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A Guide to Tomatoes

During the warmest days of summer tomatoes can be spotted in many gardens, heavy with ripeness and weighing down their vines. Ripe tomatoes are trucked to farmers markets or road stands, piled high, just enough to make our mouths water and force us to stop at market on our way home from work.

Tomatoes can be enjoyed many ways; in soups, stews and sauces, in salads, or sliced and added as garnishment to burgers, BLTs or sliced tomato sandwiches. Some people enjoy tomatoes the most when they are picked right from their own garden and eaten just so. Southerners even enjoy tomatoes before they are ripe. Fried green tomatoes are a Southern specialty.

Tomatoes are native to South America. They were originally grown and enjoyed by the Aztec and Mayan peoples. They weren’t introduced to North America until the 18th century. A botanist discovered them growing in a garden in South Carolina in 1710. Tomatoes remain the most popular type of garden plant in the United States today. Worldwide over 130 million tons of tomatoes are produced each year. In the US, Florida and California grow the most tomatoes.

A Rainbow of Variety

There are an endless number of varieties of tomatoes found growing all over the world. New varieties are constantly being created as gardeners cross breed their own plants. Tomatoes range in size from the smallest tomatoes called Tomberries (5mm in diameter) to Beefsteak (4 inches or more in diameter). Red tomatoes are the most common however, tomatoes can be found in almost every color of the rainbow. They may be yellow, orange, pink, purple, green black, white or even striped. Gardeners will choose different varieties based on their needs. Taste, disease resistance and health benefits are all reasons why gardeners may choose to grow certain varieties over, say, a more popular variety.

Beefsteak Tomatoes

Deep red, beefsteak tomatoes are large tomatoes typically 2 inches or more in diameter. They ripen late in the season. Beefsteak tomatoes are commonly used as slicing tomatoes for burgers and sandwiches.

Indeterminate and Determinate Tomatoes

Indeterminate tomatoes or compact tomatoes require a short growing season and are a good choice for gardeners living in northern climates. They produce all at once, unlike indeterminate tomatoes. Indeterminate tomatoes require a longer growing season and are ideal for growers who enjoy fresh tomatoes.

Low Acidity

There are special varieties of tomatoes that are perfect for growers with specific digestive issues such as reflux and heartburn. Orange and yellow tomatoes like yellow grape tomatoes are often low acidity.

Cherry Tomatoes

The smallest variety of tomatoes these tomatoes grow no larger than large cherries and produce heavily on thick vines. These types of tomatoes are perfect for salads.

Paste Tomatoes

Paste tomatoes are thick skinned, meaty, low seeded tomatoes that are best used for sauces and soups. They are less juicy and hold together nicely. Plum tomatoes are an example of paste tomatoes.

Container or Dwarf Tomatoes

Container tomatoes grow thick compact vines. Container tomatoes often grow on heavy vines that can be planted in window boxes or pots. Many hybridized varieties of tomatoes are container tomatoes.

Growing Tomatoes

Many varieties of tomato plants require a lot of attention. Often vines need to be staked and plants need to be trimmed quite often. Trimmed vines will produce in higher volume and size. Tomatoes require a long growing season, hot and humid temperatures and plenty of water. One tomato plant will require a minimum of one inch of water per week. Under drought conditions when plants aren’t receiving any natural rainwater the weekly water requirement will easily double. Tomatoes exposed to extremely hot, drought like conditions will crack. It is also important to remain consistent with watering because serious fluctuation in water amounts will cause growth disorders. In the northern part of North America gardeners should take care and not plant tomato plants outdoors until nighttime temperatures stay above 65 degrees. Seeds may be started indoors months in advance. Row covers may be used for nighttime protection well into June in Northern climates.

Tomatoes are susceptible to many diseases and pests. Blight is a serious, often fatal plant disease that affects tomato plants. Late blight is especially prevalent in periods of cold, damp weather. Late blight is the same disease that caused the Great Famine in Ireland. Insect pests like worms, beetles, aphids, and stink bugs cause millions of dollars in crop loss each year worldwide.

Look for many varieties of tomatoes at local garden centers mid spring. Care should be taken as to when to plant tender plants outdoors. To determine the best possible time to plant tomatoes outdoors gardeners might want to consider looking at a USDA hardiness map. A hardiness map will help gardeners to decide when it is the best time to start their tomato gardens outdoors.

Gardeners who take the time to research the best types of tomatoes suited to their needs and take the time to plant tomato plants and nurture them through the growing season will finding tomato gardening a very rewarding experience.