Your guide to growing delicious homegrown tomatoesBy Chase Smoak
Tired of losing tomatoes to unwanted garden pests? Worried you’ll need to sacrifice excellent taste for improved yield? Take a deep breath and relax — this year, you can have your tomato and eat it, too. With the help of a few new varieties and field-proven tactics, you’ll be on your way to growing the best tomato crop yet.
Growing tomatoes can be a challenge, especially if you are new to the game. Even seasoned gardeners are caught off guard from time to time, and that’s OK as long as we learn in the process.
If you want to grow delicious, homegrown tomatoes this year, simply focus your attention on these three stages of gardening: planning, preparing and protecting.
Stage 1: Plan
Planning for a successful tomato harvest starts with choosing the right varieties to grow in your garden.
Many gardeners claim that if you want great flavor, you’ll need to plant heirloom varieties. People selected these landrace tomato plants long ago for traits such as shape, size and taste, so the claim has a basis. In pursuit of a better tasting tomato, however, significant factors like resistance to insects and disease resistance were overlooked.
If you’ve grown heirlooms, you know how challenging the process can be. This bittersweet truth has left many gardeners wondering if old-timey taste is a thing of the past. Well, there’s good news. Consumer demand for resilient, flavorful tomatoes has not fallen on deaf ears. Plant breeders have brought us a number of improved tomato varieties, but with so many options available, how do you make the best choice?
A nonprofit organization called All-America Selections (AAS) may have the answer. The group tests new varieties before they hit the market, and their trial notes will tell you everything you need to know.
How does it work? Professional horticulturists across the country volunteer to grow test plots of new tomato varieties and compare notes on disease resistance, yields and taste alongside established varieties.
“Our judges rate taste and texture first, then everything else second,” says Diane Blazek, executive director of All-America Selections and the National Garden Bureau. “You can have the most prolific, cute, unique new tomato, but if it doesn’t taste good, nobody wants it.”
Stage 2: Prepare
Proper site selection and planting techniques are vital to tomato gardening success.
Your tomato garden needs access to full sun (6 to 8 hours a day) and should have good drainage. Tomato plants hate wet feet and often succumb to root rot when left in waterlogged soils. They do, however, need regular watering throughout the growing season, so select a spot with easy access to water. Irrigating deeply but infrequently strengthens plants and encourages deep, healthy root systems for hot summer days.
Avoid using a place where tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant and other solanaceous crops have been grown within the past three years. Many pests overwinter in the soil adjacent to plants and will terrorize unsuspecting gardeners.
Once you’ve selected the right spot, make sure to test your soil and amend the ground as indicated. Your local NC Cooperative Extension agent can help you arrange a test and interpret the results (find your local county center here). Tomatoes are nutrient hogs that require a good supply from start to finish, so you’ll likely need to fertilize before and during the growing cycle.
Adequate moisture is necessary for nutrient uptake. Drip irrigation works well and doesn’t soak leaves, which often leads to disease issues.
And don’t forget to deal with weeds. They are an often-overlooked source of tomato pests. After clearing the site of any weeds, spread mulch 3 to 4 inches deep and keep it a palm-width away from the bases of tomato stems.
Planting should only begin after the last frost date for your area. If you’re unsure when it will be safe to plant, reach out to your local cooperative extension office for help.
Stage 3: Protect
Like the rising of the sun, pests — insects and diseases — are to be expected in every garden. The good news: They can be controlled or even avoided using a process known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a commonsense approach to gardening that treads lightly on the environment and minimizes use of garden chemicals.
For starters, get to know your garden and what lives in it. Talk to your local extension agent for a precise understanding of the insects and diseases to watch out for. Remember that beneficial insects like praying mantis and lady beetles naturally keep damaging insects in check. Don’t resort to pesticides at the first sign of something that flies or crawls.
Next, make an evaluation. If you do spot harmful pests or damage on tomatoes, evaluate whether real damage is being done to the landscape. They may be annoying, but small pest populations can often be tolerated. Set thresholds to guide your treatment decisions. For example: You may decide there’s little benefit to treating a pest problem if there is less than 10% damage to the plant.
If treatment is necessary, use the least toxic measure first. Cultural methods such as proper watering, plant spacing and fertilization can help prevent or reduce the number of pests. Mechanical means are another option that requires the physical removal of pests and can be useful for small populations. For example, hornworms are easily removable by hand-picking, and aphids are often washed away by a good squirt from a water hose.
If these approaches fail, reach out to your local extension agent for advice on pesticides and follow all label directions. Pesticide labels are the law, and many chemicals may be unethical or even illegal to use on fruit-bearing plants. Err on the side of caution.
Enjoy the pursuit
Gardening should be an enjoyable escape from the fast-paced world we live in. It’s an opportunity for us to serve as good stewards of the land, so when the time comes, we pass on something a little better to the next generation. If you really want to experience all that gardening has to offer this summer, focus on using it to produce memories instead of a crop. If you do, you’ll find everything begins to taste a little sweeter along the way.
Here are a few 2022 AAS winning tomato varieties to consider growing this season:
This AAS regional winner has been shown to thrive in the Southeast growing region. Sunset Torch produces small, striped tomatoes that pack a big punch in the taste department. This plant is a prolific early-season producer capable of providing 250 to 300 tomatoes per plant. AAS trials note that this variety showed high resistance to tomato mosaic virus, verticillium wilt and fusarium wilt.
If you want a tomato that looks just as good as it tastes, search no more. Purple Zebra is a national winner with fruit that is “firm in texture, complex in flavor and has a taste more sweet than acidic.” This variety has high resistance to tomato mosaic virus, verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, and late blight.
Another national winner, Celano, is an early-producing, high-yielding grape-type tomato for your patio or garden. According to AAS trial notes, Celano developed fruit much earlier and produced much longer than comparable varieties. Deep-red, oblong tomatoes typically weigh a little over half an ounce and taste sweet. As for disease resistance, this variety has superior tolerance to late blight.
About the AuthorChase Smoak is a Clemson University Cooperative Extension agent who specializes in plant propagation. He frequently appears on South Carolina Educational Television’s award-winning program “Making It Grow.”
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