Tomatoes are the most popular garden vegetable. They are found in home gardens, even where the climate is not suitable for commercial tomato production. Fortunately, tomatoes are responsive. Given sufficient care and the proper microclimate, they can delight gardeners and reward their efforts.
Varieties of tomatoes are so numerous they cause confusion. For the gardener buying transplants, the condition of these transplants is perhaps more important than the variety. A good transplant should be at least as wide as it is high, have a stem the size of a pencil with a slight purpling at the base of the stem, and have dark green, thick foliage.
Transplant tomatoes are generally hybrids of the currently popular types: Celebrity, Early Girl, Big Boy, Fantastic and Big Beef. If you want something other than these common (but good) varieties, consider ordering seed early in the season and growing your own plants. This requires a facility that permits temperature and light control, usually a free-standing greenhouse. However, acceptable transplants may be produced in a basement with sufficient light.
If you have tried tomatoes in the past and have been frustrated, consider planting cherry tomato varieties. These often ripen earlier in the growing season, allowing the gardener to have that fresh-tomato taste earlier in the season. Often, these can be good choices for young gardeners as well.
Tomato growing requirements generally are:
Light. While some plants can grow on a window sill, a tomato plant will not be productive if it receives light from only one side for three or fours hours a day. It must have full sunlight for eight or more hours a day in order to do its best.
Temperature. The most frequent cause of poor fruit set and rough tomatoes, particularly on the fruit cluster, is low night temperatures. A tomato plant, properly hardened, can endure night temperatures down to freezing without injury. However, pollen will not be produced in sufficient quantities at night temperatures below 50 degrees F. When lower temperatures prevail, fruit will set poorly or not at all.
Fertilizer. Like most other Crops, tomatoes perform best in a good, rich Garden soil. However, nitrogen fertilizer over 2 pounds per 1,000 square feet per year might be excessive. Apply all fertilizer before planting to promote the development of sturdy plants to carry the fruit load later on. After the fruit sets, the emphasis should be on its maturing.
Occasionally, if heavy rains occur, soil nitrates may be depleted. Replenish them with another 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. This should not be done after August 1 because it will induce vine growth at the expense of ripening the fruit.
Water. From the time of transplanting until late August, apply about 1 inch of water per week. This is not a substitute for daily attention to the soil moisture. During August, it is time to ripen fruit and this can be hastened by withholding water. Avoid prolonged wilting.
Every gardener would like to dispense with pesticides and let natural predators take care of their pest problems. With the exception of psyllids, you can generally get a tomato crop without pesticides as long as you control weeds and the plants receive good culture. However, to avoid having some plants turn purple and dry up in the middle of the season, control psyllids with an insecticidal soap, sulfur dust or labeled insecticide.
As the season draws to a close, many green tomatoes will still be on the vine. With a little effort, a temporary plastic greenhouse may be constructed over the plants to extend the season. Support the plastic so it doesn't touch the foliage. Ventilate to prevent excess buildup of heat during the day. Later, when frosts occur regularly, there will not be enough ground heat to prevent freezing within the shelter. At this time, harvest the remaining fruit, individually wrap it in newspaper, and store it in a cool place. As needed, fruit may be unwrapped and placed on a window sill to ripen.