Growing Perfect Tomatoes 101
My friends ... perfect tomatoes are not those red tasteless orbs for sale at your local grocery chain store, however nice they look. The ideal tomato is the one you're going to grow in your garden this summer and is defined by its taste and texture: It is juicy, acidic, flavorful, maybe even spicy, and a whole different tomato from store-bought fare. How are you going to grow that tomato? Follow the guidelines below.
When it comes to tomatoes, you've got thousands of choices of varieties. Heirlooms, hybrids, determinate, indeterminate, some more tolerant to cooler temperatures, some more resistant to disease. Green, white, yellow, orange, purple, and even striped. To begin to describe the various varieties is outside the scope of this article, but the variety you choose matters.
Choose a tomato that is suited to your local climate. How do you find that out? The best way is to ask experienced gardeners in your area. This might be a local farmer who sells at farmers markets, might be a neighbor, or might be a landscaping professional. Whatever way you get the information, starting with species which are adapted to your local climate puts you ahead of the game for success.
The soil is the foundation of everything, and so it is also the foundation of growing perfect tomatoes. I can't stress this enough. You should invest the majority of your effort in making the best soil you can. That means either buying high quality soil or soil ingredients (more expensive but less work for you), or building up good soil throughout the year with practices like green mulch, crop rotation, and composting (very cheap but more work).
The bed where you are planting should be, at minimum, dug up and turned over, with clods broken up and aged compost mixed in. This makes it easier for roots to grow, brings necessary air and nutrients into the soil, and allows moisture to be absorbed more readily and retained.
The compost could be well-aged manure, composted vegetable scraps and straw, composted leaves, or a store-bought brew, but the soil needs it. Not only does compost improve the nutrient profile and texture of the soil, it also increases the soil's ability to retain moisture and sustain necessary microbial life. Added bone meal and blood meal are good natural slow release forms of nutrients.
Each tomato grower has his or her own secrets for growing perfect tomatoes. For instance, take Cynthia Sandberg, owner of Love Apple Farms in Santa Cruz, CA ("love apple," or "pomme d'amour," is an old romantic French appellation for tomatoes). Into the hole she digs for each tomato plant, Cynthia places a fish head, worm castings, aspirin, egg shells, bone meal, and mycorrhizal fungi. (In case you doubt the efficacy of this method, the tomatoes Cynthia grows go to Manresa restaurant, which has consistently received a two star Michelin rating.)
Planting tomatoes at the right time is very important. Too early and frost will do them in, too late and fruit production will be limited. Long, hot summers are ideal for tomato growing, but if you live in a region with a shorter summer, either start seeds indoors 4-8 weeks before last frost date, or plan on buying transplants.
Another practice which some tomato growers swear by is the use of black or red plastic mulch around the base of each plant. The plastic seals the soil and maximizes heat and moisture retention. Regular mulch like straw or leaves also helps. Keep a space of a couple inches between the mulch and the stem, though, to prevent the stem being exposed to prolonged moisture.
The consensus is that tomatoes do better as transplants rather than sown as seeds in a garden bed. When you transplant, dig the hole deep enough that the entire stem, up to the first leaves of the plant will be under soil. Some people even remove the lowest leaves and plant that under soil as well. While this would kill many other plants, tomatoes are unique in that they grow roots out of their stems. So this type of deep planting creates a stronger root structure and can help tomato plants grow twice as fast, according to Robert Smaus, author of 52 Weeks in the California Garden.
Space plants at least 2'-3' apart for maximum fruit production.
Never spray water on tomato leaves because it encourages disease; rather, water deeply at the base of each plant once every 4-6 days. Watering too much and too regularly makes for weak plants and mealy, tasteless tomatoes and can encourage tomato diseases.
There is a method of water management for tomato growing called the dry farm method, which is to water tomato plants regularly until a certain point, and then to stop watering completely.
On Adamah Farm in Falls Village, CT, they plant their tomatoes into plastic sheet mulch, water them in on the day of planting, and then don't water again for the rest of the season. Here in Southern California, I like to water until the plants start to set flowers and then stop watering for the duration of the season. I have no need to call a Los Angeles plumber to install an irrigation system. I know it sounds crazy, but the consensus is that this method produces the most flavorful tomatoes possible.
The more effectively you can keep tomato plants from sagging over and drooping on the ground, the less chance of disease and ruined fruits. Commercial tomato cages seem less effective than wood or metal fence stakes. I prefer metal 5' or 6' fence stakes, which are cheaper than tomato cages, last longer, and are more effective. I buy them at my local Home Depot. As the tomato plant grows up next to the stake, I tie the stem loosely to the stake for support. The thicker the tie, the less chance it will cut into the stem. So, for instance, a length of cloth would be better than a piece of wire.
Now get out there and grow the most amazing tomatoes you've ever tasted!
Updated June 11, 2018.
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