Any day now we'll be putting those tall, sometimes leggy, but full-leafed tomato plants in the ground that we've either started ourselves from seed or diligently kept alive on a windowsill from the local garden center.
There's no denying that nothing beats the taste of a homegrown tomato. After eating grocery store tomatoes all winter, anticipation for that first ripe fruit from the garden grows stronger with the each formation of the tiny green globes that will eventually, and not soon enough, ripen for our sandwiches and salads. Everyone has a tomato story. From the neighborhood contestants in the unspoken competition to see who gets the first ripe tomato from their garden, to the prize-winning marinara sauce at the county fair, tomatoes are as much a part of our summer season as baseball, Fourth of July cook-outs and summer concerts in the park.
In my house, we have grown tomatoes for more than a quarter of a century, so you would think we knew everything about how to grow them. In fact, when it comes to putting those fragrant plants in the ground, I thought there was nothing new to learn. For years, I have been advising people of a specific way to set their tomato plants in the ground. I've written my advice numerous times in this publication. I have given talks to gardening clubs and other organizations where I often relate the best way I know to get the tomato party started. Pluck off all but the top two or four leaves and bury that long stem deep in a trench, I explained to everyone who would listen. Tomato plants are wonderful. Their long, sticky stems are covered with soft, white hairs. When planted, those hairs become thick, white roots that not only serve to support the top-heavy plants, but work harder to grab up all the water and nutrients they can. The healthier a plant is under the ground, the bigger and better the production is above ground.
Most of the tomatoes we plant in our gardens are vines, but not all. Some plants, called determinate or bush varieties, will reach a specific height, usually around six feet, produce all of their fruit at once and then expire. There is hardly a tomato grower who doesn't have a special method of their own for growing the best and the biggest, not to mention being the first to get a ripe tomato. I've met a few along the way and here are some of the things I've been taught over the years.
l A woman in Niles, who I interviewed a couple years ago for a garden segment, revealed her secret to getting ripe tomatoes early in the season. She plants her vines on the side of her house beneath the vent from her clothes dryer. This, I thought, was an excellent way to recycle the energy that would otherwise escape into the atmosphere. Instead, she claims, the heat warms up her soil in that particular spot allowing the plants to get a head start over the plants she puts in her backyard garden. In addition, the moisture from the vent also is a plus for plants on really warm days. She has claimed that although she puts her dryer vent plants and her backyard plants in their individual gardens at the same time, the dryer vent gardens always grow faster, taller and ripen sooner.
l Starting early is what gardeners do who have the space and the lighting. I often advise people not to start their tomato seeds too soon. Otherwise they will find themselves having to transplant several times as the seedling grows, not to mention the energy needed to use grow-lights as winter sunlight just isn't bright enough to keep plants from becoming too leggy with thin, spindly stems. But for those who don't mind, by all means, plant your seeds in February if you aren't bothered by the extra work.
l Amend the soil and test its pH. Tomatoes like a slightly acid soil, around 6.0 to 6.8. A reading of 7 on the pH scale is neutral. Anything lower and your soil is acidic; higher and its alkaline. Average garden soil pH in our area is usually between 6.5 and 7, which makes it ideal for growing tomatoes; however, the addition of soil amendments, mulch and compost can affect the pH. A soil test will give an accurate reading and let you know what you should do to get the right conditions.
l Even more at stake (no pun intended) than building a better mousetrap is creating a better tomato restraint. Whether you resort to tall wooden stakes, flimsy wire cages or fancy spiral spikes, everyone has a story about not only staking up their tomatoes, but whether or not to pinch off suckers. A Master Gardener had what I thought was an ingenious method of dealing with tomatoes. He doesn't stake or pinch. Instead he constructed a table of sorts, of a wooden frame with a top of four-inch wire mesh. The ''table'' is about three feet wide and as long as his tomato row. As the plants grow, the stems poke through the wire and the plants sprawl over the wire mesh.
There are probably as many tomato stories as their are tomatoes. What are your secrets to growing tomatoes?
Evanoff is a Master Gardener with The Ohio State University Extension of Trumbull County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.