By Ronnie Dauber, Garden Guides Contributor
About this Plant
This annual vegetable produces an abundance of delicious red, juicy tomatoes from early summer to late fall, depending on the variety. The fruit can be eaten fresh or cooked and used in main dishes or sauces.
Tomatoes grow best in full sunlight, in a location where they are open to free air circulation. The soil needs to be well-drained and should be cultivated with plenty of compost and well rotted manure.
Tomatoes are categorized and eaten as vegetables, and yet bear the texture of a flesh fruit. They come in a kaleidoscope of sizes, from 1/2
inch in diameter to the size of a large fist. They can be round, oval or flat, and can serve as the attractive garnish to a meal or the main dish itself.
Choosing a Variety
There are many varieties of tomatoes ranging from small to large, stake to cluster, and tiny cherries-on-a-bush to huge dinner-for-two-on-a-staked-plant. Some varieties include:
* Cluster tomatoes (hybrid) are borne in clusters of 6 to 8, and bear a smooth, firm dark glossy red skin. They are picked in clusters and retain their fresh taste even after picked.
* Beefsteak tomatoes are the hardier of the tomatoes and are available in many different varieties, with delicious fruit that can exceed 12 oz. in size. These are ideal for slicing and putting on hamburgers.
* Cherry tomatoes can be grown in the garden or in patio planters and come in many varieties and harvesting times.
Tomato seeds can be started indoors about 6 to 8 weeks prior to the last spring frost. Place 2 to 3 seeds in every 1-inch cell and then thin out to 1 per cell once they sprout. Cover the seeds with ¼ inch of soil and keep them where the temperature will remain a constant 70 to 80 degrees F and where there is continual light. When the plants have 2 or 3 sets of leaves, transplant them into larger pots (2 or 3 inch squared). Fertilize with a water-soluble fertilizer every 2 weeks starting at half strength and increasing to full strength over the next 6 weeks. Transplant outdoors only after all danger of the last frost is passed, as they are very susceptible to frost damage. Space the plants 24 to 36 inches apart with rows at least 36 to 48 inches apart.
Tomatoes require regular feeding during the growing season with compost tea or a well-balanced fertilizer. They require even moisture during the fruit set and development. Avoid excess watering as it can increase the fruit size but will decrease the fruit flavor.
Harvest and Storage
Pick the fruit when they are firm and starting to turn red. If they are left on the vine to ripen, they should be used immediately as overripe tomatoes rot very quickly. The fruit can be eaten fresh, preserved whole in mason jars, or made into sauce or juice and preserved.