Tomatoes: My favorite garden fruit

Tomatoes: My favorite garden fruit

I have vivid childhood memories of eating freshly picked, hot from the sun, juicy, drip-down-your-chin tomatoes.

The challenge today is deciding which of the more than 4,000 varieties you want to plant. I always have to try several.

Of the cherry variety, I have actually opted for a grape tomato called Navidad. Like cherry tomatoes, they are small, packed with flavor and grow better than most weeds.

Then I have a few paste or plum tomato plants, envisioning all the wonderful homemade spaghetti sauce I will make.

And who doesn't like BLTs? I have to have one tomato big enough to cover a slice of bread, so at least one beefsteak variety goes in.

Then with names like Boxcar Willie, Brandywine, Aunt Ruby's German Green and Jubilee, who can resist planting an heirloom tomato? These tomatoes pack big flavor, and some ripen into beautiful golds, greens and purples.

Dwarf tomato plants, patio and midget varieties have a short life cycle, but have the advantage of fitting into small containers and hanging baskets.

In addition to these varieties, there are determinate tomato plants. These tomatoes generally are commercially grown because they ripen early in the season, top off at a specific height and yield fruit all at once.

Indeterminate tomato plants are the home gardener variety. Typically they will grow and produce fruit all summer long until killed off by frost or disease.

Hybrid plants versus heirloom plants are bred to resist diseases. The initials VFNT after the variety name on the tag stand for Verticullium wilt, fusarium wilt, Nematodes and Tobacco mosaic virus.

Tomatoes are surprisingly easy to grow. Pick a sunny location. At least 8 hours of sun per day. Prepare the soil.

Tomatoes like good garden loam with organic matter. Too much fertilizer and you end up with huge plants and no fruit.

I like to use black plastic mulch. This heats the soil in the spring. Then just leave it, the plant itself will shade the mulch when the days turn hot.

This also has the advantage of keeping the fruit off the soil, relatively insect and rot free.

I have not had much luck with tomato cages. Inevitably my plants grow so heavy that they topple the cage and make harvesting difficult.

Because of our desert climate, our night-time temperatures below 55F and daytime temperatures over 95F, it is common to encounter problems such as misshapen fruit and blossom drop. Cycles of wet and dry may cause blossom-end rot on set fruit.

Drip irrigation can help maintain even soil moisture.

Tomatoes can attract many pests. To deter them, trim the side leaves to improve aeration, keep fruit and leaves picked up under plants.

If you see insects, there are a variety of products available from row covers to insecticides. Also you can hand pick insects and sometimes simply hose spraying can take care of the problem.

Do you have many green tomatoes at the end of the season? One tip I picked up at the master gardener class was how to identify which tomatoes will ripen to full flavor.

Examine the bottom and if you can see the faint outline of the tomato segments, it will ripen into a tasty tomato. To help ripen, place in a paper bag with a ripe apple or banana.

oan Heihn of Hermiston is a gardening enthusiast and OSU/Umatilla County Master Gardener. Readers may e-mail her at joanieh@eotnet.net.

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