Photo credit: Nancy Knauss
Although the snow is blowing, and the cold is biting, it is not too early to plan your summer tomato harvest. Recall plant performance from the prior year, review current catalog offerings, and seek out reviews from fellow gardeners. Select cultivars you’ll enjoy this summer, both for eating fresh or preserving.
Tomatoes are heat loving—not only should they not be planted in the garden until after danger of frost, it is best to wait until the soil temperature is warm. Memorial Day is the perfect time to plant tomatoes in much of Pennsylvania. If you plant too early, tomatoes will languish in the cold and may die during an unexpected frosty night.
Two choices are available for home gardeners—purchasing the seedlings from a reliable nursery or starting them from seeds (more choices). Plant seeds approximately 5 to 7 weeks before your plant-out date, which would be from early to mid-April. At planting, the seedlings should be short and sturdy. They must be gradually acclimated to the sunny outdoors, a weeklong process called hardening-off. Starting seeds too early can result in leggy plants.
With literally thousands of existing cultivars, how do you choose? Consider the characteristics of the cultivar and how they intersect with your personal wants and needs.
A tomato plant can either be determinate or indeterminate. Determinant cultivars grow to a pre-determined height, flower and produce fruit within a more narrowly defined timeframe. They are more compact, and some can be grown in a large container. If you are limited in space or want your tomatoes to ripen at the same time for canning, determinate cultivars may be for you. Indeterminate cultivars continue to grow and produce tomatoes through early fall. Some can reach eight to ten feet and they must be staked or caged for support. They are perfect for fresh eating over a longer period of time.
Days to Maturity
The time from planting outdoors until your first ripe tomato is another consideration. ‘Early Girl’ will provide ripe fruit at 50 days whereas you will have to wait 80 days for a ‘Beefmaster’ tomato.
Consider this parameter if you do not want to spray pesticides or fungicides. Look for the letters indicating the plant’s resistance: V (Verticillium wilt), F (Fusarium wilt), N (nematodes), T (tobacco mosaic virus), ASC (Alternaria stem canker), and L (Septoria leaf spot). Practice good cultural practices to help reduce disease: water the soil not the foliage and adhere to proper spacing. Rotating the planting location of tomatoes can also reduce the incidence of disease.
Hybrid or Heirloom
The bulk of commercially available tomatoes are hybrids, created by crossing two different parents, resulting in preferred traits from each. Hybrids demonstrate increased vigor along with good flavor and disease resistance.
Heirlooms are old cultivars that come true from seed, meaning that the plants and fruits are unchanged for generations. Heirloom cultivars may have unique flavor or color prized by cultures and communities. Heirloom ‘Brandywine’, a large great-tasting tomato, is but one example.
Heirlooms can be hybridized. ‘Brandy Boy’ is more productive and disease resistant than its parent ‘Brandywine’, with nearly identical flavor.
Personal use dictates choice. Cherry tomatoes are wonderful for munching and adding to salads. Slicing cultivars are great for sandwiches. If you want to preserve your summer bounty, slicing cultivars are wonderful for making juice as well as crushed and whole tomato products. Paste (Roma) tomatoes are meatier and thus preferred for sauces and ketchup.
I always succumb to the bad idea of “squeezing-in” one or two more plants each year. Good spacing actually allows for better production and diminishes the potential for disease. Staked plants should be set two feet apart in rows 3 to 4 feet apart. Caged tomatoes should be set 2.5 to 3 feet apart in rows 5 to 6 feet apart.
The quintessential factor in any tomato is its flavor: sweet or tart, acidic or not. Taste is very personal. After years of growing tomatoes, I have my personal favorites, but I am always looking for new possibilities. A tomato “tasting” is a great way to experience different cultivars. This year my choices will include: ‘Bush Early Girl’—grown in a container with hopes for harvest on the 4th of July, cherry cultivars—‘Sun Gold’, ‘Matt’s Black Cherry’, ‘Sweet Million’ and ‘Sakura Honey’, heirlooms—‘Mortgage Lifter’ and ‘Stupice’, which is early and delicious, and paste tomatoes ‘Amish Paste’ and ‘Striped Roma’.