Grow your own tomatoes

 Tomatoes are not only the prettiest vegetable you can grow and the most delicious, they are also among the easiest. You don’t have to set aside space for a big vegetable garden in the backyard; tomatoes fit into a tight spot and are so decorative you might even want to grow them in a pot on the patio or front porch.

Tomatoes are easy plants for beginners because they really only need three things: heat, light and moisture. They’re happy in the ground or in containers, they don’t need pampering, and they almost always produce an abundant harvest. Technically, tomatoes are a fruit, of course, not a vegetable, but it doesn’t really matter what you call them. A cherry tomato picked fresh in the garden is a bite-sized snack to savour; a big slicing tomato is a prize big enough to share.

Tomato gardeners tend to be the competitive type, vying with friends and neighbours to produce the first tomato on the block, but regardless of when your first tomato ripens, you win: There’s really nothing better than a homegrown tomato right off the vine.

“I was taught not to brag, but I must have the first tomatoes in the neighbourhood, and I brag and brag,” says Doug Oster, an organic gardener, gardening columnist and gardening radio host in Pittsburgh. “I do every trick in the book to have the first tomatoes,” he says, “but you also want a plant that will keep producing.”

Types of tomatoes
Oster grows about 50 different kinds of tomatoes in his garden every year; he is the author of “Tomatoes Garlic Basil,” a paean to his favourite crops. Fourth of July and Early Girl are two reliable, tasty, early ripening hybrids he grows and recommends. He always plants Limbaugh Legacy Potato Top, a pink heirloom tomato, and he grows Sun Gold, a sweet and prolific golden-yellow cherry tomato , his wife’s favourite. Every year he tries a few tomato varieties he’s never heard of before. Right now, he is experimenting with black tomatoes, like Japanese Black Trifele and Cherokee Black.

“I’ll read the description in a catalogue, and I just have to try,” he says. “I like tomatoes that have a story and a history.” During tomato season, Oster eats 10 tomatoes a day.

George Ball, president of W. Atlee Burpee and Co., the owner of Burpee seeds and plants, prefers big tomatoes like Big Boy and Better Boy, 1-pound hybrids developed for their size and flavour. His favourite is Brandy Boy, a relatively new hybrid with the delicious taste of the heirloom Brandywine and the vigour and production of a hybrid tomato. Store-bought tomatoes may look more perfect, but they simply can’t match the flavour of these hybrids, Ball says.

Hybrids
Grocery-store tomatoes are hybridized for their toughness and uniformity; they are industrial fruits, Ball says, that can survive mechanical picking and cross-country shipping. “For home gardeners, shipping is carrying a tomato 30 feet,” Ball says.

Tomatoes are easy to grow from seed, as any gardener who has ever discovered a volunteer tomato plant in the compost heap can attest. But the easiest way to grow tomatoes is to start with transplants, which are sold at garden shops at planting time. Stan Cope, president of Bonnie Plants, a supplier of transplants, says his company produces 125 million tomato plants for big box stores every year. The company distributes 50 to 75 varieties from 70 growers around the country, and 25 million of them are Better Boy. “It is by far the most popular tomato,” Cope says. “We look for hybrids that are bred to meet the challenges that nature provides,” Cope says. Solar Fire, a hybrid that keeps producing through summer heat, is one of his favourites. Bonnie offers heirlooms, too, including Mr. Stripey, Brandywine, Arkansas Traveller and a dozen others.

Everybody should grow tomatoes, Oster says. If this is your first season, don’t be intimidated. “You can do a lot of things wrong,” he says, “and you’ll still get tomatoes.” When your first fruits ripen, eat them right off the vine, he suggests. Until your family discovers what you’re up to, you’ll have the crop to yourself.

Tomato tips from the pros
Doug Oster, author of “Tomatoes Garlic Basil” (www.dougoster.com), plants about 50 different kinds of tomatoes in his garden in Pittsburgh every year. Oster is an organic gardener: he uses no chemical herbicides or pesticides. Here are some of his tips and ideas for growing beautiful, healthy, productive tomatoes.

Tomatoes need sun; whether you grow them in a pot or in a plot, the spot should receive at least 6 hours of sun a day.

Oster grows his tomatoes in raised beds amended with horse manure and homemade compost. If you don’t have access to well-rotted horse manure and do not have a compost heap, you can buy manure and compost at most gardens shops.

Staking or caging tomatoes is not necessary, but it saves space, and it is easier to find and pick the fruit on an upright plant. Sturdy bamboo poles or tomato stakes from a garden shop should be hammered into the soil when you plant. Use strips of cloth, stockings, green garden tape, or twine to tie the tomato plant to the stake as it grows.

Mulching the soil with compost or straw will help prevent soil-borne diseases from splashing up onto the tomato plants. Mulch also helps control weeds and retains moisture in the soil.

Tomatoes need regular moisture. If it doesn’t rain, water them once a week — at the base of the plant, not on the leaves, soaking the soil thoroughly.

If you’re growing tomatoes in a pot, use a big pot (18 inches or larger). Big pots hold more soil, so the plants can grow larger (and produce more fruit), and they will not blow over. Oster recommends using a good organic potting mix. Stake the plants or grow them up on a decorative tepee or obelisk. Mulch to help keep the soil moist, Oster says, and fertilize every two weeks.

Tomato gardeners tend to be the competitive type, vying with friends and neighbors to produce the first tomato on the block, but regardless of when your first tomato ripens, you win: There’s really nothing better than a homegrown tomato right off the vine.

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