BLESSINGS IN BLOOM: Tomato
By Kerry Peetz
"You say to-may-tow, I say to-maw-tow, you say po-tay-to, I say po-taw-tow”. Ah, you can close your eyes and join Luis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald finishing the lyrics to that catchy, Ira Gershwin, tune.
Tomato, or “to-maw-tow” — however you pronounce it — is the number one plant grown in North American gardens. Just ask any gardener and they will agree that there are no better tasting tomatoes than those that are grown right in your own backyard.
Tomatoes were first discovered growing wild in Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. The natural climate in these mountainous areas were conducive to the tomato’s sensitivity to cold and intolerance of extreme hot or dry weather. In the 1700s, tomatoes were believed to be poisonous when brought from Europe to the United States and therefore were only grown ornamentally.
Finally, in 1820, Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson of Salem, New Jersey, is credited for changing the negative notion about tomatoes. He staged an event to eat an entire basket of tomatoes at the local courthouse. A crowd gathered to watch the colonel die. His physician warned the onlookers that he would “Foam at the mouth and double over . . .” Colonel Johnson survived and the rest, as they say, is history.
A few popular varieties grown in our diocese include; Early Girl, Big Boy, Better Boy, Sweet 100, Sweet Million and Sungold. Some prefer heirloom or beefsteak types while cherry and grape-type tomatoes are popular in salads and for snacking. Sweet 100 is the most popular home garden cherry-type tomato and if you haven’t tried one you should. They are better than candy.
Select short, sturdy plants and avoid those that are tall and leggy. There are two basic types of tomatoes. Determinate varieties are bush-like with fruit that ripens over a 4 to 6-week period, while indeterminate varieties are vine-like and continue to grow and produce tomatoes until the end of the season. Determinate tomatoes may need only minimal staking. Indeterminate tomato plants can get very large and will need staking, caging or trellising. Install the stakes or large cages at the time you plant the tomatoes. Tomatoes need about one inch of water a week if planted in the ground. When planted in containers they may need more frequent watering.
Choose a site that receives a minimum of 6 hours of sun per day. Raised beds or gardens next to a south-facing wall are good choices. Work amendments and balanced fertilizer into the soil prior to planting, avoiding high nitrogen products. To encourage root development and a healthier plant, bury up to six inches of the stem as you plant the tomato. Taller plants can be trenched by removing the leaves on the lower two-thirds of the plant and placing the transplant on its side in a 3-inch-deep trench. Be generous with water after planting. Plants must be well spaced to enable harvesting and to avoid disease.
Tomatoes require warm temperatures to survive. Seedlings should be planted outside when nighttime temperatures are above 52°F and daytime temps above 60°F. A cool week of below 55°F will stunt growth and reduce yields. Planting time El Paso County is typically late May but, as always, watch the weather and wait to plant until there is little chance for temps below 32°F.
Mulching is recommended to conserve soil moisture and manage weeds. Mulch also helps reduce the splashing of Early Blight fungal spores from the soil to the leaves. Avoid overhead watering. Watering in the morning at the base of the plant is best. If fertilizer is used, keep in mind that tomatoes have a low nitrogen requirement. High nitrogen causes the vines to grow excessively at the cost of fruit production. If soil is low in organic matter, tomatoes may run out of nitrogen mid-summer reducing yield. Yellowing of the foliage, starting with the lower leaves, is the typical symptom of nitrogen stress. Fertilize tomatoes lightly, as the first fruits reach two-inches in diameter. Use a water-soluble fertilizer (according to the label) every two to four weeks. Over fertilizing can kill tomatoes. After the harvest has ended remove all debris. Dispose in the trash and do not compost unless the pile heats up to 145°F. Most home compost piles do not heat high enough to kill pathogens.
May God protect and bless the food we grow this season. May he bless us with rain but not floods, with sunshine but not drought, and with healthy soil free from disease. Amen.