12 May 2008
Virginia Cooperative Extension, Charlottesville/Albemarle County Office
460 Stagecoach Road, Charlottesville, Virginia 22902
phone: 434.872.4580 fax: 434.872.4578
Mothers Day is the conservative first day to plant tender annuals around here although some day we may have to move it up to accommodate global warming. For now though what better way to get started than one of our favorites, the not-quite hand fruit, ammunition against bad actors, and ingredient of so many products we eaters of solanaceous plants consume.
Tomatoes rank second behind potatoes as the most consumed commercially produced vegetables per capita according to the USDA. Even so there is nothing quite like eating tomatoes grown in your own garden. Choosing the right tomato plants for your home garden can be fun, as there are many different varieties with a range of characteristics. Three factors to consider are resistance to pests, plant characteristics, and fruit characteristics.
Varieties bred for resistance to pests can often provide good results. Here is a list of tomato varieties recommended for Virginia by Virginia Tech for their disease resistance capabilities. The numbers in parentheses indicate time, in days, until the beginning of the harvest period.
- Big Beef (73)
- Mountain Spring (80)
- Celebrity (70)
- Better Boy (105)
- Sweet 100 (65) cherry tomato
- Plum Dandy (82) plum tomato
The second factor for choosing is plant characteristics. Midget, patio, or dwarf tomato varieties have very compact vines best grown in hanging baskets or other containers. The tomatoes produced may be, but are not necessarily, the cherry type (1-inch diameter or less). These plants are usually short-lived, producing their crop quickly and for a short period. The terms "compact" or "determinate" refer to the plant habit of growing to a certain size, setting fruit, and then declining. Most of the early ripening tomato varieties are determinate and will not produce tomatoes throughout a Virginia summer. Indeterminate tomato plants are the opposite of the determinate types. The vines continue to grow until frost or disease kills them. These are the standard, all-summer tomatoes that most people like to grow. They require support of some kind for best results, since otherwise the fruit would be in contact with the soil and thus susceptible to rot.
The third factor for choosing varieties is fruit characteristics. Cherry tomatoes have small fruits often used in salads or for snacking in the garden. Plants of cherry tomatoes range from dwarf (Tiny Tim) to seven-footer (Sweet 100). One standard cherry tomato plant is usually sufficient for a family, since they generally produce abundantly. Beefsteak type tomatoes are large-fruited types, producing a tomato slice that easily covers a sandwich, the whole fruit weighing as much as two pounds or more. These are usually late to ripen, so plant some standard-sized or early tomatoes for longest harvest. Paste tomatoes have pear-shaped fruits with very meaty interiors and few seeds. They are less juicy than standard tomatoes and are without a sizeable central core. Paste tomatoes are a favorite for canning since they don't have to be cut up and since they are so meaty. Color of tomatoes includes orange, yellow, pink, or striped, and often the only way to get a specific one is by growing your own. Most are heritage varieties obtained through seed-saver groups.
When you are ready to put homegrown or purchased plants into the ground, select stocky transplants about six to ten inches tall. Set tomato transplants in the ground covering the stems so that only two or three sets of true leaves are exposed. Plants should be staked or caged. Though it requires more initial work, this makes caring for tomatoes easier than letting them sprawl. Since they are off the ground, fruit rots are reduced, and harvesting is much less work. For staking, space them 24 inches apart in rows three feet apart. Use wooden stakes six feet long and one and a half or two inches wide. Drive them one foot into the soil about four to six inches from the plant soon after transplanting. Attach heavy twine or strips of cloth to the stakes every ten inches. As the plants grow, pull the stems toward the stakes and tie loosely. Prune staked tomatoes to either one or two main stems. At the junction of each leaf and the first main stem a new shoot will develop. If plants are trained to two stems, choose one of these shoots, normally at the first or second leaf-stem junction, for the second main stem. Remove all other shoots, called suckers, weekly to keep the plant to these two main stems. Pinch shoots off with your fingers. Tomato plants may also be set along a fence or trellis and tied and pruned in a manner similar to that used with stakes.
Growing tomatoes in wire cages is one method popular among gardeners because of its simplicity. Cage growing allows the tomato plant to grow in its natural manner, but keeps the fruit and leaves off the ground. Using wire cages requires a large initial expenditure and a large storage area, but many gardeners feel that the freedom from pruning and staking is worth it. Heavy duty cages will last many years. Be sure to get fencing with at least 6 inch spacing between wires so that you can get your hand inside to harvest the tomatoes. If tomato plants in wire cages are pruned at all, once is enough; prune to three or four main stems. Wire-cage tomatoes develop a heavy foliage cover, reducing sunscald on fruits and giving more leeway when bottom leaves become blighted and have to be removed. Many staked plants are nearly naked by late summer. Caged plants are less prone to the spread of disease from plant handling, since they do not have open wounds and must be handled less frequently than staked plants. However, it helps to space the plants somewhat further apart (three feet is good) to allow good air circulation between plants; humidity is higher because of the foliage density, and diseases, such as late blight, spread rapidly in humid situations. If well nourished and cared for, caged tomatoes can produce exceptional harvests and make up for the extra space with high production.
By the way, Happy Mothers Day.
For more information about this and other landscape topics contact your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office. The local Virginia Cooperative Extension office numbers are Albemarle 872-4580, Fluvanna 591-1950, Greene 985-5236, Louisa 540-967-3422, and Nelson 263-4035.