Looking for some tips on tomato buying, planting, and care? This week we’re featuring a special guest blog by Northside Community Garden Leader and Mentor, Sarah Johnson. Sarah grew up in eastern Washington climbing trees and picking huckleberries. Her love of nature evolved into an agricultural journey that took her to farms in western Washington & south to Central America. From Guatemala she landed in North Idaho where a one season commitment on an off-grid organic farm quickly turned into five years! In 2014 she moved to Missoula with her soon-to-be husband and quickly became a fan of Garden City Harvest. This is Sarah’s second full year as a Northside gardener. When she’s not gardening Sarah works as a nurse at St. Patrick’s Hospital, enjoys cooking, basket-making, and exploring the great outdoors!
The varieties of tomatoes and uses for the delicious red (green, purple, orange…) fruits can seem endless! While I now get excited about the seemingly endless possibilities, it wasn’t too long ago when I sought out an education provided to me by Farmers Paul & Ellen of Killarney Farm. The following questions and planting tips emerged from my experience helping customers choose tomatoes for several seasons at the Kootenai County Farmer’s Market in Coeur d’Alene Idaho.
Getting started- Questions to ask yourself when choosing a tomato for planting:
What are you going to use it for?
Small, medium, or large fruit size?
Determinate or Indeterminate?
Growing space? Does it need to be suitable for a container?
Heirloom? What does heirloom mean anyways?
USE: Salads, salsas, sauces, sandwiches, snacks, etc. Asking yourself how you plan to enjoy your tomato can help narrow down the variety of tomato that will be right for you. For example, if you plan on making sauce till the cows come home then a nice meaty paste tomato will serve you much better than a juicy slicer. (Although I have been known to use whichever tomato for whatever purpose throwing designated use out the window!)
SIZE: Small tomatoes, 0.5-2oz or the size of a marble to a golf ball. Typically includes cherry tomatoes and small saladettes.
Medium tomatoes, 6-10oz or approximately tennis ball sized. Many sauce & salad tomatoes fall into this category (Green zebra, Roma, Celebrity).
Large tomatoes: 10+ oz or roughly the size of a softball. This category typically includes your beefsteak varieties (Big boy, German Johnson & other brandywine types)
DETERMINATE vs. INDETERMINATE: A determinate tomato (also called bush tomatoes) grows to one size, sets its fruit over several weeks, ripens, and is done for the season.
An indeterminate tomato, or vine-type tomato, grows and shoots new flowering tops getting infinitely taller and producing more fruit over a longer period of time. An indeterminate tomato needs pruning and greater structure via staking or trellising throughout the growing season.
*More information will be provided on the two types at the Tomato Workshop in June, see info below.
GROWING SPACE: Cherry tomatoes and compact determinate tomatoes work very well in containers. Containers should be at least 20 inches across the top and 24 inches deep; 3-5 gallon buckets also work well. When planting in the ground, plants are ideally spaced 2-3 feet apart and rows should be spaced 3 feet apart. Plants spaced closer together compete for space and nutrients while air circulation is decreased. *The planting location should receive at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight.
HEIRLOOM: An Heirloom is open-pollinated (by birds, insects, wind) and has been cultivated for at least 50 years; an heirloom must be open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms. Heirloom tomato seeds can be saved and planted the following year if a person desires! This is in contrast to a hybrid where two different varieties are cross-pollinated by human intervention. Hybridization may also occur naturally but when buying plants the seed is usually denoted by ‘F1’ and the cross is completed intentionally to produce certain traits.
Transplanting New tomato starts: When transplanting, you may plant the tomato up to its first leaves leaving only the top of the tomato plant sticking out of the soil. The tomatoes will form roots from the stem that is planted underground forming a more solid root structure for the plant.
Fertilizing tomato transplants: Throw a handful of compost or composted manure into hole and mix well with soil. At this point you may add a tomato/vegetable fertilizer to the soil as well or water your transplants in with a liquid fertilizer such as fish emulsion. All starts should be watered into the ground after planting.
Temperature: Best planting occurs when the average daytime temperature is above 60 degrees Fahrenheit; plants can tolerate lower temperatures but growth is slowed in cooler weather. We should be past the last expected frost date for the season, but if we had an unexpected freeze it could damage the cellular structure of the plant causing severe damage. If such a ghastly change in temperature were to occur this late in the season, tomatoes should be covered by row cover, plastic (being careful not to let the plastic touch the plant), or an old sheet.
*For more information on the care of your tomatoes throughout the season please consider attending the Tomato Workshop on June 23rd at the Northside Community Garden from 5:30-6:30pm, open to all community gardeners!