Tomatoes are, by far, the most popular homegrown “vegetable” (although they’re really a fruit). Their ubiquity is not surprising for obvious reasons: they’re very easy to grow and the flavor of a backyard tomato is sensationally better than store-bought.
Whether you’re a tomato newbie or a hardcore tomatomaniac, there’s always a new variety to try or a new tomato trick (remember the “upside-down” tomato craze a couple of years ago?). Here’s some juicy insider info that you may not know about tomatoes, gleaned from years of growing both heirlooms and hybrids and from listening to customers.
Soil All vegetables give a lot. They produce a lot of foliage as well as fruit, all in a short time. It’s only reasonable that if the soil feeds the plant, then you’ve got to maximize the soil. Amend it well to conserve water, improve texture and increase nutrient availability. Work in an organic starter fertilizer at the same time.
container If growing in containers, size is important. Most people want to grow tomatoes in a pot that’s too small. A 15-gallon nursery pot is the right size, not a 5-gallon. Too-small containers cause the watering to be uneven, which can cause other problems mentioned below.
feeding Tomatoes are not heavy feeders. If you feed too often — even with a food designed specifically for tomatoes —you’ll end up with lush, beautiful plants and little fruit. A light feeding every other month is sufficient.
watering Tomatoes need a consistent supply of moisture. They will suffer if you let them go too dry before watering. They can develop blossom-end rot and will be much more susceptible to diseases. Use an organic mulch to keep the soil evenly moist.
blossom-end rot This is when the bottom of the tomato develops a dark brown patch which begins to rot. A lack of calcium is the cause. However you don’t need more calcium; you need a consistent supply of moisture. There’s plenty of calcium in California soils but plants can only take in calcium through water. Uneven watering equals insufficient calcium.
heirloom or hybrid One of the ways of distinguishing the two is that hybrids have been bred for disease-resistance. But here in California we have an ideal tomato-growing climate and heirlooms rarely get disease. There’s no question that heirlooms are not as productive, so grow both. Grow heirlooms for their incredible variety of flavor, shape and color, and hybrids for production.
tomato flavors There are many, many tomato flavors. Some taste rich and smoky (purples and blacks). Some come already salted (Black Krim and others). Some have a rich, fruity wine taste. Some are super sweet (yellows and oranges — Sungold wins every cherry tomato taste test.) Where will you find all these flavors? From heirlooms, that’s why they’re grown.
why not beefstakes Beefsteaks are everyone’s dream tomato. But inland gardeners beware: beefsteaks produce little fruit when temperatures are above 85 degrees. If you want a few spectacular tomatoes early in the season and that’s all, grow them. Coastal gardeners can grow beefsteaks much easier due to lower temperatures.
pinching or pruning There’s no need to pinch or prune your tomato plants. The technique for removing side shoots was developed in cold-summer European climates. Removing most of the foliage made it possible for the sun to reach and warm the entire plant. We’ve got plenty of heat and sun in California for tomatoes to produce beautifully without any pinching or pruning. If you do, your fruit may get sunscald.
don’t refrigerate Keep tomatoes at room temperature. Cold temperatures turn the sugars to starch, ruining the homegrown flavor.
Gary Jones is chief horticulturist at Armstrong Garden Centers. Email your drought and gardening questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.