America's favorite vegetable is actually a fruit and it is our subject today with an updated entry for our Dirt Doctor library. It's actually a fairly easy-to-grow food crop in general and our recommended varieties are shown below, but for the very easiest choices of all, try the Cherry tomatoes, Sungold, Juliet and the Wild Current tomatoes.
COMMON NAME: Tomato
BOTANICAL NAME: Lycopersicom esculentum
TYPE AND USE: Tender perennial, grown as an annual with edible fruit.
HEIGHT: 3-15 feet
SPREAD: 3-15 feet
FINAL SPACING: 36-48 inches
LOCATION: Full sun
PLANTING DATES: For transplants use the following schedule: Plant after all danger of frost in the spring and 12 - 14 weeks before the first average frost in the fall.
PLANTING METHOD: Some people recommend planting transplants by laying the plant down sideways or planting deeply. Tomatoes are able to root from the stems, but planting at a normal depth is what seems to work better.
SEED EMERGENCE: If you start your tomatoes from seed, here’s the plan. Plant the seeds indoors in organic potting soil, ¼ - ½ inch deep in a well-lit or greenhouse condition. They will germinate in 5 - 14 days at about 68 - 85°. Keep the seedlings cool and in bright light to keep them from getting spindly.
HARVEST TIME: Harvest in summer when the fruit starts to ripen and turn red, usually 55 - 90 days after planting. Picking the fruit as the color first starts to change will help prevent birds, squirrels and other critters from eating the fruit before you get it.
Green tomatoes brought indoors before the first hard freeze will usually ripen quite well.
GROWTH HABITS: Succulent upright-to-spreading perennial that functions as an annual for two reasons: one, it freezes easily and two, it plays out with age as it develops insect and disease problems. Bush (determinate) and vining (indeterminate). Tomatoes do not like evening temperatures above 75°. Tomatoes are wind or vibration pollinated - not by bees.
CULTURE: Plant tomatoes in well-prepared soil with lots of compost, lava sand, rock phosphate and organic fertilizer. In sandy soil, add high-calcium lime. In alkaline soil, add greensand. It’s also a good idea to add fish meal or cottonseed meal and alfalfa meal. For maintenance ease and increased production, use metal cages. Concrete reinforcing wire mesh makes excellent cages for tomatoes and other vegetables. Fertilize three times per growing season because tomatoes are heavy feeders but wait for the first major feeding until after small fruit has set and started to grow. Heavy fertilizer applications too early can cause lots of stems and foliage but little fruit. Flowers on many varieties will not set in temperatures below 55° or over 92°. Try adding a handful of Epsom salts under new transplants to increase fruit production. Zeolite and soft rock phosphate also can be used this way.
A good nitrogen fertilizer is corn gluten meal. It not only adds nutrients, it also keeps weed seed from getting established. Alfalfa is also an excellent fertilizer for tomatoes. Use blends that contain alfalfa, alfalfa meal or rabbit pellets if they are pure alfalfa.
TROUBLES AND SOLUTIONS: Southern blight (which is usually misdiagnosed as early blight) is the most common tomato pest. It can be limited with weekly sprayings of Garrett Juice plus garlic and potassium bicarbonate, hydrogen peroxide, cornmeal tea or the commercial product BioSafe. Use lots of compost and mulch to prevent tomato pinworm. Eliminate blossom-end rot with even soil moisture and calcium supplements: soft rock phosphate and alfalfa products in alkaline soils, high-calcium lime in acid, sandy soils. Epsom salt applications can also help. Red Christmas tree ornaments hung on plants before the fruit starts to ripen will repel birds. Aphids, spider mites, and flea hoppers are controlled with Garrett Juice and essential oil sprays. Hand remove hornworms and treat for all diseases by applying cornmeal to the soil and spraying hydrogen peroxide products such as BioSafe.
HARVEST AND STORAGE: Expect 5-20 pounds per plant. For the best taste, pick the tomatoes after they have ripened on the vine and store indoors in a dry, cool place, not in the refrigerator. Tomatoes can also be picked after they have started to blush in color. This helps to prevent animal damage, and the fruit will continue to ripen indoors.
NOTES: Fall tomatoes taste better but are harder to find. Faster production in the season comes from the use of water walls or floating row cover around the cages. Another increased production trick is to buy 2 ¼ inch transplants early and pot them in 4 inch pots. After they grow and the root system fills the pots, move them to 1 gallon pots. Move the plants out into the sun on warm days and back into protection on cold days and nights. When all danger of frost is gone, plant the gallon plants in the garden. You'll be amazed at how early and prolific fruit production will be.
Floating row cover used around tomato cages made from concrete reinforcing mesh.
Another trick is to use the Japanese Planting Ring. It will maximize your tomato production in the garden. It is like a compost pile with tomatoes (or other vegetables) planted around the outside.
Above excerpt from Howard and Malcolm Beck's Book: Texas Organic Vegetable Gardening
Still another trick is to plant a cover crop such as hairy vetch vicia villosa, a hardy annual legume. Plant the seeds in the fall, let them grow through the winter, mow them down in the spring, and set the tomato transplants through the vetch mulch into the vetch's root system. The tomatoes will thrive until it's time to replant the vetch in fall. This system has performed phenomenally at USDA tests in Beltsville, Maryland.
VARIETIES: Some of our favorites for North Texas include 'Celebrity', 'Carnival', 'Salsa', 'SuperFantastic', 'Better Boy', 'Porter', 'Viva Italia', 'Jackpot', 'Roma', 'Brandywine', 'Yellow pear', 'Arkansas Traveler', 'Costaluto', 'Riesentraube', 'Black Krin', 'Pineapple' and 'Supersonic'. Others may be better for the rest of the country.
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