Perhaps no other single
vegetable unites all taste buds like the flavor of a fully ripe juicy tomato.
Hope springs eternal as we set out young plants in cold, wet spring weather. As
conditions warm the heady scent of the green foliage is intoxicating and we’re
positively giddy when the first starry yellow blossoms appear. But by midsummer
the race is on and the agonizing wait for harvest heats up. Yep, we are
passionate about the “love apple,” which may explain the sometimes obsessive
lengths most of us will go to cultivate this sometimes frustrating backyard
Tomatoes are members of the
nightshade (yes, as in “deadly”) family, Solanaceae,
which includes potatoes, eggplants, and peppers. Actually perennial, tomatoes
are native to the tropics where they yield continuously for several years
before exhausting the soil and losing their vigor. Epcot Center in Florida’s
Disney world is home to the country’s one and only “Tomato Tree.” Housed
in a custom-built greenhouse,
the vine took several years to gain its tremendous size and holds a Guinness
World Record for producing 32,000 tomatoes in a single year! (See: passionate
and obsessive above—they call it “horti-tainment”.)
Cultivation is somewhat
different here in the chilly Northwest and it pays to have some tricks up our
collective sleeves to ensure our success with this shivering tropical
It can be sometimes
confusing to pick which varieties to grow when selecting from a staggeringly
varied menu of delectable choices. Do you want grape-like trusses of tiny
jeweled fruit or large beefy two and three pounders? Opt for a red, black,
purple, yellow, green, orange or pink crop further categorized into cherry, beefsteak,
paste, or salad type fruit and heirloom or hybrid, determinate or indeterminate
plants. Here then, is a brief tomato vocabulary to assist you in your choices:
bush-type plants that grow to a certain size and stop; they set all their fruit
vining plants that continuously grow and produce fruit throughout the season.
exceptional flavor, rich color, and heady aroma, non-hybrid heirloom tomatoes
have been grown for generations.
very sweet fruits ripen prolifically in clusters—a time honored favorite for
snacking in the garden.
sometimes huge fruits that need a longer growing season to ripen fully and are
best suited to cultivation in areas with hot summers.
or Slicing A good choice for NW growers, palm-sized fruits are quicker
to mature yet slice up juicy and flavorful like its larger beefsteak cousin.
Paste A lower
water content makes this richly flavored type superior for preserving and sauce
When it comes to color, let
yourself play. Nothing is prettier or more delicious than a huge platter of
sliced tomatoes in a rainbow of colors layered with fresh basil and drizzled
with olive oil topped with a dusting of sea salt. Generally speaking, yellow
and green tomatoes are less acid and have a mild flavor while I think the black
and purple fruits have an almost smoky flavor, (granted they look like a bruise
and are best served with other colorful varieties to balance their, uh, injured
appearance). One of my favorite discoveries is a variety called ‘Garden Peach’.
The salad sized yellow fruit blushed with orange actually does resemble a
peach, even down to its somewhat fuzzy skin(!) and the delicious mouthwatering
fruity flavor makes this a delicious oddity well worth growing.
Planting & Care
Tomato transplants should
not be set out unprotected until nighttime temperatures stay above 50° F.
Especially after this year’s cold spring, June is not too late to get plants in
the ground. Select a location that receives as much sun and heat as your garden
affords. Short season varieties that ripen in cooler climates have been
developed and are good insurance against our occasional non-summer. Pinch off
the leaves from the bottom third of the main stalk and plant deeply—up to the
remaining leaves. Roots will grow from the part of the stalk that is now
underground, making a very sturdy plant with a generous root system.
Tomatoes are heavy feeders
and benefit from a side dressing of a balanced organic fertilizer when setting
out in the garden to encourage abundant vegetative growth for the first five to
six weeks before getting down to the business of flowering and setting fruit.
Avoid purchasing small plants already in flower; the larger and more
established the plant is when it begins to flower and fruit the greater the
overall yield. Look for a stocky plant with healthy green leaves and a sturdy
Staking the vines promotes
good air circulation and keeps slugs and snails from damaging the crop.
Anything that trains the plants up off the ground can be fashioned and any
number of cages, twirly metal poles and other contraptions are available at
nurseries. Staking also allows for much closer spacing of the plants, a bonus
when it comes to city-sized gardens.
Tomatoes adapt well
to infrequent watering. On all but the most sandy soils, a thick mulch applied
in June once the weather has warmed will allow most plants to grow with little
or no additional irrigation until August when soils really start to dry out. On
the other hand, plants ripen their fruit more quickly in response to water
stress and many gardeners deliberately choose to cut off all irrigation in
early August to hasten the process. Discourage further flowering and fruit set
after September 1st by pruning the tops of the vines to focus energy back into
ripening the existing fruit.
So there you have it—with
good soil, healthy plants, proper care (and some luck!) you’ll soon be
delighting in one of summer’s most succulent crops.