If you have a vegetable garden or are planning to start one, tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum) are probably on your list of crops to grow. You can choose from dozens of different varieties, but don't miss one called Roma, an old-fashioned favorite that produces flavorful and meaty fruits. This plant comes in a few different varieties and requires only basic care to get off to a good start and provide a heavy crop. Like all tomatoes, Roma grows as an annual in all parts of the United States.
Roma belongs to a group called plum tomatoes -- oval and rather small, meaty fruits. It's also called a "paste" tomato because it has a thicker wall than larger, salad types, with denser flesh and fewer seeds, making it a good choice for tomato-based sauces and tomato paste in addition to fresh eating.
First developed in Italy, the Roma plant produces fruits that are about 3 inches in length, each weighing around 5 ounces; first ripe fruits can be ready to pick about 76 days after planting, but it might take longer if weather is especially cool. Although not considered an heirloom tomato, Roma is an open-pollinated plant, so it produces seeds that are identical to the parent plant.
Yellow and Tiny Types
Although the standard Roma tomato is red, some varieties are available that yield yellow tomatoes, differing only in color from the standard type. A cultivar called "Golden Roma" is an example that has ripe fruits similar to red Romas in size and shape; they're ready to pick in about 68 days.
Other Roma cultivars produce smaller fruits that have the same shape as a Roma but only weigh about 1 ounce each -- called a cherry tomato. "Baby Roma Red" and "Baby Roma Yellow" are two examples that are ready to harvest only 49 days after planting. Like the standard Roma plants, they're determinate; they stop growing in mid- to late summer and tend to produce most of their fruits at one time.
The Roma tomato plant is an older type that was developed in the 1950s; unlike many older tomato types, it's moderately resistant to some of the fungal problems that can damage heirloom tomatoes. The plant has also been cross-bred with other types of plum tomatoes -- called hybridizing -- to improve its vitality and disease resistance.
Hybrid Roma varieties include one called "Roma Grande," which has tomatoes about twice the size of standard Romas. They're ready for picking about 75 days after planting and tend to yield an extra-large number of fruits. "La Roma 3 Hybrid" is another example of this specially bred group that grows flavorful, 5- to 8-ounce fruits in 76 days on highly vigorous plants.
When planting Roma seedlings, space them about 24 inches apart to maintain good air circulation, which helps prevent fungal problems. Set them deeper than they were previously planted, with the soil level just below the lowest leaves; roots grow from the buried stem for a stronger plant. Ensure plants get at least 1 inch of water weekly, including rain, but keep foliage dry when watering by using a soaker hose, to discourage fungal growth.
Mulch the plants once soil has warmed, either using plastic sheeting or organic mulch such as straw, and provide support with a tomato cage or a sturdy stake driven into the ground, tying stems to the support at intervals with soft ties. Set the support in place before planting seedlings, to avoid disturbing roots. Fertilize by working 1/2 cup of a 5-10-5 formula into the soil near each plant when green tomatoes first appear and again when you start to harvest.
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