There are over 7,500 varieties of tomatoes, so it is not surprising that the tomato is the most popular garden food item. Ninety-five percent of American gardeners grow their own tomatoes, most likely due to a combination of a movement to grow your own food, the ease of producing your own tomatoes, and the endless tasty recipes that use them.
Benefits of Growing Your Own Tomatoes
Cost: Elevated food prices have forced a “Grow Your Own” movement in the United States that encourages Americans to garden and harvest their own produce. Tomatoes are a heavily used food and, therefore, highly demanded.
Four tomato plants will cost you about $15, and the average yield for a row of four tomato plants is about 60 pounds. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the going retail price per pound of tomatoes is $1.77. Those four tomato plants you grew yourself will yield you a pound at an average of $0.25!
Health: Tomatoes have been found to be rich in Vitamin A, containing 15% of the daily requirement, and Vitamin C, averaging 40% of your daily requirement. These vitamins, also called antioxidants, are known to fight off the effects of free-radicals that could cause cell damage in the body.
Additionally, tomatoes are one of the best sources of lycopene. Lycopene is an antioxidant that fights the free radicals that can interfere with normal cell growth and potentially lead to cancer, heart disease, and premature aging. Lycopene is a bright red carotenoid pigment and phytochemical, and is responsible for giving tomatoes their bright red color.
Ease of Growth: Why are so many Americans growing tomatoes? Because they like them and they’re not hard to grow! Tomatoes appreciate a combination of warm weather, sunlight, and proper watering. They’re not finicky in where you plant them, as they thrive well in garden beds, containers, even hay bales. Most tomatoes need about 70-85 days to fully mature and become ready for harvest, but they’re generally low maintenance between planting and harvesting.
Seven thousand five hundred varieties of tomatoes have been recorded. These varieties are divided into a handful of categories based mostly on shape, size, and purpose.
- Slicing Tomatoes – these globe shaped tomatoes are used for mass processing or fresh at-home eating. Think vine tomatoes.
- Beefsteak – their name rings true as they are large tomatoes used for sandwiches, caprese salads, etc. They are not generally used for commercial purposes because they have a shorter shelf life.
- Plum – A heartier content used for pastas, sauces, and the like makes this tomato popular in canning. Think Roma tomatoes.
- Cherry – These small and round tomatoes are commonly used in salads and pastas.
- Grape – Small and oblong, this tomato is a compact version of the plum tomato.
You may also classify tomato varieties into two classes: determinate or indeterminate. If you are growing your tomatoes in a container you will want to choose a determinate variety. Determinates are bush-like and grow to a certain height. They tend to bear all their harvest at once.
Indeterminate varieties grow as vines and produce tomatoes again and again until frost kills the plant. For those who want ripe tomatoes through an entire season, like local farmer market producers and home growers, the indeterminate varieties are preferred.
How to Plant and When to Harvest
- Tomato plants like high sun exposure and light should be considered when deciding where to plant your tomatoes
- You can start your tomatoes from seed or from young plants
- Treat your soil with a compost mixture so your tomato plants are fed and encouraged to grow
- Tomato plants can grow very tall and should be supported in order to grow more fruit. Place tomato stakes when you’re planting so you don’t ruin the root system later while growth is taking place. If you forget, or don’t have stakes while you’re planting, you can use the Ultomato Tomato Plant Cage from Gardener's Blue Ribbon which can be added at any stage of growth.
- Tomato plants need about an inch of water every week, but be sure to water them more if you notice your plants drooping or wilting.
- Most tomato plant varieties need about 70-85 days to mature
How do you know your tomato is ripe and ready to harvest? A great indicator is when the skin has turned from a dull, matte finish to one that is glossy. The color should be a fairly deep red, unless you are growing varieties that are lighter pinks. The internet, or the card that came with your plant, are reliable references for this.
When you touch the tomato it should be somewhat tender but not soft. Ripe tomatoes will not be hard to pull from their host plant, so if you find you’re grappling with it a bit, you should give it a day or two.
Protecting Your Tomato Plants from Animals
Given the opportunity, animals will consider your tomato plants their personal buffet to feast on. A plant can go from plentiful to stark in a small matter of time, so it is important to keep it protected. There are a few options that are easy to implement and should be considered – exclusion and repellents.
Exclusion is an easy tactic to keep your garden from falling victim to hungry animals. Fencing is an effective option for all critters who venture where they are not wanted. Putting up chicken wire or hardware cloth gets the job done. Be sure to place it two to three feet high (so a rabbit standing on its hind legs cannot reach the plant being protected) and bury it two to three inches into the ground.
Repellents using powerful scent and taste deterrents work to irritate the animal immediately when it smells, touches, or tastes your plant. This unpleasant experience drives the animal away unharmed and encourages them to not return to the treated area.
Protecting Your Tomato Plants from Insects
Are there holes in the leaves of your plants or tiny little creatures on the leaves and stem? Maybe you can even see big beetles resting on the leaves and eating them? For insect troubles, use Safer® Brand Tomato & Vegetable Insect Killer. It is the only OMRI listed® pesticide with the dual action of insecticidal soap and organic pyrethrin.
If you fear your trouble is with leaf feeding worms or caterpillars, try a more targeted approach like Safer® Brand Garden Dust or Caterpillar Killer (liquid concentrate), which are Safer® Brand’s OMRI listed products with Bt. (Bacillus thuringensis). Bt. targets these species and will not harm beneficial insects including earthworms.
If you are growing an organic garden and are looking for organic pesticides, more specifically insect killers, to eliminate common garden pests, make sure to use a product that does not leave harmful residuals.
Since regulations restrict the use of the term organic pesticides on products, resources such as OMRI® and the USDA National Organic Program can give gardeners peace of mind knowing the product they are spraying in their garden is certified organic.
Protecting Your Tomato Plants from Disease
Just as ravenous as critters and insects, disease can have a gripping effect on your tomato plants. The proper natural and organic remedies can assist you in protecting and defending your tomato plants from common diseases.
It is important to note that when using any pesticide products, test the plant for sensitivity in a small area and wait 24 hours to make sure the plant is unharmed before using the product on the entire plant.
Blossom End Rot: Irregular watering or not enough calcium or nutrients in the soil can lead to blossom end rot which causes brown spots at the bottom of the tomato plants and leaves the tomatoes inedible. Tomatoes that touch or grow into the soil will likely develop this issue. It is not a disease, rather a physiological disorder. Mulching, regular watering, and fertilization will eliminate or at least reduce this issue. Have your soil tested for calcium deficiency if it continues to be a problem.
Leaf Spot: (Early Blight, Late Blight and Septoria Leaf Spot) Leaf Spot diseases for tomatoes show as dark brown spots with dark concentric rings on the leaves.
Fruit Rot: (Anthracnose, Early Blight and Late Blight) Fruit rot shows on the fruit of the plant and develop as early rotting fruit on the vine. They typically occur when the fruit touches the soil.
Management of Diseases: Follow the watering practices and select a location with good air circulation to help prevent these diseases, but if they occur use Safer® Brand Garden Fungicide. It is an OMRI listed® sulfur based fungicide that can be used up to the day of harvest on tomatoes and other vegetables.
When using this product make sure you wash your produce before eating it. Washing will kill disease on contact and prevent additional outbreaks of disease for about 30 days by changing the pH of the plant so disease cannot thrive.
When leaf spot is present, remove the damaged leaves from the plants but do not remove more than 30% of the plants’ leaves at a time. If the problem is attacking more than 30% of the leaves, remove only up to 30% of the worst affected leaves, spray garden fungicide and repeat the process in about 10 days.
What to Do with Your Tomatoes
When it comes to cashing in on your tomato bank, the possibilities are endless. Recipes are plentiful for your summer’s harvest, canning will prolong their shelf life, or selling them for profit are all options.
It does not get much better than eating fresh tomatoes from your own backyard. Consider using your harvest in the following:
- Make a pizza with fresh sauce or tomato toppings
- Experiment with salads like mozzarella caprese salad, cucumber tomato salad, or various stacked tomato salads
- Jazz up a grilled cheese with fresh tomatoes or grill just tomato with bread
- Exercise your culinary prowess by digging into a gazpacho recipe
- Make salsa
It is possible that your tomato plants will create such an abundance of crop that you are not able to consume them all within their harvesting timeframe. Canning your tomatoes is an excellent way to enjoy them throughout the year while maintaining their fresh flavor.
Dabble in entrepreneurship by setting up a tomato stand and selling your surplus to neighbors, passersby and the like.
Time to Get Started
Equip yourself with knowledge and the right tools to begin your tomato gardening project in May. By properly caring for your plants, and making sure they receive enough water, they will thank you generously with a hearty crop in August. Save money, try new recipes, and enjoy the benefits of home gardening when you grow your own tomatoes this year!
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