2009-02-05 / Editorial

Gardening 101: Growing Tomatoes

The Island Garden
By Roger Marshall

Most experienced gardeners like to grow their own plants from seed, but it's also okay to buy what you need from a garden center. The difference is that by starting your own plants you can grow a much larger variety than is available in most garden centers. Take tomatoes, for example. I grow a variety of plants, from tiny little plum and cherry tomatoes to large "mortgage lifters." I also grow San Marzano or Roma types for sauce, green, yellow and pink tomatoes, the old standby Rutgers, and even a container of "patio" tomatoes for picking and eating. By combining a variety of colored tomatoes, some basil and other herbs, olive oil and a little vinegar I can make a colorful tomato salad.

Beginning gardeners may find it easier to buy tomatoes at the local garden center. Around here, the best place is Secret Garden on Southwest Avenue, who usually has a pretty good variety available. By buying them from a garden center, the hard work is done and you can buy exactly the number and type of plants that you need. Typically, you should plant four to six plants. That will usually give you enough tomatoes for an entire family.

Tomatoes can be obtained in sizes that range from tiny cherry and plum types. You can also get paste types for making sauces with. These are usually Roma or San Marzano, by name. Then comes the large types like Rutgers, and others that are about two to three inches in diameter. The largest types are the beefstakes, so called "mortgage lifters," and others that can run to six to eight inches in diameter and weigh two or more pounds.

Tomatoes can succumb to various diseases that can ruin your plantings, so you'll need to understand a little about which come with various designations that tell you if they are resistant to diseases. Most common at the FVN types. Tomatoes with V are resistant to verticulum wilt. Those with an F are resistant to Fusarium wilt, and those with an N are resistant to nematodes, which can attack the roots. So a tomato designated VFN is resistant to all the diseases. You might also see tomatoes designated F-1. That means they are the first hybrid of the series. A hybrid is simply a cross between two parent plants that produce a new plant with certain, hopefully, beneficial traits. If you leave a tomato to rot and it produces seeds the following year, the new plants will usually be one of the parent types, not the hybrid.


Fusarium Wilt is a fungi that gets into the soil and stays there. If your plants get fusarium wilt, then do not grow tomatoes in the same area again. You can tell if your plants have fuarium wilt when black patches develop on stems and foliage. There is no cure.

Blossom End Rot: A rotted patch develops on the bottom of the tomato. It is caused by inconsistent watering during the growing season. Regular watering of your plants will eliminate it.

Tomato Potato Blight - blighted plants show brown colored leaves that eventually can kill the plant. To reduce its affect avoid water the foliage when watering the plant. Use a soaker hose, for example.

Verticulum Wilt shows up as damage to the plant stems that look like brown stripes. The only cure is to prune it out to well below the affected area and hope that your plant will grow back. (Dip your pruners in a 5-percent bleach/water solution between cuts to avoid spreading the disease.)

Nematodes are tiny little bugs that attack the plant roots.

Tomatoes are also designated determinate or non-determinate. That means that indeterminate plants grow all over the place and can produce tomatoes at any time. They are the best kind for home gardeners as you get tomatoes over a longer period. Determinate types stop growing when they have achieved a certain size and their fruit ripens all at once. These types are best if you plan on making sauce or using a lot of tomatoes at the same time.

If you decide to grow your own tomatoes and are growing them for the first time, buy good plants at a garden center. If you decide to grow your own, start them indoors about six to eight weeks prior to the date you want to plant them out. Around here that is usually around May 15, so March 15 to April 1 is a good indoor starting date.

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