I have been known to draw attention to those around me, the date and time in which I eat my last garden tomato of the year. This usually happens in late October or, if I’m lucky, early November. When this moment occurs each fall, the day becomes overcast. It is at this time I may notice the skies have begun to get darker earlier, and leaves are dropping. Of course, these seasonal changes have happened long before late October, but I am not as stirred by the change. The last bite of garden tomato makes everything that signals the end of the growing season more pronounced. About a week after the first frost, my tomato cages will be ripped from the skeletons of my tomato plants as their August vibrance becomes a fond far off memory. Some tomato years are better than others – be it weather or disease that effects your plants – tomato season is always a wild ride.
Once May rolls around, all thoughts turn back to tomato – and the tough choices I must make. With thousands of tomato varieties, how does one choose the right plant for their garden? Do I grow an heirloom or hybrid, and what is the difference? The difference between a hybrid or heirloom variety is this: An heirloom tomato is grown from a seed that has been saved and passed down for generations. The plants are pollinated by nature and display a wide variety of colors, shapes, sizes, some interesting tastes, and will produce the same kind of fruit as their parents. Their fruits are often imperfect, unique and adored by many. These tomatoes have been “un-fooled around with” and are very attractive to both gardeners and consumers. That being said, heirlooms are less disease resistant, have a shorter shelf life and can be less productive than their hybrid cousins.
Hybrid tomatoes, while possibly not as interesting in color, shape and history, have their own advantages. Hybrids come from two different parents that have been cross bred to produce a tomato with desired characteristics such as disease resistance, shelf life, shape and productivity.
Both kinds of tomatoes have merit. Everyone has their own passionate opinions on the best tomatoes to grow, and there are many top 10 lists out there. After reviewing many of the lists, these tomatoes were the 10 most popular:
Better Boy Hybrid
Big Beef Hybrid
Bush Early Girl Hybrid
Super sweet 100 Hybrid
Independence Day Hybrid
Cherokee Purple Heirloom
Black Krim Heirloom
Amish Paste Heirloom
I’ve tried growing many different kinds of tomatoes, had failures and successes, latched on to some and let others go, but each year I try at least one new plant. So, here’s a rundown of the heirlooms and hybrids you will find in my garden and some tomato qualities that you may be looking for also:
Brandywine Pink (Heirloom) – just awesome. I’m tickled when one slice extends beyond my toast, but plants only yield about 6 to 8 fruits and succumb to disease early.
Beefsteak – a classic summer tomato, the kind you have dreams about in winter. Large fruits with great flavor. Perfect for a BLT.
Lemon Boy Hybrid VFNASt – my best producing plant, with superb disease resistance. I love the color, good tasting and less acid.
Celebrity (F1) – good disease resistance, nice all-around slicing tomato with uniform size and shape; prolific.
Supersweet 100 (F1) – abundance of sweet cherries that last well into the fall.
Sungold(F1) – like candy, you can’t stop eating them. Extremely prolific.
Amish Paste (Heirloom) – a classic canning tomato similar to Roma, but sweeter. These short plants make a tasty sauce for canning.
Jubilee (Heirloom) – golden orange, acid free and new to my garden this year.
To have a successful tomato season, here are a few tips to get you off to a good start:
- Plant when there is no danger of frost. Early to mid-May is generally a good time.
- Tomatoes should be planted in nutrient rich soil – tomatoes love compost. If you need to supplement the soil, an organic tomato or vegetable fertilizer easily found at your local home and garden center will do. (See resource below for soil testing)
- Make sure your plants have at least eight hours of sunlight – tomatoes love the sun.
- Mulch about 1-2 inches deep around the base of your plants.
- Support them with good quality, strong cages. The plants make look small now, but they will grow and possibly spill over the top of the cage.
- Water fairly often in the beginning and through hot periods and spells of drought.
Watch out for disease
Compliments of Mikaela Boley from the University of Maryland Extension office, here are some of the most common tomato diseases/issues in this area:
#1 Blossom End Rot can be hard to diagnose as it looks like a disease but is actually caused by lack of calcium in the soil, or the plants inability to uptake calcium due to pH levels in the soil.
What it looks like: the bottom half of the tomato (where the blossom was) looks black and rotten.
How to deal with it: test your soil for calcium levels and pH. If it is lacking in calcium or the pH is low, the soil can be amended by adding calcitic or dolomitic lime which is easily found at your local garden center. (see below for soil testing information)
#2 Tomato Hornworms are very large caterpillars with a hornlike spike. They cause defoliation of a tomato plant.
What it looks like: They often go unnoticed until you see skeletonized branches on the plant. These critters enjoy the tender leaves but leave behind the stalks.
How to deal with it: The hornworms may be picked off by hand and placed in soapy water. If you own chickens – they make a nice snack for them. If you notice white eggs protruding out of the body, the hornworm can be left as it has been infested by the parasitic wasp and will soon die.
#3 Leaf Spots can be caused by fungus and / or bacteria.
What it looks like: Small brown spots develop on the leaves, usually on the bottom sections of the plant. It is caused by rainwater splashing on the dirt and bacteria landing on the leaves. If more than 1/3 of the canopy becomes infected (called flagging) then it may be a sign of early or late blight.
How to deal with it: Mulching around your tomato plants can reduce soil bacteria and spores from being splashed up onto the leaves. You can also remove infected leaves and thin out non-producing sections of the foliage to allow for more air flow.
#4 Stink bugs can cause aesthetic damage to the fruit.
What it looks like: Stippling-like marks and pinpricks of discoloration are seen on the skin of the fruit. Also, when the fruit is cut open a white ridge of flesh under the skin is a sign stink bugs have been at work.
How to deal with it: Stink bugs can be and removed and placed in a bucket of soapy water. Sections of tainted fruit can be cut out with a knife before eating the tomato.
I can carefully choose my plants, plant them well in rich soil, stake them, mulch them, and play music for them but tomato season always has the potential to be de-railed. The Farmers Almanac is calling for a warmer than average May. Could that mean too much heat too soon or could it be just enough to give my plants a great start? The Almanac is also calling for a very wet July. Could that mean tropical storm, or could it be just enough to keep me from having to water them? It’s hard to predict what will happen this summer but I do have a forecast that is about as accurate as any weatherman. My tomato season forecast is: sunny and hot with great potential for size and flavor with a possibility of hurricane and disease causing intermittent drama, definite smiles and some disappointment. It’s the same every year; are you ready?
A Word About Tomato Sandwiches
My tastebuds have never found any comparison to the sublime tang of a thick slice of summer tomato dusted with salt and pepper, laying on top of fresh mayo, wedged between two slices of bread. I could eat one every day during tomato season and every time I took a bite, my reaction would be the same… a soft groan and a shake of my head followed by, “This is good stuff.” This kind of sandwich could never be made with anything other than a homegrown tomato – there are no substitutions. The pleasure takes many forms, as many variations exist:
BT – Bacon, Tomato
BTR – Bacon, Tomato, Ranch
BLT – Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato
BC – Bacon Cheese
TLC – Tomato Lettuce Cheese
TLCA – Tomato, Lettuce, Cheese, Avocado
BLTCAR – Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato, Cheese, Avocado, Ranch
Really, the choices are endless to experiment with all summer long. But if you are a purist like me, your first sandwich of the season will be ripe garden tomato, mayo, salt and pepper between two slices of bread. Amen!
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.
Link for Soil Testing
I discovered a neat little website called www.tomatodirt.com.