Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Tomato Time

Ask most vegetable gardeners what single thing they would not live without in their garden and it is probably the tomato. Makes sense, tomatoes are easy to grow and reliably produce lots of fruit; they are tasty, good for you and bear from July till frost. There is a huge selection of varieties to choose from so tomato growers don’t get bored. And it is just plain satisfying to pick a big, fat, ripe tomato and fix yourself that first sandwich or salad.

Growing tomatoes is so easy I hesitate to offer advice but here goes. Even veteran tomato growers got a surprise last year with late blight and I’ll offer a few thought s on this disease. Here’s a link to Penn State’s tomato growing guide. See page 55.  It contains lots of good detail on tomato culture…and its relative, the eggplant.

Grow your own transplants or rely on the local greenhouse? That is a big question. Certainly growing your own plants gives you more control over what varieties you’ll enjoy. But many of us just don’t have the time, growing conditions or skill to produce a good transplant. I find that small, local greenhouses offer the best chance at getting an excellent quality plant as well as decent variety selection. Try your local farm market, too. Sometimes farmers start more transplants than they need and sell the rest.

Tomatoes are heat loving plants. They will not tolerate a frost so we wait until mid-May in Bucks County to plant them out, unless you have some device that will protect them or are willing to gamble that Mother Nature is looking out for you. By Mother’s Day, we are almost always past danger of a hard freeze, so that’s a good tomato planting guideline. Makes sense to look at that 10 day outlook and adjust as necessary. You can plant out earlier using low tunnels, wall-of-water, row covers and other heat retention devices if you are the kind of person who wants that first tomato on the block.

Varieties… the list is endless. Entire websites are devoted to tomato seeds and varieties. Here are a few suggestions based on Penn State evaluations, personal experience and high praise from knowledgeable tomato people.
Brandyboy… an improved Brandywine type will give you excellent size and flavor without the downsides of straight Brandywine that heirloom folks praise. Fabulous…is just that, a fabulous, tasty slicer that will not disappoint you. Celebrity is an early fruiting, smaller but reliably good slicer. Mortgage Lifter is a good choice if you are in the heirloom market; and how can we overlook a variety called Bucks County from Burpee.

Plant breeders have been taking the best qualities of heirloom types and combining them with traits that improve yield uniformity and disease resistance. I’m not talking about those hard, red cardboard tasting things you find in the mega-mart. Plant a Brandywine and a Brandyboy side by side and judge for yourself. Space is limited so I’ll leave it to you to explore the plum, cherry, grape Roma and other small types but I will drop a name…Mountain Magic is reported to be a superb new “salad” size tomato that will be available in limited quality this year. In addition to yield and flavor it is resistant to late blight.

Ah late blight… the tomato/potato disease that took a lot of the fun out of last year’s garden. You may recall tomatoes turning a greasy, black color and croaking about mid July. For a more detailed discussion of the disease, check out previous blog entries.

Bottom line… no reason to expect late blight to be the scourge it was in 2009 but keep your eyes open and let us know if you see it. Gardening-wise, there are no special gardening practices that you can employ to prevent late blight. No need to sterilize soil, tools tec. Rotating planting location is always a good practice but will have no effect on late blight.

More likely, our old nemesis, early blight and Septoria leaf blight, will be infecting plants. Neither are the devastating fruit rotter and plant killer that late blight is but they overwinter her very well. Stake or cage plants to encourage quick drying and you’ll see less of these diseases. Inspect plants when you purchase and bypass those with spotted or yellowing leaves.

A final thought… consider planting through black plastic mulch. It is amazing what it does for soil heat and water retention, weed control and overall soil physical prosperities.


Ray E. said...

More on great varieties as judged by attendees at the 2009 Franklin County Tomato Tasting Day.  If you're near the Chambersburg area on Wednesday, August 25th, stop by for the 2010 event.

Scott Guiser said...

Thanks Ray. Sounds like fun. I'll bet that my pal Steve Bogash has a hand in this.