This is the sixth in a twelve part series for new gardeners. If you have never planted vegetables before but always wanted to, this is the series for you. Robin, who writes the blog Vegetable Matter, and I will post on the first of every month. Robin lives in Houston and I live in Boston. We will be posting about what to do in the garden that month and giving advice. So if you have always wanted that vegetable garden, but didn’t know where to start, you have no excuse. Get growing!
May brings warmer weather to New England. Here in the Boston area our temperature averages are in the 60s at the start of the month and rise to the 70s by the end of the month. Though some in southern New England have already seen their last frost for the year, usually the warm season crops aren't planted until May 15th, or May 31st in more northern areas. A good rule of thumb is to plant warm weather crops two weeks after your average last frost date, as these plants will die if they see a frost. A list of these include: tomatoes, peppers, basil, tomatillo, beans, cucumbers and squash. Some warm weather crops are more finicky. If your season is long enough it would be prudent to wait 4 weeks after your last frost for melons and eggplant. They much prefer the warmer nights of summer to the cool nights of spring.
Tomatoes are the queen of the vegetable crop. People who grow nothing else will plant tomatoes. The taste of a homegrown tomato does not even taste like the same species as the tomatoes that you buy in the grocery store. In New England tomatoes are not the easiest of crops to grow. Our weather tends to be cooler then they like and the humidity and rain encourage a host of diseases. But it is worth the effort.
What Tomatoes to Grow
Between the more disease resistant hybrids (a hybrid is a cross between two tomatoes that you can buy commercially, you can't save seed from hybrids) and the resurgence in popularity of old fashioned heirlooms (that breed true so you can save seed from one year to the next) there is a lot of choices in tomatoes. If you haven't already grown them from seed where the choices seem almost infinite, there is probably a garden center near you that grows many different varieties. One near me grows around 30 each year.
Tomatoes come in several generalized forms. The cherry tomato is good for salads and tends to be easier to grow than the larger tomatoes. I recommend Sun Gold which is a hybrid gold tomato. It is particularly good for our area as it is cold tolerant. It is early. Typically it is the first tomato in my garden to get ripe and the last one in the fall to still be standing. It is very disease tolerant, not because it has innate resistance, but because it grows so fast it seem to out grow a lot of the standard diseases. The best part about this little gem though is its taste. It frequently wins taste tests. Another favorite of mine is Black Cherry and Chocolate Cherry. They are two black tomatoes - well they are really brown with red and green hints, but they are called black tomatoes. Black tomatoes have a flavor all their own. If you have never tried one before, you are missing out.
A very popular form of tomato for cooks and canners is the paste tomato. This kind of tomato has a lower water content, so it will cook down into a thick sauce faster than other types. Though I don't currently have a favorite, often people will like San Marzano, Opalka, and Amish Paste.
The top of the heap in tomatoes is the slicer. Everyone has their own favorite. Some large slicers that are popular like Brandywine, Pineapple, and Cherokee Purple take a long time to ripen. They can be done successfully here in the northeast, but in bad years they can also be a failure. My suggestion is to plant some shorter season plants (70 days or less to maturity) in addition to the longer season ones to hedge your bets. Disease resistant hybrids like Celebrity can also be useful, though I'm more fond of the open pollinated plants because I like to save seed from year to year. Currently my favorite early slicer is Market Miracle which did well in last year's bad weather. It is a Russian heirloom. Many of the Russian tomatoes do well in colder climates. (Note: there seem to be more than one kind of Market Miracle tomatoes. Mine are the 6-8oz variety not the 2-3 oz.)
Tomatoes not only have different sizes of tomatoes, but there are different sizes of plants and growth habits. Determinate tomatoes don't get very large compared to indeterminate ones. Determinate tomatoes branch out and at the end of the vine they set a terminal bud. As soon as the plant sets fruit they quit growing and put their effort into ripening those tomatoes. Pruning determinate tomatoes will result in low fruit set since the fruit itself is set at the end of the vine. There is also a form of this that is called semi-determinate. These will form terminal buds, but the plant will keep on sending out side branches, so fruit keeps getting set. Usually for a home gardener, you want to get fruit over a long period of time. If you do you can plant varieties that become ripe at different times. Many people like the short manageable size of determinates. They tend to only get 3-4 feet high. Or if you like to can your tomatoes, having all your fruit becoming ripe at the same time is a bonus as it is easier to process everything at once.
Indeterminate tomatoes do not have a set size. If they have good growing conditions they will continue to grow forever. And they can produce a lot of fruit. Fruit is set off of the stem and not at the end so the vines keep growing. Tomatoes are actually a perennial in the right climate (though diseases shorten their life span). Up north they will be taken out by frost, but even here I have seen vines grow to nine feet tall. Be prepared to support them to about six feet tall. I have had tomato cages in the past that are four feet tall and they easily out grow them. You can chop off the tops or just let them flop out of the top if your cages or stakes are too short.
Tomato transplants are not strong enough to go out into the garden without hardening them off first. Make sure they have a good week of slowly letting them get used to the weather. They can get sunburnt easily if they were grown under fluorescent lights. I often let my home grown transplants see the sun on any good day during April and May. It keeps them sturdy and the hardening off process is shorter.
I like to give my tomatoes a lot of tender loving care before they are even planted. I double dig the tomato bed, which is a lot of work, but gives the roots plenty of room to grow. Right before planting I dig a deep wide hole maybe 18" deep and add 1c organic 5-3-3 fertilizer, 1c bonemeal, and one cup powdered eggshells (eggshells ground in a food processor that I've been saving all year for this). I mix it well into the hole. Then add some more of the dirt and mix again. I'm trying to encourage the roots to go down more.
Then I cut off all the lower leaves to the tomato plant and plant it so just the top leaves are showing. The tomato will form roots all along the stem. Not all plants can do this, in fact many would die if you did, but tomatoes do well if they are planted deep.
Tomato plants should be planted somewhere between 1' and 3' apart depending on what kind of tomatoes you grow and how you train your plants. Some people let their plants sprawl on the ground (which needs lots of space), but that promotes disease and the fruit often rot. Some people like to stake their plants and train the plants up the stake as they grow (requires less space). I tend to like cages. I find I get more fruit when I cage and let the plant grow mostly to its own designs. The fruit tends to be later than staked tomatoes, but it has larger harvests.
The first problem you could encounter with tomatoes is the cut worm. It loves to chop the newly planted tomato down. Most people use a cutworm collar. Which is just a collar a couple of inches from the stem that goes all the way around. It has to go two inches into the soil and stick up a couple of inches. I've seen them made from old cans, cardboard and newspaper. It doesn't provide 100% protection because I have seen cutworms go down three inches, but two inches is usually enough. I don't protect my seedlings this way. I use old hosta flower stems from the previous year. The stems are about 1/8" thick. I cut off two four inch sections of the old flower stem which is brown and tough. I push them into the ground, one on each side of the stem and very close. Cutworms wrap themselves around the stem as they chew and when they wrap around the stems with the flower stems, they can't chew through.
Other insect problems is the tomato horn worm. It blends into the foliage surprisingly well for how huge it is. It can defoliate a small plant quickly, but will just damage big ones a bit. If you see one remove it. You usually find it by the damage it does and not by seeing the caterpillars first. Sometimes you will find white cocoons on the caterpillar. If you do leave it, those are parasitic wasp cocoons and you want to encourage them. Trust me that caterpillar will be doing no more damage.
There are a lot of other insect pests like flee beetles (puts holes in the leaves, but usually doesn't do a lot of damage unless the plants are seedlings), aphids and stinkbugs (sucks the juices from the leaves and can damage the fruit), but most of them are not too bothersome. I handpick any nasty bugs that I see. Don't assume an insect is bad because it is on the plant. Lady bug larvae looks very nasty, but they eat aphids.
Diseases are where your main problems will be, at least if you live in New England. We have a whole host of diseases that will spot up the leaves and slowly kill the plant. Many of them are hard to tell from one another. The basic care is to remove the diseased branch and dispose of it when you find it. To make disease less likely you can stake your plants instead of caging them. This lets the air flow through better. If you do cage, you can thin out the branches in the interior of caged plants.
One of the most important practices is crop rotation. Some of our diseases can over winter here and they stay in the soil. Rotating the crops in a three year cycle can help keep the diseases down. It won't get rid of them, but can help. The plants get a lot of diseases from the splash up of the spores from the soil. If you mulch your plants well, the spores are less likely to make it onto your plants. Black plastic as a mulch can be used when you plant, but if you are mulching with organic material, like hay, you may want to wait a while until the ground is very warm. Our soil in May is not all that warm yet and tomatoes love the heat.
If you are still having disease issues, you can spray. I don't like to put anything toxic on my plants. I used a mixture of aspirin and worm casting tea. I take 1/2c of worm castings and soak it in water for a day. I strain the mixture into my gallon sprayer. Then I add 3/4 of an aspirin tablet dissolved in water and fill the sprayer to the top. I coat the tops and bottoms of all the leaves. Most people know the benefits of worm tea. It is a foliar feed and it has microorganisms that fight off diseases in the garden. Fewer have heard of using aspirin to help their garden. Aspirin works because it turns on the plant's own disease fighting mechanisms. I usually spray this every other week. It helps better before the plants are infected, but will still help after the plants is sick.
One condition that is very common in tomatoes, especially the larger ones, is blossom end rot (BER). As you might guess from its name, the tomato starts to rot from the bottom. This is not a fungal disease, but it is a nutrient deficiency. The plant is lacking calcium. Most often this is caused by irregular watering. Either not enough or too much water can make it hard for the plant to take up calcium. You can't prevent mother nature from sending the rain, especially in my area, but you can improve your chances of not getting BER. When I plant, I add bone meal and powdered eggshells to the hole. Both provide a large amount of calcium. If you are still getting BER, you can make eggshell tea and water your plants with it. Just throw some crushed shells into some water and let it steep for a few days then water with it every week. I warn you. It smells disgusting, so leave a lid on it and keep it outside. Each week make up a new batch.
Tomatoes really are the stars of the garden. Both Robin and I felt compelled to write about them. Though we covered the same topic, we both said different things and you might want to read her February post for her take on tomatoes too.
Other post in the seriesDetermining your growing zone and planting peas (Vegetable Matter - December)
Planning a Garden (Daphne's Dandelions - December)
Growing Lettuce (Vegetable Matter - January)
Starting transplants indoors (Daphne's Dandelions - January)
Growing tomatoes (Vegetable Matter - February)
Compost (Daphne's Dandelions - February)
Snap Beans (Vegetable Matter - March)
Peas and Spinach (Daphne's Dandelions - March)
Eggplant (Vegetable Matter - April)
Brassicas (Broccoli, Cabbage, Asian vegetables) (Daphne's Dandelions - April)
Edamame (Vegetable Matter - May)
Tomatoes (Daphne's Dandelions - May)