By Carol Rossi, The Bounty Garden’s Seedling Instructor
The best thing about home-grown tomatoes (besides their delicious flavor of sweet sunshine) is that they can be grown pretty much anywhere you have a patch of reliable sunlight. You just need to know the attributes and requirements for your particular growing situation.
If all you have is a couple large pots on a balcony you are still set to produce some beautiful tomatoes. Just ensure the pots are located so they receive a minimum of 8 hours of direct sunlight – this is one growth requirement where tomatoes will not compromise. Next, replace the soil in the pots every growing season with a fresh batch of potting soil that is rich in nutrients and organic matter. Tomatoes are nutrient gluttons so you can use a mix that is high in nitrogen and phosphorus and without worrying about over-feeding them. Now select the proper variety for your pots. Look for dwarf (or patio) size, or small-fruited “determinates” such as cherry, grape, and pear tomatoes. Determinates grow to a certain size and then stop so they are perfect for small spaces and also don’t require much support. The small, cone-shaped tomato cages should suffice but instead, I recommend the heavy-duty kind instead of the spindly wire type. Train determinates to support their stems on the cage but don’t prune them. They will reward you by covering themselves with wonderful, tasty tomatoes.
If you are a lucky gardener with lots of room you definitely have more options! Tomatoes come in early, mid-season, and long (or main) season varieties, so for an extended harvest period all you have to do is mix up the varieties. Choose early cultivars for half your plants, one intermediate, and the remainder long season. Because the early varieties put a lot of energy into quick production, the fruit tends to be smaller and less flavorful than the long season types that luxuriate long summer days on the vine. But put in some Early Girls and you can be eating tomatoes in late June or early July while looking forward to the August arrival of Big Boys, Mortgage Lifters, and Brandywines. You can also choose “paste” varieties, such as Black Plum and San Marzano, which make great sauces, but are less juicy and tangy than the “table” or “slicing” types. Just be aware that while small and intermediate size tomatoes can be grown in 8 to 10 hours of direct sunlight per day the standard and big sizes require a minimum of 12 to 14 hours daily.
With all that room you may select indeterminate cultivars which, theoretically, can grow as large as conditions allow. They will require a strong trellis where vines can be tied, or a heavy-duty cage 5 to 6 feet high and 2 feet around. Google “tomato cages” and get some inspiration, but don’t skimp on support because broken vines result in far fewer tomatoes. Pruning an indeterminate will also reduce the amount of the crop, although some gardeners still trim them back to increase the size of individual tomatoes and keep the vines manageable. The choice is dependent on your philosophy!
Tomatoes like their space. You can plant dwarfs and cherry tomatoes 18” apart but all the others need at least 24” between plants. Don’t crowd them because they are heavy feeders and compete for soil nutrients. They are also sun lovers and sun blockers so you must ensure each plant gets the sunlight it needs. They will produce well if grown in a single row (never in a block) where they each get an equal share of sunlight and nourishment.
Care and cultivation are the same for potted or in-ground tomato plants. Tomatoes don’t need (and don’t like) a lot of water. Water them well at planting and you should not have to water them more than once weekly. One weekly deep watering is MUCH better than regular shallow watering. Uneven watering will also promote a condition known as blossom-end rot—consistency is key. Don’t get water on their leaves because this promotes disease.
Tomatoes are also the nutrient gluttons of the vegetable world, so you will need to supplement their feeding throughout the long growing season. Spray plants with compost tea, seaweed extract, or a similar fertilizer two weeks after transplant. Spray them again at flowering, after first fruit is set, and then weekly when plants start producing. You can use a foliar feed or a soil-soak to keep them happy. The mid to late season varieties should produce until the first rains of fall start in October. Then you can clip any remaining vines with green tomatoes and hang them in your garage to ripen.
Tomatoes define the summer! There are no excuses not to get growing! Learn more about The Bounty Garden at https://thebountygarden.wordpress.com/ and Sustainable Danville Area at http://www.facebook.com/sustainabledanvillearea
Reprinted with permission from Danville Today News/Alamo Today: