Tomatoes for the Home Gardener

Robert J. Souvestre  |  3/16/2010 1:10:37 AM

Baskets of vine ripened tomatoes are a common sight at the Red Stick Farmers Market.

A recent offering at the Red Stick Farmers Market of red cherry and yellow grape tomatoes.

LSU AgCenter Research Associate, Wanda Ellis, harvests vine ripened greenhouse grown hydroponic tomatoes for sale at Burden Center.

Homeowners and gardeners have become more aware of the nutritional value of food in their diet. Eating healthy food and living a healthy life style have become important goals. Nutritionists and the entire medical community recommend eating more fruits and vegetables for improved health. Tomatoes, the most popularly grown vegetable by home gardeners, will provide abundant vitamins and minerals. A fresh, raw tomato contains an exceptional amount of Vitamin A. In addition, Vitamin C, potassium, calcium and lycopene are available. Lycopene contributes to preventing certain types of cancers including prostate cancer. To offer the best, most nutritious food, grow your own tomatoes and eat them fresh from your garden.

A milestone in the history of the tomato occurred in 1949 when W. Atlee Burpee introduced the first F1 Hybrid tomato, ‘Big Boy,’ reports the National Garden Bureau.

It was an instant success and triggered an explosion of hybrids for home gardeners and commercial growers. The most significant breeding accomplishments have been the multiple disease tolerances bred into tomatoes. All modern hybrid tomatoes have various disease resistance, but not the heirloom varieties.

There are basically two types of plant growth for tomatoes. They are determinate and indeterminate. Indeterminate growth means varieties grow, blossom and produce tomatoes throughout the growing season. The continuous growth produces many main stems all capable of flowering and producing fruit. Because of the abundant lush growth, pruning indeterminate plants is highly recommended. It is necessary to provide support for these vining plants to keep the tomatoes from touching the soil. The best combination of pruning and staking is to remove all but two growing stems.

Indeterminate plants may be pruned to harvest larger tomatoes. Without pruning, plants produce smaller tomatoes but more of them. To prune, pinch out suckers. These are shoots that develop in the "U" between the main stem and a branch. Pinch out these shoots. This is best done by hand, pinching the shoots between fingers.

Determinate tomato plants are relatively compact and produce a full bushy plant. These plants will reach a predetermined height or number of fruit clusters and not grow beyond it. The plants flower, set fruit and ripen in a short time so that the main harvest is concentrated into a few weeks. This may be ideal for gardeners who wish to can or preserve the fresh tomato harvest.

There is a third type called semi-determinate which is a bushy plant but will set and ripen fruit over a longer period of time than a normal determinate. ‘Celebrity’ is a semi-determinate and an All America Selection Winner. Not only does it have high disease tolerance it has exceptional flavor. The best way to grow determinate or semi-determinate plants is to not prune and place a cage around the tomato while still quite small. The plant grows filling the cage.

“Tomatoes are heavy nitrogen feeders. As the plants begin to grow, look for signs of nitrogen deficiency – generally a yellowing of lower leaves. Sidedress with a nitrogen fertilizer each week once the first flowers and fruit have set,” says Kathryn Fontenot, horticulturist with the LSU AgCenter.

Gardeners living in urban environments can grow tomatoes in tubs or large patio containers. For best results select a determinate or compact bush plant habit for container culture. Cherry tomatoes can be grown in containers too. The container needs to be deep, at least a foot, with drainage holes on the bottom. Use a sterile growing media. Keep the plants evenly watered. Allow the plants to receive as much direct sunlight as possible. Feed plants using a water soluble fertilizer. Apply as directed on the label but remember, nutrients tend to leach out of the pots faster than garden soil. Water often during hot weather possibly 3 or 4 times weekly as needed.

A sampling of tomato varieties sold in the Baton Rouge area are:

INDETERMINATE: Super Fantastic, Supersteak, Sun Sugar, Sweet 100, Big Boy, Big Beef, San Marco, Early Girl, Goliath, Jelly Bean, Jet Star, Juliet, St. Nick, Parks Whopper and Creole;

DETERMINATE: Amelia, Bella Rosa, Celebrity, Cherry Grande, Floramerica, Spitfire and the Mountain series – Mountain Delight, Mountain Fresh, Mountain Belle and Mountain Spring; Tumbler, Sun Master, Viva Italia, BHN 640, BHN 669, Celebrity Supreme, Florida 91, Florida 7514, Better Bush, Patio, Bush Goliath, Better Bush and Roma;

HEIRLOOM: Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, German Johnson., Mortgage Lifter, Homestead, Marglobe and Beefsteak.

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