One of the most common, popular, and easy-to-grow vegetables available to gardeners today is the tomato. These fruit plants are available in literally hundreds of varieties, and the type that you plant can be determined by a number of things, including how you want to use them, your climate, available space, and personal preference. Each variety can be categorized in one of two ways. Determinate tomato plants eventually reach a height at which they stop growing. Indeterminate plants continue to grow for the duration of the season.
Tomatoes are rich in antioxidants and full of vitamin C, calcium, and iron. They also possess vitamins A and B as well as phosphorus, potassium, and sulfur. The nutrients in these fruits can help with eye disorders and night-blindness, as well as digestion irregularities.
Tomatoes do well in slightly acidic to neutral soil, ranging anywhere from 5.5 to 7.5 on the pH scale. Choose a spot with adequate sunlight—at least four to five hours of sunlight, but ideally your plants should have eight hours of direct sunlight. Sift through the soil, removing any sticks, rocks, or other debris, and fertilize your soil with compost or organic compound fertilizer.
For most climates, tomato plants will need to be started indoors about six to eight weeks prior to the last frost of late spring. Sew your seeds about one-quarter inch deep and one inch apart in a well-drained planter, pot, or flat. The warmer the soil temperature, the sooner the seeds will germinate. Choose a sunny and warm window for your seedlings to grow. Light is absolutely essential to strong tomato plant seedlings. To increase the quality of your plants, feed your seedlings compost once a week.
Once your seedlings sprout their true leaves, transplant them into individual containers or pots, covering the stems deeper than they were previously. Ensure adequate drainage, lots of light, and regular watering.
When the risk of frost as been eliminated, tomato seedlings can be transplanted outside. They first need to be hardened off, preparing them for the transition between inside and outdoors. Begin seven to ten days prior to transplanting, and set your plants outside in a shady spot for three to four hours a day. Increase the outside exposure by one to two hours every day, and by day three, transition the plants from morning sun to afternoon shade. By the end of the week, your seedlings should be ready for outdoor transplant.
To increase the plants’ health and levels of magnesium, dig holes for the seedlings larger than necessary. Layer inches of compost and then cover with Epsom salt. Place the plant as deep as the bottom layer of leaves on the stem, and fill in the whole well with topsoil or compost and compact the soil, watering well. Although it may seem strange, burying the bottom of the stem like this actually encourages stronger root growth. Finally, you will want to add stakes, cages or trellises to contain your plants. (It is better to do it now while they are small.)
Tomatoes don’t attract extra attention from pests; however, there are a few common garden pests that disturb these plants. The tomato hornworm is a green caterpillar adorned with white stripes. It is both easily spotted and easily identified. To eliminate these pests, simply pick them from your plants and destroy them. Other common garden pests can affect tomato plants, including aphids, cutworms, and flea beetles. Ladybugs can help control aphid populations in your yard and garden.
Diseases among these plants differ between areas and climates. Check with your local county extension office for information on any prevalent diseases you may encounter over the growing season and how to treat your plants.
Once the tomatoes begin ripening, check your plants daily to ensure proper harvest time. You can remove the fruits by cutting or gently twisting the stem from the plant. These plants can withstand very light frost, but fruits should be harvested immediately once the cold weather arrives, including those fruits that are still green and not yet ripe.
Place green tomatoes in a warm, dry, and dark area to ripen. The ripened fruits can last several weeks when refrigerated; however, they tend to lose some of their taste when stored in a cold location. For optimum taste, leave them on the kitchen counter and enjoy them quickly. Enjoy your tomatoes raw or cooked; they can be dried or canned for a longer storage life, as well.