Tomatoes are another veggie that I cannot seem to plant enough of. I always plant a minimum of 8 tomato plants – I actually start more than that but I always seem to lose some. Although no one in my family likes to eat fresh tomatoes straight from the garden, we still consume lots of them. We are big salsa eaters and Dan swears no one makes better spaghetti sauce than I do. I use tomatoes in my famous chicken chili and tons of other recipes. No matter how many I can they never seem to last until spring and I always end up buying canned tomatoes and salsa. We also go through huge amounts of catsup and I would love to grow enough tomatoes to can catsup. Andy eats catsup on EVERYTHING! I guess that is pretty normal for a nine year old boy. I did can some catsup a couple of years ago when our CSA had a bumper crop of them, but even that year nothing lasted until the fresh ones started coming again. Of course part of the problem is that the more I can, the more my family consumes. If they see 20 jars of salsa in the basement, they think nothing of opening jar after jar and then being surprised when we are out.
When growing tomatoes, you want to either start them indoors under lights or buy plants from the nursery. I start my seeds indoors the weekend after St. Patrick’s Day every year. Tomatoes do not tolerate frost and should not be planted outdoors until the ground has warmed up and all chance of frost is past.
You will want to determine what type of tomato you want to grow. I prefer to grow Roma types because they are better for canning and salsa. If you want a big tomato for slicing you will probably want to buy a beefsteak variety. If you just like tomatoes in your salad, a cherry or grape tomato will probably work best for you.
Tomatoes are also determinate or indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes are also known as bush tomatoes. They grow to a determinate length and then stop when the fruit sets on their terminal buds. All of the fruit ripens within a short time frame. The plant dies after the fruit ripens. Determinate tomatoes should not be pruned as it severely reduces the amount of tomatoes you will get. Indeterminate tomatoes are vining tomatoes that continue to grow and produce fruit until a frost kills them. Indeterminate tomatoes require caging or staking or both as they continue to grow. Many people like to prune (or sucker) them although I never do.
When your plants are large enough and the weather is right and you plan to plant outdoors, you need to harden them off first. This is to get them used to the wind and real conditions that they will be growing in – it will strengthen their stems and make for hardier plants. To harden them off, you simply put them outside in their pots for short periods of time each day, increasing the amount of time they are outdoors each day. I also like to start with the plants near the house where they are more protected from the wind and gradually move them every day further out until they end up in the area where they are going to be planted. You want to plant them in an area that gets lots of sun. Tomatoes thrive in sunlight.
Tomatoes need a lot of water – and a consistent amount every day. I find if I overwater and then underwater them I end up with tomatoes that crack open. I like to spread a lot of compost around my tomatoes for the nutrients and also to serve as a mulch to keep water evaporation down and weeds away. They sell all kinds of plastic mulches for around tomato plants to boost your yields. I have tried several of them and don’t really notice any difference. So, my preference is just to use lots of great compost.
For best flavor, tomatoes should be harvested when fully ripe and stored at room temperature and not in the refrigerator. If a frost is coming, tomatoes can be picked green and left in a sunny windowsill to ripen. And fried green tomatoes are also a favorite way to use green tomatoes.
Tomatoes are an excellent source of vitamin C, lycopene, biotin, and vitamin K. They also contain vitamin B6, pantothenic acid, niacin, folic acid, and fiber. The lycopene content of tomatoes has gotten a lot of press lately in the nutritional field. Lycopene neutralizes harmful free radicals before they can damage our cell structure.