If you've ever grown tomatoes (Lypersicon esculentum), you probably know that there are dozens of different varieties, each with their own special qualities. An older cultivar called 'Rutgers' was developed in the 1930s as a high-yielding plant that has 7-ounce, thick-fleshed, red fruits with excellent flavor. 'Rutgers' also has extra-strong stems and produces mature fruits in about 73 days. Considered an heirloom tomato because its seeds have been handed down for generations, 'Rutgers' is a good choice to grow in a home garden, needing only some attention to detail at planting and basic care throughout the season.
It's best not to start tomatoes by sowing seeds directly in the ground, even in areas with warm spring temperatures, because germination occurs above 60 degrees Fahrenheit and is best at 75 degrees F; cool nighttime temperatures in spring can slow germination, so seeds might rot before they sprout.
To start your own plants from seed, sow 'Rutgers' tomato seeds indoors about six to eight weeks before you're ready to transplant outdoors. Sow seeds about 1/8-inch deep in pots or flats filled with potting soil or a soil-less mix intended for seed starting. Keep the mix evenly moist until seeds germinate -- in six to 12 days -- then move the seedlings into a sunny window or under fluorescent lights, at a temperature of about 70 degrees F.
Setting in the Garden
You can also purchase seedlings from a nursery or garden center; choose stocky plants that have dark green leaves, avoiding leggy or pale green plants. Move seedlings into the garden two weeks after your last frost, or when soil is at least 45 degrees F. Before planting home-grown or purchased seedlings, keep them outdoors in a sheltered spot with moderate light for about one week -- called hardening off -- watering only when the top inch or two of soil feels dry.
Before planting, add 2 or 3 inches of compost to your planting area to boost the soil's fertility; mix the compost in well with a fork or spade.
Plants do best when spaced about 2 or 3 feet apart. Set each plant extra deep in its hole, with the soil level up to or just covering the lowest set of leaves -- pinch these off before planting. New roots form on the buried portion of stem, making a strong plant. Back-fill each hole with soil, then water each seedling well.
Like all tomatoes, 'Rutgers' yields the most fruit when grown in a spot that gets full sun, at least eight hours each day. It's called a determinate plant because it grows to a height of about 4 feet and develops all of its fruit within several weeks, then slows its production. Because it's determinate, this plant doesn't require support, but adding a commercially available tomato cage can help keep the plant upright and fruit off the ground; set cages in the ground before planting, to avoid disturbing roots.
Wait until fruits are about 1 inch in diameter to fertilize 'Rutgers' plants. Mix about 1/2 cup of a granular, 5-10-5 formula into a trench beside each plant -- called side-dressing -- being careful not to disturb the roots, then water the fertilizer in. Repeat the application when you pick the first ripe tomatoes.
These plants need regular, even moisture to produce the best crop, so provide extra water whenever the top few inches of soil are dry. Use a soaker hose or drip irrigation to keep foliage dry and help prevent fungal problems. Adding several inches of organic mulch under the plants helps conserve soil moisture and also suppresses weeds.
You can also grow a 'Rutgers' plant in a container that has at least one drainage hole. Use any type of pot, either plastic, clay or ceramic, cleaning previously used pots with a solution of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water to destroy disease organisms; rinse well before planting. For a 10-inch pot, plant one healthy seedling in commercial potting soil, setting the plant deeply. Use a tomato cage or stakes for support in the pot, tying the plant's stems to the support with soft ties.
Don't plant a potted tomato in garden soil, because it can harbor insects and disease organisms.
Keep the pot's soil evenly moist; a clay or ceramic pot dries out more quickly than a plastic one. Place the container in a sunny spot and feed the plant as you would one planted in the ground.