Growing tomatoes is the gateway to home gardening. How many of you have memories of growing and tasting freshly picked homegrown tomatoes? Everyone loves the idea of harvesting fresh tomatoes to serve during summer meals—I mean nothing beats a homegrown BLT. And compared to the flavorless ‘maters sold at grocery stores, homegrown tomatoes are a well-deserved treat.
America’s most popular “fruit” is a summer favorite, but can pose some growing challenges especially for those of us living in the heat and humidity of the south. In central North Carolina we have a really long growing season—almost too long to be one consecutive season for tomatoes. Most types of tomato plants will not flourish the entire duration of our frost-free period of April to November. Instead, consider growing two crops: one planted in April and another planted in July. This strategy will extend your harvest season while keeping your tomato plants looking bountiful and fresh. And if you didn’t plant tomatoes in the spring, you still have time to add these to your garden.
How to Extend Tomato Growing Season
It is really easy. Just pick up a few new plants from your garden center or sow seed in July. Grow the tomatoes in large pots or plant in your garden 2 to 3 weeks after germination. As this crop begins to grow you will be busy harvesting from your spring planted varieties. When your spring planted tomatoes begin to fade, simply cut the tired vines down. If they are anything like mine they have grown leggy and are under performing. The great news is your fall crop will just start hitting its stride, producing fruit as the days shorten and get cooler through October.
My friend Leslie Halleck of Dallas, Texas, first introduced this method to me. She explained how the summers in Dallas are just too hot for tomatoes that thrive in more temperate climates with cooler nights and less humidity. It occurred to me that though tomatoes will live through the summer in the Triangle, their performance is less than ideal as the dog days round the corner.
Tomatoes have a pretty interesting history. They are native to high altitude regions of South America through the Andes mountain range. Over thousands of years people have been breeding for bigger fruit, healthier plants and higher yields from what was originally considered three species. These selections made their way around the world and tomatoes dominate as one of the most consumed fruit. Americans lead the way as the top consumers of tomatoes in the world.
Of course there are a few things that can make growing tomatoes confusing. Whether you grow your tomatoes in the spring or start/add a second crop in summer, here are tips on variety selection and long-term cultural needs.
Types of Tomato Plants
There are a ton of tomatoes to choose from, which makes the first step in growing very confusing. First you have to decide on what size of tomato: both plant size and fruit size. The plants and fruit are distinguished in three categories.
For plants you have determinate, semi determinate and indeterminate growing habits. Determinate varieties have a tighter form and are often called “bush tomatoes.” Generally, these are referred to as “hybrids.” They will set flowers and fruit all at once, which is a great characteristic if you are making large batches of sauce or canning the fruit. However, determinate varieties will have limited yields over the course of the summer.
Semi determinate varieties will continue to grow, flower and fruit over the months of the warm season, but do not grow as tall compared to indeterminate varieties that can often reach 15 feet or more. Remember, tomatoes naturally grow as vines (think “vine ripened”) so while a determinate or patio variety fits into a traditional tomato cage perfectly, indeterminate varieties will need a much more robust stake to support the weight of the vines and the fruit. I highly recommend using cattle fence panels to construct sturdy and reusable frames to support the long-term growth habits of the indeterminate selections.
From a fruit standpoint, you have slicers, paste and cherry/grapes to choose from. Slicers have large roundish fruit that can range in size, color and flavor. They tend to be very juicy and have a limited storage capacity.
Paste varieties, like Roma, are a long, slender fruit that typically grow in bunches. They have a meaty texture with less water, making them ideal candidates for cooking and canning.
And finally the cherry or grape varieties have small fruit and are the highest yielding. Cherry tomatoes are almost notorious for their long lasting fruit set and the plants tend to be very large and quite forgiving. They also will continue to flower and set fruit even when temperatures are over 95 degrees, one of the limiting factors for slicers and paste varieties when grown in very hot climates.
Brie Arthur is an author, horticulturist and international speaker living in Fuquay-Varina, NC. She has been dubbed a revolutionary for her leadership in the suburban foodscape movement. For more information, visit BrieGrows.com or email [email protected]