The most popular edible plant to grow in a home garden is the tomato plant — the flavor of fresh tomatoes just can’t be equaled by bland imports. And is there anything more convenient or more satisfying than stepping outdoors and snapping off a handful of ripe, juicy tomatoes?
There are many different varieties of tomatoes, so it’s easy to find the right selection for your garden. Since there are tall, medium and low growing varieties — and even tomatoes that will dangle from hanging baskets — you can grow these tasty fruits (yes, they are technically fruits) in gardens large or small. Even little spaces like balconies. Tomatoes come in sizes from grape-like clusters to baseballs and shapes from round to oval to pear (pictured left). Colors range through a rainbow of reds, oranges, yellows, greens, purples, blacks, pinks and even white.
To grow tomatoes well, you will need to plant them in a spot that will get at least six hours of sunshine every day. Give them a rich soil with plenty of organic matter mixed in, and make sure they are well-watered with good drainage so the soil can dry out on the surface while roots remain moist.
You can start tomatoes from seed in March or April. Pot the seeds in good quality, sterile soil. Moisten the soil first, then plant one or two seeds just under the soil surface of each individual container and water again. Put pots where they will be exposed to maximum sunlight. The seeds should germinate in one to two weeks so long as you keep the soil moist. If more than one seed germinates, pull out the weaker seedling and continue to grow the stronger one. Tomatoes need a long growing season so they need to be started early or bought from started plants. If you have never grown tomatoes before, I’d suggest buying plants that are already started.
Plants can be set out into the vegetable garden when they are a few inches tall and have at least several sets of well-formed leaves. Young plants are better off planted deeply into the soil rather than shallowly under the surface. Unlike most plants, tomato stems can grow new roots right out from the stem. Some people find using red plastic mulch increases their crop yield.
Tall and medium plants should be tied to stakes or grown within tomato cages to keep their long, floppy stems and leaves in check.
Regularly check your plants for bugs like aphids or the hard-to-see green tomato hornworm. Spray the first off with a stream of water. Hornworm caterpillars will have to be hand-picked.
Tomato plants grow quickly with regular water, rich soil and plenty of sun. They appreciate regular feeding. All in all, they are easy to grow and crop generously if their basic needs are met. As you experiment with different kinds of tomatoes, you can discover a whole world of edible gardening, no matter how experienced or inexperienced you are.
Photo credits: Jane Gates