By Mark Barnes
The average last frost date in our area is about May 10 and I’m having a hard time seeing any snow on Shafer Butte. Furthermore, since Mother’s Day is this weekend that means I’m going to have a big planting weekend in the garden. I’ve already got my tomatoes in the ground but all my other plants (except my peppers) will be going out.
Tomatoes, however, are the king of the garden. It is the prize awarded for the fruits of our labors. It is the blue ribbon, for without the all-important tomato, what would gardeners strive for?
Now anyone who is a serious gardener will already have tomatoes in the ground. But for those who are just starting out gardening, or who are a little tentative about taking on the king of vegetables (OK, it’s actually a fruit), here is a tomato primer.
Tomatoes come in two types, determinate and indeterminate. Think of it this way. A determinate tomato plant has a determined size. It is also known as a bush tomato or a patio tomato. These plants are genetically programed, most of the time bred to only grow to a certain size. They typically do not need staking or trellising and are great for small spaces, patio containers, or small tomato cages. They will not take over your garden and some varieties have all their fruit ripen at once. Determinate sauce tomato plants (Romas are a great variety) are wonderful if you are planning one big giant canning session.
An indeterminate tomato will grow and grow and grow. It will usually put fruit on all summer long and harvests happen when the individual is ready, not all at once. Trellises, cages and a contraptions that include a variety of devices that would make a bondage deviant envious are usually built for these plants to grow in, on and among. Pruning these plants is usually necessary to keep them contained. If no trellising is used, these plants can grow like a vine across the ground, rooting wherever the stem touches and creating a tomato mat, a very difficult gardening situation.
The second big vocabulary item for tomatoes is “heirloom.” You can buy hybrid plants, or genetically engineered tomato plants that might have an increased resistance to disease, or their fruits have an extended shelf life like store bought tomatoes, but these usually sacrifice taste. Heirloom varieties are numerous and bring with the variances an incredible array of flavors, sizes and shapes. These are the plants that your grandmother grew, with seeds passed down from generations of gardeners. Green, red, yellow, white, purple, pink and black tomatoes are not uncommon. The reason you may not see these types of tomatoes at anywhere other than a farmer’s market is because they do not last very long on the shelf after picking. Take a chance and grow at least one new variety each year.
My favorite heirloom varieties are Black Cherry, a dark, sweet cherry tomato and the purple tomatoes such as Cherokee Purple or Black Krim. Both have a very earthy and salty taste when eaten ripe. My least favorite heirlooms tend to be the green varieties because I can never tell when they’re ripe.
While insects do not typically cause a problem for area tomato growers, we do see a lot of blossom end rot in this area. If you have black spots on the end of your tomatoes, this is because of a calcium deficiency. This is easily taken care of by adding calcium based supplements (such as bone meal) at the time of planting. If you still have problems then you can find a calcium spray at area nurseries. While it may look bad, blossom end rot can be cut out of a tomato, the rest of it is fine.
One creative solution to other pests such as squirrels or deer eating your tomatoes is to pull out your red Christmas ornaments and hang a few on the outside edges of your plants before your tomatoes ripen. It’s really funny to see a squirrel try to bite one of those.