Tomato Utopia

At my first farming class in 2009, we discussed which crops a farmer should consider growing. To my surprise, the soil, light, and climate were not the first considerations. “Consider growing what you like to eat, and you will be inspired to figure out how to grow it,” we were told. For me, the answer was easy: the tomato. One of my fondest childhood memories is wading shin-deep in our tomato patch and eating fresh-picked, sun-kissed tomatoes. The memory of that tangy, sweet flavor will inspire me for a lifetime.

Inspiration is a start, but to farm tomatoes successfully in Ohio, you’ll need to add a good dose of sweat, labor, and practice. For the home gardener, growing the perfect tomato can be an adventure. And even if not perfect, the harvests will be far superior to any tomato you will find in a grocery store.

To grow tomatoes, you need at least four hours of full sun (preferably six hours or more), garden soil or potting mix enriched with compost, a dependable tomato variety, warm temperatures, and a few maintenance skills. Mid-March is the time to start tomato seeds indoors in Ohio. They germinate easily in moist potting mix, but keeping them healthy until planting time in late May requires some skill. Given the impending summer season, it’s best to purchase plants ready for the garden (which is also an ideal choice for beginners).

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The amount of sunlight will dictate the best area to grow your tomatoes. That location might be a planter on a terrace or a traditional garden bed. In a garden, space plants about two feet apart within a row, with adjacent rows at least four feet apart. When planting a tomato seedling, plant it deeper than the soil level in the pot. Unlike most plants, tomatoes will develop additional roots along the stem. A healthy plant grown in a tomato cage will produce from 12 to 20 pounds of tomatoes in a summer. Staking tomatoes works well, too, but the yields will be less with more labor.

The Internet offers myriad customer reviews about tomato varieties. For a solid reference, I suggest the All-America Selections website: All-AmericaSelections.org/Product-Category/Edibles-Vegetables/, which lists vegetable awards by variety. All selections have been judged for quality, dependability, and disease resistance. Especially if you want to grow organic tomatoes, look for varieties with genetic resistance to disease. In catalogs, the resistance codes are often listed after the cultivar names, like the graduate degrees of an esteemed scholar. For example, ‘Kakao’ (F1) (HR,F,TOMV) is a black tomato with high resistance to Fusarium wilt and Tobacco Mosaic Virus.

Larger tomatoes are best grown in a garden, while bite-sized tomatoes can be grown in pots, staked or a trellised. The following varieties are my favorites.

Kakao: This is a superb variety and preferred by local chefs. It is the Cabernet of tomatoes, with a plummy, savory, salty tomato-paste tang. It is an F1 hybrid, so the seeds will not produce the same quality tomato if you try to harvest seeds for the next season.

Midnight Snack: These bite-sized, indigo tomatoes are the best of the black tomatoes. As with all purple tomatoes, it tastes of plum and berry with pleasant tannins. But it also packs a strong, sweet tomato punch due to the intense red-colored blossom end.

Brandywine: This pink heirloom tomato is considered the grail of classic red tomatoes, its sweetness associated with summer picnics. Brandy Boy is a disease-resistant hybrid that equals the taste of its cousin. One slice makes a sandwich.

Artisan Tomato Mix: A collection of smaller tomatoes, their names are as colorful as the fruit: Blush, Purple Bumble Bee, Lucky Tiger, and at least three other varieties. Blush is the best tasting yellow tomato I have grown. It is gently striped with pink and has a classic sweet-tart taste. The red-wine taste of Purple Bumble Bee is the most intense. Lucky Tiger is sweet and crisp with a leafy taste.

Heirloom tomatoes are often less productive, but two varieties are worth the effort: Hillbilly and Ananas Noire. Both are appealing because of their striped color. Hillbilly is yellow with a red and green interior, classically sweet but with the vegetable tang and lower acidity of a yellow tomato. Ananas Noire boasts a green exterior ribboned with red in the center and lays claim to an intense taste of a sweet red tomato with the vegetable tang of green. The fruit of both is large, often reaching two pounds.

Whatever varieties you choose, once your tomatoes are in the ground, you need warm weather: ideally an 85° days and 65° nights. That is hard to control, but you can optimize soil warming by mounding the rows to increase the soil surface exposed to sunlight. A raised row is easier to keep dry if the summer is wet. Drier soils will yield sweeter tomatoes. During harvest, reduce watering until the plants almost begin to wilt. The tomatoes will be sweeter and more flavorful. Too much water can cause tomatoes to split.

Maintain your plants, allowing only one or two main stems, and pinch off all lateral leaf buds that form at the axis of leaves. Blossom buds grow between each leaf node, so it is easy to see the difference.

Even with excellent tending, tomatoes are prone to disease. Many products abound, but I rely on two: Streptomyces lydicus, a naturally occurring soil bacteria, and potassium bicarbonate. Both organically control fungal diseases and are sold under a variety of brand names. I treat my plants every two weeks, alternating between the two products.

And if nature cooperates with a predictable summer, expect abundant, sweet tomatoes from July to October. A perfect result!