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It's time to plant tomatoes

January 21, 2002|By Keith Mayberry, Imperial County-University of California Cooperative Extension

Tomatoes are arguably the most popular garden vegetables. It is difficult to find a store-bought tomato that can come close to the flavor of tomato picked fresh off the vine.

Most supermarket tomatoes are harvested in the mature green stage or just as they start to turn color (breaker stage). The premature harvest is necessary for growers to be able to produce tomatoes with the same degree of maturity of the whole load.

Vine ripe tomatoes are very soft and will not ship well. A few companies offer greenhouse tomatoes or cluster tomatoes in the supermarkets. Those tomatoes are harvested in a more mature red stage of growth. However, these high quality tomatoes are expensive, often $2 per pound.

As a gardener, the first decision you need to make is what kind of tomato seed to buy? Do you want to plant early maturing tomatoes or have some plants that produce fruit over a long season? Do you want conventional slicer varieties, Roma-types (plum-shaped) for salads and sauce, cherry tomatoes or specialty tomatoes such as pear, yellow or white? When asked this question most gardeners say "BEEFSTEAK"!


Actually "beefsteak" is a catchy name of an heirloom variety. The name has become synonymous with a special type of tomato. Beefsteaks are thick and meaty with a few small seed cavities. Sounds good. But they also are ugly, they grow irregular in shape, they have sunken stem scars and have high shoulders that are usually cut off and discarded. Personally, I would avoid beefsteaks. There are better varieties now.

The small-fruited varieties tend to have the best overall flavor. But alas, taste preferences vary from gardener to gardener. Some like strong tomato flavor while others prefer a more acidic bite to the taste, and yet others like a sweet, fruity taste. There are hundreds of tomato varieties offered for sale in the USA. Choose what is best for your taste buds.

You need to check out the various local stores to find out what seed is available or use the Internet to find some seed sources to order. But if you want tomatoes this season you will have to act now!

The seed packets contain information about the variety, including whether it is open pollinated or hybrid, indeterminant or determinant, early-, mid- or late-maturity and which diseases the variety has resistance.

Letters that appear on the package will tell you disease resistance. For example, a variety in a package marked "VFN" is resistant to verticillium, fusarium and nematodes. Hybrids tend to have more vigor and uniformity than open pollinated varieties.

Determinant plants produce heavy fruit loads within a short period of time. Determinant varieties produce fruit over several weeks as most gardeners prefer. Disease resistance is preferable. Select two or three varieties because if one variety fails you will still be able to produce tomatoes on the other varieties.

You can purchase tomato transplants if you can find the transplants in the varieties you want. By using transplants you can place individual plants at desired spacing and avoid the problems associated with seed germination, low soil temperature and improper soil moisture levels.

Five or six plants should provide enough tomatoes for a family of four. Each plant can potentially produce 10-15 pounds of fruit. You need about 2 to 4 square feet per plant depending upon the variety.

Select a sunny location for tomatoes as well as most spring grown vegetables including squash, melons, okra, eggplant and sweetcorn. Next work up the soil and apply a complete fertilizer such as 10-10-10 or and ammoniated phosphate such as 16-20-0. Another alternative is to buy a fertilizer designed as a vegetable blend. Spade the fertilizer into the soil. We can't suggest rates of materials without specifying the type of fertilizer so follow the label or check with the nursery clerk.

Make raised beds about 6 inches high by at least 3 feet across. Decide if you are going to use drip irrigation, furrow irrigation or sprinkler irrigation to start the seed. Where you sow the seed depends upon your

selected type of irrigation.

Wherever you select must be a site where the plants get water readily with your irrigations. Put two or three seeds into the soil about a half-inch deep and cover them with fresh soil. Move down the row about 18 inches to two feet and plant another site. Continue planting until you have enough plant sites to satisfy your need. We prefer to plant more seed per site than is necessary because one can always remove the extra plants. It is just good insurance. Now water the seed and wait for the plants to emerge.

Transplants are placed singly at each desired site. Bury the plantlet to just below the first couple of true leaves. It is acceptable to bend the stems over with leggy plants. Tomatoes will sprout roots all along the stem.

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