Tomatoes: From Seed to Table
Growing tips from an expert and listings of where to buy the best tomato seeds.
You can have them any way you like, but it is certain that you have grown tired of the pink and fleshy tomatoes that fill the produce section of your local grocery in the fall and winter. That's why spring brings relief to any Southerner, because it marks the time to begin setting out tomatoes in pots or in gardens. Here are a few tips on planting the right one for you.
To qualify as an heirloom tomato, the selection has to have been around for at least 50 years.
Many selections can be purchased through catalogs. Seeds collected from these tomatoes produce fruit that is the same year to year. This makes for great gifts and stories to share each time a seed is given.
Available in a wide array of colors, sizes, and odd shapes--not to mention flavors--heirloom tomatoes are more than just novelties to share. These interesting fruits are a tasty way to preserve a bit of our history.
So, maybe you prefer the uniform look and availability of hybrid tomatoes. Hybrids have been developed to include very specific characteristics from two different parent plants. If you save a seed from a hybrid tomato and plant it the next year, you will have a different fruit. It will revert back to one of its parents, or some new combination with characteristics from the original.
Expert Growing Tips
Since 1946, Paul Newell has been growing tomatoes in his garden in Kosciusko, Mississippi. And he's become very good at it. Some of his plants top 20 feet in height. He picks the first tomatoes by about mid-May. His three-dozen plants bear more than 700 pounds of fruit a year. He is always eager to share the secrets of his success.
Choose the right plants. Ask your nursery for selections that do well in your area. Paul grows 'Burpee's Early Pick' for an early harvest; then plants 'Crimson Fancy' and 'SuperTasty' for his main-season crop.
For early tomatoes, start early. Paul sows seeds for his earliest fruiting tomatoes in a small greenhouse during the first week of January. By February 22, he sows his main crop and transplants the early seedlings to his cold frame. In mid-March, he pots up his main-season plants. He places them in the cold frame behind the earlier plants, until the weather is warm enough for the later transplants to go into the beds. (The last frost usually occurs around April 20 in his area, so plants are sheltered until then.)
You have to have good soil. Paul uses compost from a 20 x 4 x 4 foot bin that he fills with leaves.
Plant them right. Paul advises setting the plants into the ground so that only the top set of leaves are showing. The plants will root along their buried stems, making them vigorous and drought tolerant.
Feed 'em well. Before planting his main crop, Paul digs a foot-deep furrow for each row, sprinkles cottonseed meal down the middle, and tills it in. During the growing season, he sprinkles about a half-pound of 5-20-20 fertilizer beside each 35-foot row.
Water regularly. Paul provides slow, even moisture by running soaker hoses down the center of each row. The soaker hoses provide an even flow of water and won't splash the leaves, which can spread disease.
Watch out for the pests. Paul sprays plants with Neem to repel chewing insects. He suggests you destroy pest-laden mulch after each growing season. Always pick the rotting fruit off of the vine because it attracts pests.
Where to Order Heirloom Seeds
You can order heirloom seeds by telephone or on the Internet from the following companies.
- Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, (540) 894-9480, www.southernexposure.com
- The Cook's Garden, 1-800-457-9703, www.cooksgarden.com
- Shepherd's Garden Seeds, 1-800-503-9624, www.shepherdseeds.com
- Tomato Growers Supply Company, 1-888-478-7333, www.tomatogrowers.com
"Tomatoes: From Seed to Table" is from the Southern Living Gardening Guide 2002.