2010-07-01 / Editorial

Picking the year’s first tomato

The Island Garden
By Roger Marshall

I will pick the year’s first red lusciously ripe tomato tomorrow. I know, I’m pushing the season, but the first tomato of the year, with a little basil on a nice salad, is well worth pushing the season for.

How do you get your first tomatoes in June? First, you need to pick an early tomato. Tomatoes are classified into early, midseason and late season. As you might expect, the early season tomatoes set fruit within 60 days, midseason within 75 to 80 days, and late season types can take more than 80 days to yield fruit. Early season tomatoes also tend to be smaller than late-season types, such as Big Boy or Beefsteak.

I went with Scotia this year, which is supposed to set fruit within 55 days. It was started in early February in my basement germination chamber in a four-inch pot. By mid March, it was planted into a one-gallon container and moved to the heated greenhouse. I set the plant in the ground in the unheated greenhouse by April 10.

The plant is now only a few feet tall, but it has a dozen tomatoes on it and the first ones have already turned red. By not staking it, I gained another day or two. Staked tomatoes ripen later than unstaked tomatoes, according to some research.

While this plant has been growing tomatoes, the other plants have been fed with Comfrey tea and are three to five feet tall already, but they don’t have a lot of fruit…yet! There are lots of signs of a heavy fruit set, with many small fruits, but many of these small fruit often just drop off, so we’ll see what happens.

While we are talking about tomatoes, keep yours well watered. Feel the ground around the plant and if it is dry, water it. If you let your plant dry out, you will probably get blossom end rot on the first few tomatoes, so you will delay good eating for a few more days. If you find that your tomatoes are splitting, this is usually a sign that the tomato has matured, but is getting excess water.

Grey mold comes from plants in cool, humid conditions. It usually affects smaller plants, but can affect the fruit on a mature plant. If we get too much sun, tomatoes can get sunscald. This looks like a whitish scald mark on the side of the plant facing the sun.

Tomatoes can also suffer from other problems and pests. The most common problem around here is the complete disappearance of entire plants or plants missing sections. If you find missing or half-eaten plants, chances are the local deer herd enjoyed a meal at your expense.

If you find a tiny section of plant with the spines of leaves, but no leaves left, look for a large green and yellow striped caterpillar with a funny hook-shaped appendage at one end. The tomato hornworm caterpillar will strip your entire plant of its leaves in a few days if you don’t find it. Don’t kill it, the moth can have a wingspan of up to five inches and is quite pretty. Instead, move it to an alternate host.

Alternate hosts are any plant of the solanaceous family, including horsenettle, datura, jimsonweed, and nightshade.

Unfortunately, tomatoes also suffer from a variety of viruses; if you suspect your fruit had a virus last year, grow only virus-resistant tomatoes. These are usually denoted by VFTA, VFA, VFFA or VFNT. These codes tell you which viruses the plant is resistant to, but seeing these letters means that the plants are resistant to the disease, they are not totally immune. The best way to keep these diseases at bay is to grow your tomatoes in a different place each year. In other words, practice regular crop rotation.

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