April 13, 2012

Tasty Tomatoes from Seed to Plate

By  Tanya Wohlsclagel Master Gardener

In January, I stand in the produce section of the grocery store, bag in hand, on a mission to find a tasty tomato. There sometimes are nice tomatoes on the store shelves these days but it is tough to find ones as tasty as what you might have grown last summer. I still remember popping whole cherry tomatoes into my mouth that were warmed from the sun, perfectly vine ripened with the vine still attached to the plant.
I have been growing my own tomatoes since I was a teenager when I used an old car as a temporary greenhouse. (I ran out of room in the house because I planted too many. I always plant too many!) Luckily, once my husband and I bought our house in 2004, it no longer mattered that I planted too many. We just made the garden bigger.
Over the years, I have learned a lot about growing tomatoes. Everything from choosing the proper plants, the types and varieties, growing, pruning, disease resistance, harvesting and lots more. Lets take a look at how to grow tasty tomatoes from seed to your plate!
Starting tomatoes from seed has its advantages. You may choose from a greater variety. In addition to regular seed suppliers like Vesey's Seed and Halifax Seed, there are some seed companies that specialize in just tomatoes. Have a look at www.uppercanadaseeds.ca and www.tomatobob.com. Upper Canada Seeds offers well over 100 varieties and Tomato Bob offers a whopping 600+ varieties! Growing from seed also gives you the opportunity to get gardening earlier by growing indoors or in a greenhouse. If you are short on time or do not care which variety you grow, healthy transplants purchased from a nursery will work fine.
In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion and interest in Heirloom varieties. Heirloom tomatoes often lack disease resistance and usually yield less than their Hybrid counterparts but often offer far superior taste. In 2008, I ordered tomato seeds from Vessey's Seeds, Upper Canada Seeds, Tomato Bob and Tomato Fest. My focus was superior flavor and unique varieties. Included in my choices were heirloom varieties that promised white, green, yellow, orange, multicolored, black, purple, brown and of course, red. All different shapes too.... big ones, little ones, plum types, grape types....I planted a total of 33 types that year, 30 of which were heirloom varieties. I grew 3 plants of each type for a total of 99 plants and just as they began to ripen, I lost them all to blight. In excess of 500 lb of ripe or nearly ripe tomatoes rotted right on the vine, almost overnight. My gardening practices were a major contributor but also the fact that almost none of my plants offered disease resistance also was a factor. Choosing tomatoes based on flavor is a good idea but if they don't make it to your table, what is the point? Now I choose tomato seeds based on yield, disease resistance and taste. Hybrids have come a long way. An Heirloom icon known for superior taste, Brandywine was reported in an article by USA Today to have lost in a blind taste test against a new hybrid Brandyboy, produced by W. Atlee Burpee & Co. Hybrids are being bred for greater yield and disease resistance but researchers are now addressing the need for improved flavor. Do not confuse hybrid with Genetically Modified Organisms or GMO. Hybrid simply means parent plants are crossed to produce a desired result in an off spring plant. GMO means genetically altered, using different molecular genetic techniques, controversial because of the unknown possible health and environmental ramifications.
Choosing tomato seeds can be an overwhelming experience. Catalogs bursting with color with bowls overflowing.... tomatoes so perfect. I always find it funny that rarely do they show pictures of the plants growing in the field. Even more confusing is that nearly every tomato in a catalog is the “favorite”, “best” or “heaviest yielding”. Then there are codes and abbreviations.
When deciding on which tomatoes are worthy of investing 6 months of your time, look at the specific information the catalog description provides. Ignore those promises of favorite and best and pay attention to “resists cracking”, “high resistance to fusarium wilt races 1 and 2” and “most disease resistant in our trials”.
The abbreviations and codes are usually identifying the disease resistance that the plant offers. The catalog will have a key to identify the codes or the information about the plant will simply describe the characteristics. For tomatoes, common attributes to look for are resistance to Alternaria (Early) Blight, Fusarium Wilt, Late Blight, Tomato Mosaic Virus and even Powdery Mildew.
The final thing to consider when choosing which tomatoes you will grow will be determinate and indeterminate. Determinate have a bush type habit, should be caged and will ripen all at about the same time. Indeterminate will grow long or tall and should be staked, tied and pruned. Fruits will ripen over an extended period.
If you have decided that you will grow your tomato plants from seed, you will also have to decide when to start them. The recommended time is 6 to 8 weeks before last frost. In our area, early April is appropriate. If you plant them earlier than this, be prepared to transplant them into larger containers before it is time to plant them in the ground. For more details on growing tomatoes from seed, please refer to the article titled “Successfully Starting Plants Indoors from Seed”.
Once your seedlings are ready to move outdoors, be sure to harden them off. This means that the seedlings have to gradually be introduced to life outdoors over the course of a few days before planting them in the garden. Remove the bottom 1 or 2 leaves and plant the tomatoes fairly deep. Tomatoes will grow roots along their stem. By planting deep you will produce a more robust plant because with more roots in the soil, there is more access to water and nutrients. When I was a kid, I remember my grandfather taking the hoe and “hilling up” the tomatoes. This was an effective practice to get more roots working for the plant as well.
Before planting, carefully choose your location. Tomatoes need full sun to grow properly and will need a lot of water so plant them close to a water supply if possible. The soil you are planting in should be a good garden soil that has been well amended with compost or well rotted manure. The Ph should be 6.5 to 7. It is very likely that in Nova Scotia, you would naturally have acidic soil and it would be wise to add lime to your proposed tomato bed preferably in the fall or as a last resort, early spring long before planting and long before fertilizing. Do this as soon as the soil can be worked. It is also wise to test the Ph before planting to be sure you are in the desired range. Add a granulated fertilizer just before planting.... one that is low in Nitrogen but higher in Phosphorous and Potassium. 8-32-16 or 6-24-24 are said to be the best choices for tomatoes according to the University of Missouri Division of Plant Sciences. Keep your lime application and fertilizer application as far apart as possible. If you prefer organic methods, good organic fertilizer would include seaweed extract and compost tea. Don't use too much manure because it tends to be higher in Nitrogen which will just give you excessive leaf growth.
If you are growing determinate plants, the bush variety, there are a couple of growing techniques that will work best. An abundance of space and allowing the plants to sprawl on the ground is one method. This method is often successful if used along with hilling up the soil around the plant base. Hilling up helps to lift the plants branches up, partially keeping the fruit and leaves elevated off the soil. An abundance of space is key here. 5 feet of empty, weed free space between each plant with 5 feet between rows. This method is ideal for gardeners with acreage and tractors.
Speaking from experience, this method will not work very well for the average home gardener. Insufficient space between plants that are sprawling all over the soil will be prone to disease. Any plants and fruit that do survive will give you a difficult harvest experience and an important lesson on how your body is not able to balance in such an awkward position for very long.

Determinate tomatoes in the smaller home garden should be supported and spaced as well as possible. Vesey's suggests 2-3 feet apart in rows at least 3 to 4 feet apart. The small cages you can purchase for $1-2 do not quite cut it on their own. Late July or early August will have your cages bending and buckling with the weight. Consider using the very large, sturdy cages or supporting the small cages with wooden posts or rails.
Indeterminate tomatoes are the best choice for small gardens. This type are staked and pruned so they can be as close as 1.5 to 2 feet apart. Tomato stakes can be made from a wide range of materials. 1” by 1” or 2”by 2” boards, sticks, small trees or rebar rods will work. The stake should be 6 feet long with 2 feet buried in the ground, leaving 4 feet exposed. Be sure it is sturdy because the plants will be heavy. Once the stakes are positioned in the garden, re-cultivate the soil because it would have been pressed down and trampled.

Plant the small hardened off plants very close to the stake. An extra measure to allow any type of tomato plant a head start is to cover it with a 1 gallon plastic water container with the bottom cut off and the cap removed. Surrounding the base of the jug with soil and laying a tree branch over a grouping of tomato plants covered with water jugs will keep the jugs in position on a breezy day. Keep in place until the plant outgrows the jug. Though the jug will protect the plant some, it is important to not try to plant too early. Tomato plants will be killed by a late season frost but also they do not grow well in cold weather and soil that is too cold. There is no uptake of nutrients at 50 F and the ideal soil temperature for tomatoes is 70 F. Determinate plants can be planted in rows and covered with temporary greenhouses or row covers which will give you a bit of a head start due to a rise in soil temperature. This can also be done with staked indeterminate plants if the row cover butts up against the stakes and the plants are placed directly in front of the stakes.
Another risk of setting out tomato plants too early is if there are cool nights, down to 58 F during the time there are blossoms, cat facing will occur. Cat facing mostly affects large varieties of beef steak tomatoes and causes a pucker or deep cavities on the blossom end of the tomato.
Staking and Pruning
As your indeterminate plants grow, they will need to be secured to the stake and pruned. As soon as the plants are big enough to flop over, it is time to get tying. My favorite material is twist tie. It is available in garden centers and hardware stores in a spool that comes with its own cutter. I like this material because it holds its shape, is durable and reusable.
To tie tomatoes to a stake, you don't want to simply wrap the tie around the stem and stake. There is a specific technique here that will not cause the stem to rub on the stake and will not allow the stem to be cut or severed by the tie. It is not necessary to prevent movement, you just want to promote upward growth and prevent the plant from flopping over onto the ground.
To begin, cut a 5-8 inch piece of twist tie and in the middle of this piece, wrap it around the stake once and then twist a couple of times. This should give you a tie that is on the stake at the right height with two ends sticking out, equal on both sides. Now, put the tomato stem in between those two ends and twist the tie close to the stem. Now, the stem will be in kind of a hoop. Do not make it tight, allow plenty of room for the stem to grow. Allow enough space in this hoop to hold the stem and your index and middle finger. No more than that, it will be too loose. No less than that, it may girdle the plant as it grows. If you were above, looking down at this, the tie would be in a figure 8 position. One hoop tightly enclosing the stake and one hoop loosely enclosing the stem. This process will have to be completed whenever the plants grow enough to risk flopping over, roughly every 2-3 weeks.
The plants also need to be pruned. The purpose of growing tomato plants is to grow tomatoes, not foliage. The indeterminate tomato plant is naturally preparing for a very long season, one we just don't have in our climate. To begin, the small plant will have just one lead or main growth. Before long, it will have two. Soon after that it will have four and if allowed, it will have many more. You will get more tomatoes in a shorter amount of time if you limit the plant to preferably 1 but no more than 2 main leads. If you look closely at your small plant, along the main stem there are leaves. Where the leaf meets the stem, the crotch, there often will be side shoots or suckers that need to be removed. If noticed early, they can be pinched off with your fingers. If larger, they need to be cut with scissors. Sometimes my plants would get ahead of me and I would find myself cutting huge suckers out of my tomato plants and hauling the foliage away by the wheelbarrow full! While pruning, also remove leaves close to or touching the soil for disease prevention and once the plants reach 4 feet, continue to remove the tops for the remainder of the season. Topping them helps the plant to put more energy in the lower fruit that stands a chance to ripen before the season ends. It took me a while to feel comfortable about approaching my tomato plants with a pair of scissors. Over time I realized the advantages include bigger tomatoes that ripen before frost, more air circulation to prevent disease from spreading, less wind resistance on a windy day and the fruit is more exposed, making it easier to find and pick. Tying and pruning tomato plants sounds like a complicated process but once you get the hang of it, it only takes about 3 minutes of work per plant every 2 or 3 weeks. Indeterminate plants that are properly staked and pruned are the best to grow with limited space, more disease resistant based on their growth habit, more attractive in the garden and far easier to find and pick the fruit.
Disease and Pests
Controlling disease in the tomato garden is an important measure to avoid disappointment. Many of the diseases in our area include Bacterial Leaf Spot, Anthracnose, Early Blight, Late Blight, Botrytis Grey Mold and Powdery Mildew, all of which are caused by or promoted by wet conditions and cross contamination.
Clean, sanitized equipment is important to prevent spread of disease. Everything from seed trays and pots to stakes and ties must be clean and sterile. When pruning, I sterilize the scissor or knife blade with rubbing alcohol wipes between every plant. If I am reusing ties from one year to the next, they are soaked in bleach.
If the plants are wet, do not prune, stake, weed, harvest or even touch the plants. Only water plants at the soil level and avoid the leaves. Keep the plants well spaced so there is air circulation between plants. Pruning techniques can help improve air circulation as well. Always dispose of plant material and debris every fall so that soil born disease is less able to survive the winter. Choose disease resistant varieties purchase from reputable seed suppliers. Practice crop rotation if space is available. Keep weeds under control. Have two separate tomato plantings, spaced far apart if space allows so that not all of your eggs are in one basket. Remove and destroy diseased plants immediately and do not add diseased material to your compost pile. There is some promise that copper or sulfur sprays will prevent blight. Be sure to fertilize properly, use well amended garden soil and water frequently because a more vigourous plant will be less susceptible to succumb to disease. One disease not caused by infection is blossom end rot which causes a rot area on the bottom of the tomato. This is caused by a calcium deficiency. Though your soil could be low in calcium, the more likely problem is uneven watering.
Tomato plants can be affected by defoliating insects such as white fly, aphids and mites but these are unlikely to damage the plant to the point of causing it to die. A very large outbreak should be controlled with insecticidal soap because many of these pests can spread disease. Any large insects, such as loopers and other caterpillars can be removed by hand. According to “Nova Scotia Crop Guide to Pest Management 2011” by Agrapoint International, the Colorado Potato Beetle and the Tarnished Plant Bug can sometimes have an interest in tomato plants in our area. The file suggests up to 11 different chemicals that the commercial grower can use to control these 2 pests. The best advice for the home gardener is to remove by hand!
I think one of the more devastating tomato pests is the cutworm. If you are unfortunate enough to have these in your garden, then you are familiar with the feeling as you enter your garden of newly set transplants that are cut off at the base and laying on their side. Cutworms most often feed on the stem at the base of the soil and cause a plant to completely topple over. Cutworms can be identified by a caterpillar or worm-like pest that curls up into a tight “C” when disturbed. If you ever discover that cutworms are destroying your plants, feel over the soil surface with your hand within a foot of the damage, rolling over small clumps of soil to reveal the cutworm hiding places. To protect plants, place a foil or cardboard collar around the base of the plant, pushing it into the ground so that a few inches are below ground and several inches are above ground.
Growing and Care
As your plants grow, it will be important to add fertilizer and keep them well watered. Once fruit is setting and some of the tomatoes are 1/3 to their final growth size, apply an even fertilizer such as 10-10-10 or a manure tea. Repeat as you begin to pick the first ripe fruit.

A tomato is 95% water. A tomato plant needs 1-2 inches of rainfall per week. During weeks that this is not achieved, water your plants thoroughly and deeply to promote a deep root system. Mulching can help to retain water loss.
Harvesting and Preserving

Once tomatoes start to ripen, ease up on watering to promote ripening and remove any blossoms or very tiny fruit. This will allow the plant to invest energy into the tomatoes that are closer to harvest. I have also read on www.tomatodirt.com that tugging on the roots of the plant helps to shock the plant into thinking it is time to finish up and produce seed. Harvest tomatoes when they are ripe but still firm. Allow them to soften indoors away from pests.
If your tomatoes are not all finished ripening and there is a risk of frost, cover the plants with sheets or thin blankets if practical. If you are like me and have too many for this to be practical, you can lift entire plants or large branches and hang upside down in your shed or garage so the tomatoes can ripen on the vine. You can also pick tomatoes that are close to ripening but still green, bring them inside and place them in paper bags. Check them every day and take the ripe tomatoes out of the bag. This will allow you to have ripe, fresh tomatoes right into late October.
One year, here on our property, 15 min inland from Chester, we had a very early frost. September 4th if I recall. Only a handful of tomatoes were ripe at that point and there were too many plants to cover. So we did what commercial fruit and vegetable growers do..... we sprayed them with water from the garden hose before we went to bed. Then I got up early and sprayed them at 5am, 6am and 7 am. We lost some zucchini plants but the tomatoes were fine! There was not another frost for 3 more weeks!
Once you are successful at growing tomatoes, you have to decide what to do with them. If you exercise restraint and only plant 3 plants per person in your household, then you have a nice supply for fresh eating during late summer and early fall. If you decide that you need to plant more than that, you will need to preserve them.

My husband and I have had success with drying tomato slices in a dehydrator. Once dry, they take up a fraction of the space. We store them in sandwich bags and place them in the freezer. (freezer because if you leave behind even a little bit of moisture, they will mold and rot stored at room temperature)
Tomatoes can be preserved in jars but it is a lot of prep work and they require processing for 35 minutes. We just drop large tomatoes in boiling water to get the skins off and then freeze them whole or turn them into sauce and freeze them that way. Cherry tomatoes are just washed and then frozen whole. Cherry tomatoes are the best for freezing because they require the smallest amount of work and then they can be easily dropped into soups and stews or roasted with garlic and poured over pasta. If you can ever get your hands on seeds for the Ildi tomato, a small, sweet, low acid yellow grape tomato, you will be well pleased! It is a reliable, prolific producer that should be in every home garden.
I hope this information will help you with your own tomato garden. Always be wary of the tomato trap.... don't plant too many. Do as I say, not as I do.... Happy Tomato Gardening!