By Steven Biggs
Gardener, Garden Writer, Garden Coach, Horticulturist
If you’ve tasted fresh, homegrown tomatoes you understand why people grow them; Why people bother starting seedlings indoors, then coddling these frost-sensitive plants; and why they stake them and water them religiously.
If you haven’t tasted homegrown tomatoes, here’s why: Because a fresh tomato greets you with a wonderful aroma—and then a great flavour when you eat it.
Many tomatoes sold in shops are bred to withstand shipping. It’s no surprise. In the garden we can grow varieties that aren’t bred for shipping. That means great taste, maybe delicate skins, and unique colours, shapes, and sizes.
To start with, a very brief botany lesson: We can broadly group tomato plants as follows:
- Determinate plants are bush-type plants that reach a certain height and stop growing. They are well suited to containers.
- Indeterminate plants continue to grow upwards, making staking a must.
There are many words used to describe tomatoes. Here is a brief glossary:
- Beefsteak: large-fruiting types, cherished for thin skin and flavour.
- Cherry: small tomatoes the size of...cherries.
- Cluster: fruits occur in grape-like clusters. Here in Toronto, we increasingly find cluster tomatoes at the grocery store.
- Winter: a tomato that keeps well in storage. I have a thick-skinned, reddish-orange coloured variety that will keep (fresh) from the fall harvest into March...but it’s far from the most flavourful tomato
- Paste: egg-shaped tomatoes traditionally used for making sauce, as they are fleshier and less juicy.
- Heirloom: an old variety (there is debate about what makes an heirloom—must it be 50 years, or 100 years old?)
Honestly, the easiest way to get a tomato plant? Buy it! But I grow plants from seed so that I can have the varieties I like.
Here are some points about homegrown tomatoes from seed:
- Start indoors 6-8 weeks before the last frost.
- Sow shallowly in pots or containers (I use a peat-based medium in a 4” pot).
- Set in a warm location (I stow mine in the furnace room until they germinate).
- Place in the light when they have germinated (I use a light stand, but a sunny windowsill works well).
- Transplant or thin out when big enough (I transplant them when they have two sets of leaves).
In the Garden
- Plant when there will be no further frost (mid to late May here in Toronto).
- Harden off your plants. In other words, get them used to strong sunlight and the change in temperature. Sunlight can burn them. Bring them outside and allow them to be in partial sun for a few days.
- Select a sunny location to grow tomatoes.
- Bury spindly plants deeply. Your plants should be 6-10” high by now. If they are longer, you can bury some of the stem in the soil—and it will grow roots.
- Support the plants. Some people use cages, some stakes (and some let them slither through the garden unsupported). I use stakes to grow them as upright as possible, always trying to fit as many plants as possible into my garden.
- Stake or support the plants. Tie the plants to the stake using a soft twine that will not damage the stem (you can cut plastic shopping bags into strips to make soft ties).
- Prune off suckers if you want to grow a tall, single-stemmed plant. Everyone has a different opinion about suckers. I prune out suckers early in the year to force plants upwards. Some people use cages and let every sucker grow.
- Water to keep the soil evenly moist. Some people make furrows between rows for irrigation.
- Pick every green tomato before the frost—you’ll be surprised how many you can ripen.
- Save seed for next year.
Pests, Diseases, and Disorders
I waited patiently, watching it fill out and become redder every day. Returning home one day I decided to pick it. And there I found it...half eaten, sitting atop a fencepost. Welcome to gardening in a city full of raccoons, squirrels, and other critters.
- Foil cutworms: when planting, wrap a strip of newspaper around the stem at ground level, extending up the stem for about 2”. This prevents cutworms from doing what they’re named for: cutting off your plants.
- Stop the black patches: are your tomatoes developing leathery, black patches on the bottom? It’s called blossom end rot—and is tied to calcium deficiency—which, in turn, is often brought on by inadequate soil moisture. Water regularly.
- Prevent cracked fruit: it might not spoil the flavour, but it’s ugly. Erratic moisture conditions (a dry period followed by a heavy rainfall) can cause of cracked fruit—so water regularly. And some varieties are more prone to cracking than others.
- Keep early weeds in check: I find that weeds aren’t a major problem once tomato plants are big enough to shade the soil. Until then, keep weeds under control to minimize competition.
- Squirrels eating my tomatoes....a major frustration. Sorry, I don’t have a solution.
Is it a fruit or vegetable? You’re correct with either answer.
- Botanically it is a fruit,
- But...we often use it as a vegetable in the kitchen.
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Practical, no-nonsense advice for the edible garden.
Gardener, Garden Writer,
Garden Coach, Horticulturist
with timely tips on growing vegetables, fruit, and herbs.
- What’s in season
- What to do next
- Cooking garden produce
- Common questions
- Kid-friendly gardening
- Upcoming gardening events
ZESTFUL, FUN, INFORMATION-PACKED, OPINIONATED—even slightly irreverent—this graphic-novel-meets-gardening-book empowers readers to make their own decisions in the vegetable garden because the authors, two garden coaches, talk frankly about issues…and don’t always agree.
Click here to visit the website for No Guff Vegetable Gardening.
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