published Saturday, May 5th, 2012

Five Tips for growing better tomatoes

  • photo
    Summer's produce bounty includes many varieties of tomatoes in a vast array of sizes, shapes and colors. Clockwise from top are: persimmon, brandywine, ivory pear, purple cherokee and juliette.
    Photo by McClatchey Tribune /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Brandywine, Sungold, Stupice, Cherokee Purple. Is there anything quite like a fresh summer tomato?

Now is the time to grow these fruits-often-disguised-as-vegetables, said Thomas O'Neal, owner of Signal Mountain Farms.

O'Neal said they grow 60 varieties of tomatoes, including heirlooms, hybrids and four types of cherry tomatoes.

"One of our favorites is Brandywine," he said.

With so many options, he said different types of tomatoes take a bit of variety in care.

O'Neal said disease-resistant hybrids are easiest to grow.

"There are two types of tomatoes," he said, "determinate and indeterminate."

He explained that a determinate tomato produces all its fruit at once, while an indeterminate produces fruit throughout the growing season. Unless it is necessary to have many tomatoes at once for a commercial harvest, O'Neal strongly recommends purchasing indeterminate tomato plants.

"Any indeterminate tomato variety is going to grow real tall, so you need to have tall stakes," he said.

He also said it is important to avoid planting tomatoes in a place where the soil is acidic, but if it is, add lime to make the soil more alkaline.

"They don't like a lot of acid," he said.

Taking care to keep the plants from getting too wet or dirty is also essential, O'Neal said, and one way to do this is to place straw or composted leaf mulch at the base of the plants after putting them into the ground.

According to the West Virginia University Extension service website, tomatoes vary in their growing time, but tend to take an average of about 75 days.

5 tips

1. Plant tomatoes deep, past the first leaves. Doing this makes the plant stronger, O'Neal said.

2. Don't buy plants with blooms already on them, he said. The plants should be using their energy to grow right now, not flower yet. Check plant tag for disease resistance.

3. Before planting, wet the soil first. After planting, put down a mulch. This helps rain from splashing up and getting the plants dirty and wet. O'Neal said not to use a wood chip mulch.

4. Water the ground. Do not water the plant, or it will get disease.

5. Provide support with stakes, for heirloom and cherry tomatoes.

about Holly Leber ...

Holly Leber is a reporter and columnist for the Life section. She has worked at the Times Free Press since March 2008. Holly covers “everything but the kitchen sink" when it comes to features: the arts, young adults, classical music, art, fitness, home, gardening and food. She writes the popular and sometimes-controversial column Love and Other Indoor Sports. Holly calls both New York City and Saratoga Springs, NY home. She earned a bachelor of arts ...

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