If you have a vegetable garden or are thinking of starting one, be sure to include a few heirloom tomato plants (Lycopersicon esculentum), old-fashioned varieties that often produce extra-flavorful fruits and other interesting features. A variety called Cherokee purple is one example of this type, producing large, flavorful, reddish-purple tomatoes. Named because it's believed they were grown by the Cherokee people, these sturdy plants grow well when planted properly, given lots of sun and some fertilizer, and properly pruned.
Start Cherokee purple plants from seeds by sowing them in pots or flats indoors six to eight weeks before you want to transplant them outdoors, or purchase seedlings from a nursery when you're ready to plant. Once nighttime temperatures stay above 45 degrees Fahrenheit, plant the seedlings outdoors but enclose them with protective covers if you live where spring cold snaps are common; remove covers whenever daytime temperatures are above 80 degrees.
Space seedlings 20 inches apart in full sun, setting each one deeply so the soil level is just below its lowest set of leaves; roots grow from the buried stem, making a strong plant. Add 2 or 3 inches of compost to each hole, along with a handful of bonemeal and 1 teaspoon of Epsom salts for extra magnesium. Tamp the soil well and water each seedling.
Water and Fertilizer
Like all tomatoes, Cherokee purple plants need consistent moisture to promote produce solid fruits that don't split, called cracking. Ensure plants get at least 1 inch of water weekly, including rain; provide supplemental water as needed, watering with a soaker hose or drip irrigation to keep foliage dry, helping suppress fungus. Mulch plants with straw or another organic mulch to help retain soil moisture while also keeping weeds down.
Cherokee purple plants take about 80 days to set ripe fruit, which are beefsteak types -- slightly flattened and weighing 1 pound or more. A sufficient supply of nutrients helps ensure a bountiful crop, so fertilize plants once the first green fruits reach about 1 inch in diameter. Work 1/2 cup of a granular 5-10-5 formula into the top inch of soil next to each plant and repeat this when you pick the first ripe fruit.
Support and Pruning
Cherokee purple is an indeterminate variety so it continues growing and setting fruit throughout the season. It can eventually be 9 feet tall, carrying lots of fruit, so it needs support to prevent leaning or falling as it grows. Drive a strong stake into the ground or use a commercially available tomato cage; do this at planting to avoid disturbing the roots, securing the stems to the support with soft ties as the plant grows.
This variety also needs pruning to keep its size under control and allow sun to reach foliage. Trim away all but one or two strong central stems from on a young plant, and remove suckers -- shoots that form where leaves originate on stems -- whenever they appear.
Because Cherokee purple is an heirloom, it's not been bred for resistance to fungal problems that can attack the plant. These disorders are best avoided by keeping foliage dry whenever possible, adequately spacing plants and regularly clearing debris away from under the plants. You can also apply a commercially available beneficial fungus that shields roots from damage; dilute 3 tablespoons per gallon of water and use it to drench the soil at planting.
Pests such as large green hornworm caterpillars or striped potato beetles might attack the plants; handpick and destroy these. Aphids -- small greenish, soft-bodied insects -- might also damage plants. Control these by spraying with insecticidal soap, diluted at a rate of 5 tablespoons per gallon of water; repeat the spray as needed.
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How to Prune Tomato Plants
If you've grown tomato plants (Lycopersicon esculentum) or are thinking about trying to grow them, then you may already know they grow...