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Front Page » May 11, 2006 » Home and Garden Focus » 'Matoes in the garden
Published 3,435 days ago

'Matoes in the garden

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Freshly grown tomatoes, by the few or by the bushel are always a delight to vegetable lovers.

Ask almost anyone who has a vegetable garden what they grow in their plot and they will tell you at least one of the vegetables that resides there is the tomato.

It is probably the most common vegetable people raise. They can be seen in huge numbers in big gardens or a single plant growing in a pot on the balcony of a condo or an apartment.

Tomatoes have been cultivated around the world for centuries. The origin of tomatoes is considered to be the western coast of South America, in present day Peru, where a number of species in the tomato genus still grow wild in the Andes Mountains.

During those centuries of cultivation, tomato seeds were saved year after year for the next year's crop, allowing the farmer or gardener to choose tomato seeds from plants with particular qualities. For example, seeds were saved from plants that produced an especially good aroma, texture or flavor.

The tomato was thought by early American colonists to be poisonous and was not recognized as a useful vegetable until the 1800s.

Plants, by nature, are very adaptable. They reproduce their species year after year, but sometimes with a slight natural change, such as fruit set a day or two earlier. This could be viewed as nature's way of assuring survival. Those plants which do not adapt to their growing conditions will die out. Those plants that do adapt new traits in order to survive their growing conditions will begin to increase in number. And the new trait can be counted on to reproduce in the majority of the offspring year.

Eaten raw or in innumerable cooked dishes, today the tomato is an almost daily part of the American family diet.

But why do store tomatoes taste so different from those that are grown in a home garden?

The reason is centralized agricutlure. Large corporate farms growing food on thousands of acres use mechanized harvesting and packing, and ship food over long distances. Every tomato raised by this kind of operation must survive the rough handling and the time it takes to get it from the field to the home where the customer eats it.

But the natural tomato doesn't have the qualities it takes to survive this rigorous process. Some of what makes tomatoes so appealing: are vine-ripened, thin, tender skin, loaded with enzymes (which also means they break down quickly after harvest) and plump juiciness. Commercial agriculture needs tough skins, drier fruits, and fruits with a long shelf life.

So to create such a tomato, hybridization was used in order to create the new traits needed. Hybridization crosses two parent plants to create offspring with new traits. However, seed from the offspring will go back to one of the parent plants, rather than re-creating the hybrid. This meant that gardeners and farmers had to re-purchase their seed from the company that hybridized them.

Today gardeners can purchase heirloom plants that go back to the seed process or hybrids. Regardless, growing good tomatoes requires a knack and a lot of skill.

There is nothing quite like picking fresh tomatoes from the garden.

When grown as staked plants, tomatoes require a relatively small amount of space, yet are capable of producing 8 to 10 pounds or more of fruit per plant. Tomatoes are low in calories and a good source of vitamin C.

Tomatoes are warm-season plants and should be planted only after the danger of frost has passed. Temperature is an important factor in the production of tomatoes, which are particularly sensitive to low night temperatures. Blossom drop can occur in early spring when daytime temperatures are warm, but night temperatures fall below 55 degrees F as well as in summer, when days are above 90 degrees F and nights above 76 degrees F.

One of the problems many people have with raising tomatoes has to do with soil. Tomatoes can be grown on many different soil types, but a deep, loamy soil, well-drained and supplied with organic matter and nutrients is the most suitable. As with most garden vegetables, tomatoes grow best in a slightly acid soil with a pH of 6.2 to 6.8.

As for fertilizers, tomatoes do well with many different kinds, particularly phosphorus. Some people use a lot of nitrogen but an excess of that can result in plants with extremely vigorous vine growth but little fruit production.

Working the fertilizer into the soil about two weeks before planting is a good idea. An additional side dressing of a nitrogen fertilizer may be desirable after the first cluster of flowers have set fruit.

The type of tomato someone wants to grow is probably one of the biggest decisions a gardener has to make. There are probably more tomato types available to the home gardener than any other garden vegetable.

Tomatoes are usually categorized as early, mid-season or late. Another consideration is whether the tomato cultivar that is chosen is determinate or indeterminate in growth habit.

Determinate (D) tomato plants grow to a certain height and then stop. They also flower and set all their fruit within a relatively short period of time. This is an advantage if the tomatoes are being grown primarily for canning purposes.

Indeterminate tomato plants grow, flower, and set fruit over the entire growing season.

Another characteristic to look for when choosing tomato types is disease resistance. Many tomato names are followed by one or more letters indicating resistance to Verticillium wilt (V), Fusarium wilt (F), or nematodes (N).

Disease resistance can be an important consideration, especially if the gardener has experienced these problems with tomatoes in the past.

When purchasing tomato transplants, choose those with straight, sturdy stems about the thickness of a pencil. They should have four to six young true leaves, no blossoms or fruit, and be free of insect pests and diseases.

Plants in individual containers or cell packs experience little or no transplant shock and become established quickly.

Tomato plants will develop roots along the stem and may be set deeply at transplanting with the first set of leaves near the soil surface. If transplants are in peat pots, remove the rim of the pot or be sure the rim is below the soil surface, so that the soil ball will not dry out. A soluable starter fertilizer, high in phosphorus can be applied at planting time.

Tomatoes grown unstaked are usually planted three feet apart in rows five feet apart. Plants to be staked are planted two feet apart in rows three to four feet apart. Plants to be caged are planted 30 to 36 inches apart.

Stakes and cages should be placed at planting time or soon after so as to not disturb the roots. Unstaked plants should be mulched with clean straw, black plastic or some other suitable material to keep the fruit off the ground and prevent rotting.

Where space is limited or soil conditions poor, tomato plants can be grown in containers using a disease-free planting mix. Most any container is suitable as long as drainage is provided. Pay special attention to water and fertilizer needs of container-grown tomato plants.

Once the tomato plants are established, apply a mulch to conserve moisture and suppress weed growth. If weeds do appear, they may be pulled by hand or removed by shallow cultivation.

An even moisture supply is important, especially once the tomato fruits begin to develop. If the soil becomes too dry, blossom-end rot can be a problem. If too much water is applied at one time, ripening fruit may split.

Staked plants are usually pruned to a single or double stem and periodically tied loosely to the stake with soft twine. Pruning is accomplished by removing all the branches or "suckers" that grow from the leaf axils, leaving only the main stem or the main stem and one additional branch near the base. Unsupported and caged tomatoes may be left to branch normally. Staked and pruned tomatoes produce fewer but larger fruit than caged or unsupported plants.

There are numerous insect and disease problems that can occur in tomatoes. There are so many in fact that the best way to solve those problems is to contact the local extenstion office and they can help gardeners analyze what needs to be done.

Regardless of the type of tomato grown, the gardner who produces good tomatoes that can be cut up for a side dish, used in a salad or for cooking, always feels their efforts were well rewarded when they pick the fruit off the vine and smell the freshness.

In the growing world, there is nothing else like it.

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