.
Paul Galla, President