Tomato, is today the most popular garden vegetable in America. For many years, however, tomatoes (then called "love apples") were considered poisonous and were grown solely for their ornamental value. Tomatoes are usually easy to grow and a few plants provide an adequate harvest for most families. The quality of fruit picked in the garden when fully ripe far surpasses anything available on the market, even in season. The tomato plant is a tender, warm-season perennial that is grown as an annual in summer gardens all over the continental United States. Spring and fall freezes limit the outdoor growing season.
When to Plant
Starting seeds indoor early gets tomatoes off to the best start in the garden when warm weather finally arrives and it saves several weeks in growing time. Some gardeners transplant their tomatoes soon after the soil is prepared for spring gardening, when there is a high risk of damage from freezing. Be prepared to cover early set plants overnight to protect them from frost. For best results with very early plantings, consider black plastic mulch and floating row covers for heat accumulation and frost protection. For best results with minimal risk, plant when the soil is warm, soon after the frost-free date for your area.
For fall harvest and early winter storage of tomatoes, late plantings may be made from late spring until mid-summer, depending on the length of the growing season. These plantings have the advantage of increased vigor and freedom from early diseases, and they often produce better quality tomatoes than later pickings from early spring plantings. Time late plantings for maximal yield before killing freezes in your area (up to 100 days from transplanting for most varieties).
Spacing & Depth
The space required depends upon the growth pattern of the variety and method of culture. Space dwarf plants 12 inches apart in the row, staked plants 15 to 24 inches apart and trellised or ground bed plants 24 to 36 inches apart. Some particularly vigorous indeterminate varieties may need 4 feet between plants and 5 to 6 feet between rows to allow comfortable harvest room.
Apply starter fertilizer when transplanting. Hoe or cultivate shallowly to keep down weeds without damaging roots. Mulching is recommended, especially for gardeners who wish to maintain their plants for full season harvest. Black plastic or organic materials are suitable for mulching. Delay application of organic materials until after the soil has warmed completely in early summer so that growth is not retarded by cool soil temperatures early in the season. Water the plants thoroughly and regularly during prolonged dry periods. Plants confined in containers may need daily or even more frequent watering.
Many gardeners train their tomato plants to stakes, trellises or cages with great success. Not all varieties, however, are equally suitable for staking and pruning. Tomato cages may be made from concrete-reinforcing wire, woven-wire stock fencing or various wooden designs. Choose wire or wooden designs that have holes large enough to allow fruit to be picked and removed without bruising. The short, small, narrow type often sold at garden centers is all but useless for anything but the smallest of the dwarf types. Most modern determinate tomatoes easily grow 3 to 4 feet tall and indeterminates continue to get taller until frozen in the fall, easily reaching at least 6 feet in height. Use cages that match in height the variety to be caged and firmly anchor them to the ground with stakes or steel posts to keep the fruit-laden plants from uprooting themselves in late summer windstorms. Trellis-weave systems have recently been developed for commercial operations and can work just as well in a garden planting. Tall stakes are securely driven into the tomato row about every two or three plants in the row. Make sure the stakes are tall enough to accommodate the growth of your tomato varieties and make sure they are driven very securely into the ground to prevent wind damage. (The woven rows of tomatoes can catch much wind.) As the tomatoes grow upward, strings are attached to the end posts and woven back and forth between the supports, holding the tops of the plants up and off the ground. This operation is repeated about as often as the tomatoes grow another 6 inches, until the plants reach maturity. The fruit is held off the ground as with staked or caged plants; but the foliage cover is better than with staked plants, and the fruit is more accessible than with cages.
Tomatoes should be firm and fully colored. They are of highest quality when they ripen on healthy vines and daily summer temperatures average about 75°F. When temperatures are high (air temperature of 90°F or more), the softening process is accelerated and color development is retarded, reducing quality. For this reason, during hot summer weather, pick your tomatoes every day or two, harvest the fruits when color has started to develop and ripen them further indoors (at 70 to 75°F). On the day before a killing freeze is expected, harvest all green mature fruit that is desired for later use in the fall. Wrap the tomatoes individually in paper and store at 60 to 65°F. They continue to ripen slowly over the next several weeks. Whole plants may be uprooted and hung in sheltered locations, where fruit continues to ripen.
Tomato hornworms are large (2 to 3 inch long when fully grown), green caterpillars with white stripes on the body. A horn protrudes from the top rear end of the worm. Tomato hornworms feed on the leaves and fruit. Several worms on one plant can quickly defoliate it and ruin developing fruit. Because their green coloring so closely resembles tomato foliage and stems, they are difficult to see. Handpick in cooler parts of the day. If you see hornworms with small, white cocoons protruding, leave them alone. These structures are the pupae of parasitic insects that help control the hornworm population and the individual wearing them is already doomed.
Verticillium and fusarium wilts are soilborne diseases that cause yellowing of the leaves, wilting and premature death of plants. These diseases persist in gardens where susceptible plants are grown. Once they build up, the only practical control is the use of resistant (VF) varieties.
Early blight is characterized by dead brown spots that usually start on the lower leaves and spread up the plant. Upon close inspection, you can see concentric rings within the spots. Although early blight is most severe on the leaves, it sometimes occurs on the stems and can cause severe defoliation.
Septoria leafspot is characterized by numerous small black spots on the leaves. The centers of these spots later turn white and tiny black dots appear in the white centers. The disease starts on the bottom leaves and may become severe in wet weather.
Blossom-end rot is a dry, leathery brown rot of the blossom end of the fruit that is common in some seasons on tomatoes. It is caused by the combination of a localized calcium deficiency in the developing fruit and wide fluctuations of soil moisture. The problem is especially bad in hot weather. Soil applications of calcium seldom help, though foliar calcium sprays may minimize the occurrence of the problem. Make sure the formulation is designed for foliar application or severe damage could result. Pruning causes stress to the plants that may increase the incidence of blossom-end rot. Some tomato varieties are much more susceptible to this condition than others. Mulching and uniform watering help to prevent blossom-end rot. Once the blackened ends appear, affected fruits cannot be saved. They are best removed and destroyed so that healthy fruit setting later can develop more quickly. Poor color and sunscald occur when high temperatures retard the development of full red color in tomatoes exposed directly to the hot sun.
Sunscald occurs as a large, whitish area on the fruit during hot, dry weather. It becomes a problem when foliage has been lost through other diseases such as early blight or on early varieties that normally have poor foliage cover as the fruit ripens.
Questions & Answers
Q. What causes the lower leaves of my tomato plants to roll up?
A. Leaf roll (curling of the leaflets) is a physiological condition that occurs most commonly when plants are trained and pruned. It should not affect fruiting or quality.
Q. What causes the flowers to drop off my tomato plants?
A. During unfavorable weather (night temperatures lower than 55°F, or day temperatures above 95°F with drying hot winds), tomatoes do not set and flowers drop. The problem usually disappears as the weather improves.
Q. What can I do to prevent my tomatoes from cracking?
A. Cracking varies with the variety. Many of the newer varieties are resistant to cracking. Severe pruning increases cracking. Keep soil moisture uniform as the tomatoes develop and plant resistant varieties to minimize this problem.
Q. What causes small, irregular, cloudy white spots just under the skin of my tomatoes.
A. These spots on green or ripe fruits are caused by the feeding of stink bugs.
Q. What causes the young leaves of my plants to become pointed and irregular in shape? I notice some twisting of the leaves and stems after spraying the plants for the first time.
A. Judging from the description, it seems likely that your tomato plants have been injured by 2,4-D or a similar growth regulator weed killer. Never use the same sprayer in your vegetable garden that you use for weed control in your lawn. Drift from herbicides originating 1/2 mile or more away also can injure your tomato plants. For this reason, use extreme caution when applying lawn care chemicals near vegetable or fruit plantings.
Selection & Storage
Tomatoes are a favorite among small plot gardeners and nothing tastes better than one that is truly vine ripened. Although tomatoes are available year round, vine-ripened tomatoes are only available during the growing season. A single tomato plant will grow well in a large flowerpot or bucket. If you do not plant anything else, plant a tomato and eat fresh tomatoes often.
Fresh ripe tomatoes should not be stored in the refrigerator. Unfortunately, refrigeration renders them tasteless and turns the flesh to mealy mush. Flavor and texture begin to deteriorate when the temperature drops below 54°F. Temperatures above 80°F cause tomatoes to spoil quickly. Store tomatoes at room temperature for 2 to 3 days, away from direct sunlight until ready to use (sunlight hastens ripening). Refrigeration also slows ripening of tomatoes. Refrigerate only extra-ripe tomatoes you want to keep from ripening any further. To reverse some of the damage, bring chilled tomatoes to room temperature before serving raw or simply add to cooked preparations. To ripen tomatoes, place them in a paper bag, stem end up. Punch several holes all around the bag and fold the top over. The bag will help to keep some of the natural ethylene gas in place, which aids in the ripening process. Depending on how under ripe they are, tomatoes may take one to five days to ripen. Check progress daily.
Nutritional Value & Health Benefits
Nutritionists have always known tomatoes were good for you, now there is research-based information as to why. Tomatoes are packed with vitamin C, potassium, fiber and vitamin A in the form of health promoting beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A. Tomatoes are also a source of lycopene, which is the subject of current promising research on the role of plant chemicals that promote health. Research suggests that lycopene may play a role in the fight against cancer, especially prostate cancer. Like beta-carotene, lycopene is a carotenoid, responsible for the bright red color of the tomato, watermelon, and grapefruit. Although lycopene is available in all ripe tomatoes, a greater supply is more useful to the body in cooked tomatoes.
Nutrition Facts (Serving size, one cup chopped raw)
Protein 1.1 grams
Carbohydrates 5.3 grams
Dietary Fiber 1 gram
Potassium 254 mg
Vitamin C 22 mg
Vitamin A 1,133 IU
Preparation & Serving
Tomatoes are, of course, delicious raw, sautéed, grilled, stewed, and added to many preparations. Use a serrated knife or very sharp non-serrated knife to slice or chop tomatoes or prick the skin to get a slice going. Cut tomatoes lengthwise from stem to blossom end to retain more juice in each slice.
To peel tomatoes, blanch by dropping them into boiling water for about 30 seconds, or longer for firm tomatoes, then plunge into a bowl of ice water until cool enough to handle. Cut an X on the stem end and use a paring knife to pull skin away. Skin will pull away easily if the tomatoes have been blanched long enough. To seed tomatoes, cut the tomato in half horizontally. Holding a half in the palm of your hand, squeeze out the jelly-like juice and seeds over a strainer and scoop out remaining seeds with your fingertip. Do not throw away the juice, sieve it and use it in another recipe or drink it.
Tomatoes are excellent for canning, freezing, and drying.
To Freeze Tomatoes
Frozen tomatoes keep their fabulous fresh flavor, but they become mushy in texture and are best used in cooked soups, sauces or stews. The skin will toughen in the freezer, but it is much easier to remove upon thawing. Or run frozen tomatoes under cold water and the skins will curl up and can easily be pulled right off.
1. Wash whole tomatoes, remove the stems and cut out the core.
2. Leave the tomatoes whole or quarter them and pack them into freezer bags, leaving about an inch headspace.
To Can Tomatoes
Tomatoes are an intermediate acid food. To make them acid enough for canning in a water bath canner or pressure canner, lemon juice (2 tablespoons/quart), vinegar (4 tablespoons/ quart) or citric acid (1/2 teaspoon/quart) must be added. Use half the amount of acid for pint-size jars. Acid can be added directly to the jars before filling with the tomatoes. Vinegar tends to change the flavor; lemon juice actually produces the best results. Fresh or bottled lemons can be used. If the additional acid makes the produce taste too acidic for you, add a pinch of sugar to each jar to offset the taste.
Green tomatoes are more acid than ripened tomatoes and can be canned safely using any of the following directions. Select only disease-free, preferably vine-ripened, firm fruit for canning. Two and a half to three and a half pounds of fresh tomatoes will yield one quart of canned tomatoes. Tomatoes can be raw or hot-packed. All tomato products must be processed in a water bath canner. Processing times vary depending on the form (whole, crushed, or juiced) of the tomatoes being canned and the jar size (pints or quarts) and whether a hot-pack or raw-pack is used.
Tomatoes Crushed, Hot Pack Method
1 pound ripe tomatoes
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt, optional
1. Wash jars by hand or in dishwasher. Rinse well and prepare 2-piece canning lids according to manufacturers directions. 2. Wash tomatoes under running water, and remove skins according to instructions above (see Preparing and Serving Tomatoes). Trim off any bruised or discolored portions and quarter.
3. Heat about one pound of the quarters quickly in a large pot, crushing them with a wooden mallet or spoon as they are added to the pot. This will draw off some juice. Continue heating the tomatoes, stirring to prevent burning. Once the tomatoes are boiling, gradually add remaining quarters, stirring constantly. These remaining tomatoes do not need to be crushed. They will soften with heating and stirring. Boil gently for 5 minutes.
4. Add fresh or bottled lemon juice, citric acid or vinegar to each jar. Follow ratio outlined above. Add teaspoon salt to each pint or 1 teaspoon to each quart jar, if desired.
5. Fill jars immediately with hot tomatoes, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Remove air bubbles with a plastic utensil or rubber spatula. Wipe jar rims with a damp cloth. Adjust lids and process.
Option 1 Process in Boiling Water Bath Pints . . . . . . . . 35 minutes Quarts . . . . . . . 45 minutes
Option 2 Process in a Dial Gauge Pressure Canner at 11 pounds pressure or in a Weighted Gauge Pressure Canner at 10 pounds pressure: Pints or Quarts . . . . . 15 minutes To safely can other tomato products, follow USDA Canning Guidelines.
Fresh Garden Salsa
This coarse textured salsa is more of a relish or Pico de Gallo. The ingredients can be finely diced or use a medium for chunky salsa. Serve with traditional tortilla chips or use as a side dish with grilled meat, squash cakes (see Summer Squash) or anywhere you want a bright, tart, savory accompaniment.
2 large ripe, red slicing tomatoes, cored and chopped
1 small white onion, chopped
1 green onion, top included, chopped
1 to 3 jalapeno peppers, finely chopped
1/4 cup cilantro leaves, minced
Juice of lime teaspoon salt
1. Using a serrated knife, chop tomatoes. If using plum tomatoes, add 2 tablespoons water.
2. In a medium bowl, toss together the tomatoes, onions, peppers, and cilantro. Squeeze lime juice over the mixture and sprinkle on the salt. Allow to rest 30 minutes before serving to allow salt to draw juice from the tomatoes. Stir again just before serving. Makes about 2 cups.
Fried Green Tomatoes
Fried green tomatoes are a southern tradition made famous by the movie of the same name. They are so popular in the south that gardeners plant extra slicing tomatoes to be harvested green for this recipe.
4 green tomatoes, cut in 1/4-inch slices
1 cup flour
1 egg beaten with cup skim milk
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 teaspoon each salt and black pepper
Canola oil for frying
1. Assemble ingredients. Spread flour on a sheet of waxed paper or on a plate. Put the egg wash in a shallow dish.
2. Spread the cornmeal on a sheet of waxed paper or plate, add salt and pepper, and mix well.
3. Dredge the tomato slices in flour and shake off the excess.
4. Dip each slice in the egg wash and drain off excess, and then coat with the cornmeal, shaking off excess gently. Place on a tray and set aside.
5. Heat the oil in a large heavy (preferably cast iron) skillet over a medium flame. When hot, add the tomato slices. Do not overcrowd the skillet. Cook several minutes, until golden, then turn. Drain on paper towels and serve while still hot. Makes 5 servings.
Grilled Tomato Kebabs
Small tomatoes such as cherry, current or pear tomatoes are best eaten raw or briefly cooked. They are perfect for skewering and grilling because they do not fall apart, unless overcooked. If you are using wooden skewers, soak them for 30 minutes in cold water before using.
36 small tomatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
teaspoon each salt and black pepper
1 tablespoon dried oregano
Six wooden or metal skewers
1. Wash and drain tomatoes. Using a paper towel, dry each or spread on towels and allow to air dry so the oil will stick to the skins
2. Place the dry tomatoes in a large bowl. Drizzle with olive oil, and season with oregano and pepper. Toss to coat tomatoes.
3. Thread 6 tomatoes, spaced at least an inch apart, on each of the 6 skewers.
4. Brush hot grill grate with oil to prevent sticking. Arrange skewers on grate.
Grill 2 to 4 minutes. Turn and grill the other side for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove skewers and sprinkle with salt, if desired. Makes 6 servings.