Ode to Tomatoes
the table, at the midpoint
star of earth,
its remarkable amplitude
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
of fiery color
and cool completeness.”
Ode to Tomatoes
by Pablo Neruda (1904-1973 Nobel Prize winner)
(translated by Margaret Sayers Peden)
It seemed appropriate that a friend sent me this poem, only a portion used here, right after my Tomato Growers Supply Company catalog arrived in the mail.
The catalog clearly shows there is a tomato for everyone from Wisconsin to Florida and Kosovo, whether you are an Arkansas Traveler or a Hillbilly, a Jetsetter, a German Queen or a Sweet Baby Girl, a First Prize Big Bite is waiting for you in the garden. The Legend of the ‘cool completeness’ of which Neruda sings is waiting for you if you are longing for a Health Kick of Green Grapes, or a Sugar Snack and Dr. Lyle and Dr. Neal would approve of either. Whom do you dream of sharing a tomato sandwich with? Abraham Lincoln? Paul Robeson? Mama Leone? Box Car Willie? Goliath or Aunt Gertie? Dreams can come true for those who drive a Mule Team, or tend a Homestead in the Heartland.
Some might say the names of the tomatoes are poetry in themselves, doubtless because the tomato is the single most popular vegetable to eat or grow.
A gardener new to tomato growing has to begin by deciding whether to grow a determinate or indeterminate variety. A determinate variety like Red Rocket produces fruit (and the tomato technically is a fruit, not a vegetable) that will ripen pretty much all at the same time. Also, growth of the vine will stop once the fruit has set.
On indeterminate varieties like Giant Valentine the vine continues growing, even after fruit is set. There is a longer period of harvest and there will be fruits at all stages of development.
Gardeners also have to think about how long they want to wait to harvest the first tomato. It usually takes about 6 to 8 weeks to grow a healthy seedling. Catalogs will list the days to harvest, starting the count from when the seedling goes in the ground, anywhere from about 50 to 85 days. It is always wise to consider the length of the particular growing season when making this decision.
Does the gardener like huge varieties like Believe It or Not whose fruits can reach two pounds? Or because of preference or limited space is Golden Gem cherry tomato a better choice?
Gardeners also have to choose whether they want red, pink, purple, yellow, gold, green or white tomatoes. It seems that every catalog has an infinite array of color and size.
Does the gardener want a modern hybrid like BHN 640 VFFF with multiple disease resistance? Or an heirloom like German Red Strawberry noted for its fabulous taste?
Whatever your choice you can be sure it will have the ‘benign majesty’ that Neruda describes.
A vital decision is where to plant. Just remember, tomatoes are tropical plants. They like at least 6 hours of sun. More is better. They also like warmth which is why it is important to wait until the soil has warmed up and there is no danger of frost. The traditional safe date for planting tomatoes in our area is Memorial Day weekend, but we each can note our own microclimate and possibly plant earlier.
I have heard of people who covered their tomato patch with plastic for a week or two before planting to help warm up the soil, and so get their seedlings into the ground a little early.
Tomatoes like a fertile and well drained soil. To prepare for planting dig compost into your soil. You can buy bagged compost these days if you don’t have your own homemade supply. Compost not only adds nutrients for your plants, it improves the structure of the soil, and hence its ability to hold or drain water.
A healthy root system is important to growing a good crop of tomatoes. If you buy seedlings you should plant them in a trench. In other words, dig a shallow trench and after pinching off the lower leaves, lay the seedling down and cover the length of the stem with soil, leaving only the top leaves above the soil. Roots will form and grow all along the buried stem.
If you are starting your own seeds, you can transplant your seedling three or four times, each time burying all but the top leaves to encourage the development of a big root system even before planting in the garden. The intent is not to bring the plant closer to harvest, but to develop a really good root system. Leave at least 18 inches between plants in the garden when planting.
Once planted the secret to success is consistent watering. We can’t do much about torrential summer rains, but we can make sure to keep the garden watered during dry spells.
I would very much like to hear what varieties my readers favor, and what tips they have for new gardeners. Please do email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll include your suggestions in a follow up column a little later on. I hope to hear from you.