Gardening tips: Tomato growing basics

Gardening tips: Tomato growing basics

by Ellen Goff

If you want to strike up a conversation with a gardener, just ask how the tomatoes are growing. There are as many opinions and techniques for raising them as there are gardeners. To make sense of it all, here are the basics.

Every tomato originates from one of two types: a hybrid plant resulting from the cross-breeding of two different tomatoes for specific characteristics or an heirloom tomato variety, which isn't grown commercially and is often more flavorful than hybrids.

According to  expert Don Boekelheide, test gardener for Rodale's Organic Gardening Magazine, there's nothing tastier than a homegrown tomato.

"Tomatoes grow beautifully here," Boekelheide says. "You don't even need a garden, just a sunny spot in a flowerbed, or even a 5-gallon utility bucket with holes in the bottom for drainage."

Tomatoes grow in one of two forms. A determinate is a 3- to 5-foot bush-like plant producing fruit quickly and all at once, while an indeterminate vine continues to grow and bear fruit throughout the long growing season and requires stakes or wire enclosures for support.

To raise tomatoes from seed, start them indoors six to eight weeks before the last spring frost date, which is usually the first of April. However, plant propagation can be tricky. Purchasing starter plants from a local garden center is a better option for the novice gardener.

Sun exposure will determine where you should plant your tomatoes. Most tomato varieties require at least six hours of full sun each day. Containers are great, but be sure the pots are big enough. Three- to 5-gallon containers with drain holes around the bottom will work well.

When you set your plants in the soil, sink them up to the first set of leaves. Additional roots will grow on the buried portion of the stem, making the plant more stable. Then place a 5-foot stake next to each plant.

Guard against cutworm damage by placing a paper "collar" around the stem of each plant. An empty paper towel roll cut down to 3 inches works well. Cut it open lengthwise to slip around the stem, then tape, clip or staple in place, burying 1 inch below the surface.

Spraying plants with a diluted solution of three aspirin in 4 gallons of water has produced improved growth, disease resistance and more fruit, according to University of Rhode Island trials.

Keep the soil evenly moist. Mulch plants 4 to 5 inches deep with compost, straw or leaves to conserve moisture and hasten ripening. When they're fully grown, you'll be able to appreciate the fruits of your labor all summer.

Ellen Goff is a master gardener and environmental advocate. Aside from writing about and photographing plants, Ellen tends to a 3-acre landscape she shares with her husband, cat and border collie on the shores of Lake Wylie, S.C.

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