Nine out of 10 home gardeners grow tomatoes, America's favorite backyard vegetable. (OK, not everyone grows them out back. Some people grow tomatoes in the front yard, or on the patio, or alongside the garage -- any place there's lots of sun and good soil. A man in Rehoboth Beach, Del., grew tomatoes on his roof, believing the bugs would never find them there.)
Tomatoes are grown in cozy window boxes and spacious ballparks, wherever there's a patch of loose earth. Who's surprised? Come summer, nothing tastes better than a fresh-picked tomato that explodes into juice as it slides down your throat.
Supermarket varieties don't do that -- the best reason, of course, to raise your own. The bonus: Home-grown tomatoes have one-third more vitamin C than what you get at the store.
"Tomatoes are the roses of the vegetable world: common but always impressive," garden author Jeff Cox writes. The bigger the fruit, the better the gardener -- or so they would have you believe. Tales abound of giant tomatoes taking over the yard, and the dinner table. In her book "The Garden Primer," Barbara Damrosch brags that her father once grew a tomato so big that "he placed it on a platter and carved it as if it were a crown roast."
Raising tomatoes can be a marvelous experience -- or a maddening one. For instance, tomatoes ripen to shades of red, yellow or orange. However, they never turn red, yellow or orange until the family goes on vacation. This is also the time calamity strikes. There are 27 tomato diseases that can maim the plants, plus hordes of insects, the oddest of which is the tomato hornworm, a Venusian-like creature that seems to land on the plant from nowhere to munch away, as if it had been beamed from spaceship to garden.
For best results, start your own tomato plants indoors, from seed, in late March. Generally, they are healthier than those from garden centers. (If you haven't already planted seeds, it's too late to do so this year.) If you must buy seedlings, choose stocky plants with deep-green foliage, and those that are growing in single pots, with plenty of leg room. Seedlings started in 2-inch pots yield tomatoes earlier than plants grown in more cramped containers. Avoid flowering plants, or those bearing small fruit. They've been hurried to market and are pooped when they reach the garden.
Transplant seedlings by mid-May, after all danger of frost. Choose a spot in full sun, with a southern exposure for maximum warmth. Select an area where tomatoes, potatoes and peppers were not grown last year; those vegetables are susceptible to the same diseases, which can stay in the soil for several years.
Till the soil deeply, 18 inches or more, and spread a layer of compost or rotted manure in the bottom of each hole. Fill it with good garden loam -- tomatoes prefer a slightly acid soil -- and a handful of ground limestone (not hydrated lime, which will burn the plant's roots). Avoid nitrogen-rich fertilizers, as they favor growth of foliage at the expense of the fruit.
How to plant them
Bury most of the plant below ground level, leaving two sets of leaves showing. The covered stem will root, anchoring the young plant more firmly in the soil. Gardeners sometimes bury the stem at an angle, bringing the roots slightly nearer the surface. These plants warm more quickly, grow faster and produce earlier tomatoes. They are also more vulnerable to drought, and must be watered more often.
Space transplants 2 feet apart and firm the soil gently around them, leaving a saucer-like depression at the base of each plant. This acts as a reservoir. Tomatoes need 1 inch of water each week. Erratic watering leads to a disease known as blossom-end rot, the sunken, leathery brown spots that can ruin the fruit. Treat plants every few weeks to a drink of manure tea (a weak mixture of dehydrated manure and water).
Frost alert? Cover young plants with plastic milk jugs, flower pots or large tin cans at night.
For clean, unblemished fruit, stake the plants. Drive a galvanized 6-foot pole into the ground beside each plant and tie its stems to the stakes, using soft cloth strips or old pantyhose that won't chafe the plants. Better yet, grow tomatoes in wire cages. Most commercial cages are short, weak contraptions that collapse in midsummer beneath the weight of heavy, sprawling plants. Make your own sturdy cages from strong 6-foot concrete reinforcing wire.
Hastening the crop
Gardeners strive to grow the first ripe beauty on the block. To hasten the rate from garden to plate:
Grow tomatoes in raised beds, which warm more quickly than regular gardens.
Surround the plants with sheets of black plastic, which warm the soil by absorbing heat from the sun.
Spritz flowering tomato plants with a fruit-setting hormone spray.
Remove suckers that sprout between the main stem and leaf stalks. Pruning this foliage accelerates harvest by two weeks. Don't remove too many leaves, as they produce the tomatoey flavor and then send it on to the fruit.
Allow plants to sprawl on the ground. Unstaked tomatoes usually ripen first; however, they are also prone to disease and damage from insects, garden slugs and hungry box turtles.
Mother Nature is the wild card in tomato production. A cool, wet summer will delay the harvest -- and may destroy it altogether. Cool weather also triggers "blossom drop," when flowers fall without setting fruit. If this occurs, give plants a gentle shake at midday to encourage fruit set.
While the tomato's adversaries are many -- from blights and wilts to bugs and birds -- a healthy plant can weather most ills. New varieties are resistant to many crippling diseases, and most insects can be checked with organic controls such as BT (Bacillus thuringiensis).
Companion planting also helps fend off unwanted pests, while stimulating plant growth. The tomato's favorite neighbors are carrots and asparagus, in the garden if not on the plate.
Pub Date: 5/04/97