Garden Guru combines her knowledge with reader suggestions
Ask five Kentuckians if they grow tomatoes in the summer, and I bet at least three of them will say yes. Kentucky has 120 counties, and I am confident we could find dozens of opinions in each on the best way to grow the biggest and tastiest tomatoes. How tomatoes are planted, fertilized, staked or trained, watered, harvested and enjoyed is a love affair for so many passionate Kentucky gardeners.
Which tomato variety do you choose? Do you grow determinate or indeterminate varieties? The old tried and true varieties or the new fancy varieties? Disease resistant varieties? Organic, conventional, open pollinated varieties? Cherry, pear, cocktail, paste or slicing tomatoes? Red, purple, orange, striped or yellow tomatoes? You have endless choices and it all comes down to what kind of tomatoes you like to eat and cook with.
For most of us, it’s about what kinds of tomatoes are available to us. Many garden centers will carry at minimum 24 varieties of transplants, trying to cover most of the above categories—which gives us an excellent variety of choices.
Tomatoes are a warm season, sun loving vegetable crop, so don’t be in a hurry to plant them early. “Don’t plant your tomatoes until after Derby Day,” is the saying in Kentucky, and it’s still good advice. According to Jeneen Wiche, well-known gardener and Shelby Energy consumer-member, “Tomato plants that experience nighttime temperatures below 50 degrees have their circadian rhythm thrown out of sync.”
Too many cool nights could cause the plants to alter their natural growth process to accommodate the weather—potentially reducing productivity. The weather, from planting to harvest, plays an important role in the success or failure of each year’s tomato harvest. Mother Nature, please give us great tomato growing weather this year.
Water, feed, fertilize
Once planted, tomatoes need to be watered and fed or fertilized to maximize production, but be careful: too much nitrogen and you will have more green plant than tasty tomatoes.
“Every hole (my brother) digs to put a tomato plant in, (he) puts a dead fish in the hole,” says Janice Taylor, consumer-member of South Kentucky RECC. If you like to go fishing, that’s an interesting fertilization method. In my garden, my dog would just dig up those dead fish right along with the tomato plant. The simplest way to fertilize is by adding great compost to your garden and supplement with a balanced fertilizer that’s not terribly high in nitrogen. Fish emulsion fertilizer is a great alternative to a whole dead fish.
Train your tomatoes
“As your tomatoes begin to grow, it is important to stake or cage them,” says Grace Bear of West Liberty, consumer-member of Licking Valley RECC. That’s great advice because if you wait too long, the plants may be too big to contain without breaking off the stems. Staking or training in whatever way you prefer helps because most tomatoes have a vine-like habit and growing them on or in something makes harvesting much easier.
One popular method is using the “Japanese tomato ring.” It has a specific planting method, but the cage is sturdy and you simply fasten the tomatoes to the outside of the cage as they grow. For more information on this method, visit KentuckyLiving. com and search “Japanese tomato ring,” to get all the details from Jeneen Wiche’s father, the late Fred Wiche, who wrote Kentucky Living’s “The Weekend Gardener” column for nearly 20 years. His method is tried and true.
A few other options for maintaining your tomatoes are mulching and suckering. Mulching your tomato plant helps reduce weeds and the spread of disease, but more importantly, it helps maintain an even soil moisture level. This helps prevent blossom end rot caused by a calcium deficiency and rapid fluctuations in soil moisture.
Suckering is the removal of the foliage that grows out of the joints where stems or branches meet. In the early stages, removing these suckers is important, but once you have a lot of fruit set, it is less important. In a really hot summer, this additional, often fruitless growth, can shade the young ripening tomatoes from the scalding sun.
If you like to cook, consider planting a little sweet basil in your tomato garden. Gloria Kiser, consumer-member of Grayson County RECC, says she always plants dill and basil with her tomatoes. “It protects the tomatoes from hornworms,” she says. For me, tomato plants are not the most attractive addition to the garden, so I like to plant a few flowers around them. My favorites are zinnias and Mexican sunflowers. Both bloom all summer long.
Harvest and share
Once the tomatoes start to ripen, it is time to begin harvesting. Tomatoes can be picked partially ripe and allowed to continue ripening indoors or on a covered porch, or they can be left on the plants to fully ripen. It’s up to the gardener and any other little creatures living near the garden that like to eat tomatoes—like squirrels. Eat ripe tomatoes right out of the garden; make your own sauce, salsa, juice; or can or freeze tomatoes to use in the winter months when you are dreaming of summer.
Joseph Smith, Bardstown, consumer-member of Salt River Electric, says it best: “I take pride in my tomatoes. I enjoy picking them— and we share our tomatoes with a community senior citizen group.”
Smith is not alone—every tomato gardener I know is generous and always gives away a few, and occasionally a lot, of their prized, tasty, home-grown Kentucky tomatoes. Simple, shiny, round, red, beautiful tomatoes can connect us to one another and are always worth the effort.
As a Kentucky native, I may be biased, but I believe Kentucky-grown tomatoes taste the absolute best. In truth, they are easy to grow, but because we love them so much, we are always tweaking the process and challenging ourselves to see if we can improve our crop year after year.