Monday, February 16, 2009

Tomato Primer for the Obama Garden: Corrections Wanted (and a poll)


All right, I'm a beginning gardener, and I fear tomatoes. 

People who grow tomatoes seem like Master Gardeners. Someone who pulls a tomato out of their harvest basket might as well say, "Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair." 

My lone and level garden stretches far and away, devoid of tomato vines and stakes. 

But tomatoes are a bountiful crop and are wonderful to give to people who need some produce in their lives. They're high in vitamin A, vitamin C, lycopene, and potassium, not to mention that they're tasty on pasta or in salads or chopped into rice. 

This year, I'm screwing my courage to the sticking place. I'm a scuba diver, hiker, and surfer.  

This year, I'm growing tomatoes in my Obama Garden

Determinate and Indeterminate Tomatoes

First: there are two kinds of tomatoes with regard to when they bear fruit: "determinate" or "indeterminate." 

Determinate tomatoes are bush or tumbling plants, often more suited for container gardening, that grow to be 1 to 3 feet tall. They produce flowers on their vine tips, stop growing, and then develop all their fruit quickly and all at once. They require less care than the other kind. 

Indeterminate tomatoes, also called cordon tomatoes, are the traditional lanky tomato vines that grow 6 to 20 feet long. They grow longer and produce new flowers and fruit all season long. You can control the growth of these tomatoes by training them on a trellis and pruning sideshoots. You must pinch off any sideshoots that grow between the main stem and any leafy stems, and you must pinch off the top in mid- to late-season. That directs the energy into ripening fruits rather than growing taller stems. 

Site and Soil 

Tomatoes like heat, so plant them in a spot protected from the wind but in full sun. Next to a sunny wall is often good, as they soak up the heat reradiated from the wall. 

They like moderately rich soil, so create a well of compost in the ground for each transplant. In containers, use generous amounts of compost. 

Water them well. Tomatoes need a steady supply of moisture and won't produce well unless they're kept moist. 

When to Plant
Planting too late is a lot better than planting too early.  Soil temperatures of less than 50F or any sort of too-cold night will shock the poor little plants. One book said that seedlings planted in June in the Northeast will grow faster and outproduce plants that were set out earlier. 

"Harden off" your seedings for up to two weeks before transplanting them. This means acclimating them to the outdoors. For a tender little seedling that hasn't ever been in a breeze, the outside world is a scary place. 

Place your little seedlings outside for 2 hours in a sheltered, shady spot at first, like under a tree, then for longer amounts of time each day. After two or three days, introduce them to the sun for two hours, then put them under the tree for the rest of the day. Gradually increase their direct sun time, too. Take them in at night or whenever the weather turns cold or windy. Keep them watered. Transplanting on an overcast day is ideal. 


Mulch early and often to conserve water. Red plastic mulch may increase yields. Water often. 

If you're container gardening, when you plant, insert a watering system. An easy one is to take a 1- or 2-liter bottle, leave the cap on, and drill about 15 small holes in the top (near the cap) of the bottle. Then cut or drill a larger hole in the bottom of the bottle. Plant the bottle, cap-down, in the container with your tomato plants, about 1/2 or 2/3 buried. Fill the bottle with water through the one large hole with a watering can or hose. The water will slowly leach through the small holes into the soil. 


If you're growing indeterminate tomatoes, pick fruits as they ripen to encourage the plants to bloom and bear more fruit. Twist the fruits to remove them gently, or cut the stem close to the tomato. 

If you're growing determinate tomatoes, you're going to be very busy for about a week. Pick every day. 

Please comment on any tips you have or anything that I got wrong. I'll edit the main post with corrections. 

TK Kenyon 

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