Tomato Success!

by Nita Holstine  




   The best tips are often found when you read something another person has written and realize that you know a better way! Sure, you can peel tomatoes by dropping them in boiling water but that is the method used when you are fixing to can them and will be processing them. If you are only doing a few and want to keep your tomato nice and cold, just rub over the entire tomato with the backside of the knife you are going to use to dice or slice. A serrated knife works best on a tomato if you are cutting the skin or the flesh. You may have to go over a thinner skin several times to see a difference but you will be able to see and feel the skin pucker and change to a deeper shade of red color.

   Store bought tomatoes are thin skinned and never need peeling but most varieties of homegrown have a thick skin. Sure we know that�s where all the good vitamins are but some people just don�t like all that thick skin! To best peel the fruit, do the rubbing with the knife and then prick the skin at the blossom end (not the stem end.) Most homegrown have an area around the stem that is not usable (the core) and if you start by peeling at the other end, you will be cutting the good part away from the core instead of cutting the core out. You should end up with much more useable tomato.  


   After many years of raising tomatoes, we can look back and see what we did right and what we did wrong. This past year, we were able to take what we�d learned and put it to use. It gave us a bumper crop all the way into December when we finally had a hard freeze.

   I didn�t figure on rabbits eating the tomatoes and vines because they never had before. But then some years the grasshoppers will eat down all the onions and some years they leave the onions alone completely. At first it seems like it had to do with how dry the season but it wasn�t so. Go figure!! The tomatoes will be fenced to keep out the rabbits, just in case.

  Many were the season when we did not plan far enough ahead and had to buy the tomato plants at the garden center. Last year, we didn�t plan far enough ahead to order the seeds in time to get them planted. This year, I made sure I got the seeds in by the end of January. I had read a tip in the Park Seed Company�s newsletter about how you shouldn�t wait too late to plant the tomatoes out that they need to have some 40 degree temps to be able to set fruit. That would answer the why we had no fruit one year long ago. We never know until the middle of April if we will have a freak blizzard. We get all of the extremes.

   The type of tomato variety that does the best for us is the indeterminate. That just means that the flowering does not depend on the length of day. The determinate flower profusely for a while but as the days grow shorter, the blooms cease. There are varieties suited more to different climates. Consult your seed catalog. I collect them for study and comparing.

   My baby tomatoes have just come out of the kitchen window and little 1�x2� pots and have graduated to small Styrofoam cups. The idea is to keep them root bound in fairly small containers. Keep planting them low in a bigger cup so that the stem becomes root growth. It will be well worth all the extra effort. They will next go into big, tall Styrofoam cups with the same process. As they become tall, cut the bottom out of another cup and place it on top of the cup with the plant in it. Fill with dirt as the plant grows. Secure the plants in a box where they won�t be falling around. I like using crates with handles where I can take them easily outdoors for sunlight and air. They will need to get used to the wind, not damaging but they need to toughen up. Don�t be hesitant to build a makeshift windbreak to prevent harm from the wind. Small cold caps will cover young plants to protect them from late freezes. Since I never have such things, I use tubs and buckets to give a little bit of protection.

   The only way we can do well with tomatoes is to start with a trench dug to about 2 foot deep. We have sand with no organic material so it needs lots of help. In the trench goes a layer of compost, a layer of well-rotten manure and a layer of hay (the older the better.)  We try to get this done in the late winter since we have few freezes and there is plenty of good weather. The other part of the secret method is to use a soaker hose laid down on top of the hay at about 10 to 12 inches deep. This past year, I would let the hose run slowly every day and then turn it off at night. Sprinkler water and by hand watering gets the vines and leaves wet and that is bad for the plants. It doesn�t get their deep roots wet and forces the roots to stay near the surface. We once tried using the little peat pellets and after a rather disappointing year, I dug up the plants to find that the roots had not been able to escape the tiny pots. The instructions said that they could not possible hold in the roots, and no tearing of the pots was needed.  HA!!

   The best way to get your tomato plants is to order the exact seed you want and start it the end of December or in January. It�s fun getting the seed catalog in the mail and looking at all the varieties. It was the third week of January before the seed order was in and I could get the seeds into a flat to sprout. It is now the third week of February and the plants are about 3 inches tall and were just moved into small Styrofoam cups. As mentioned earlier, they will move up to bigger cups as they get bigger.

   I had always read how it was best to not purchase tomato plants that already had blooms on them. I don�t know if it would do as well to take the blooms off if that was all you could find to buy. I usually already have blooms on the plants before they get planted out but I�ve never seen a problem.

   When putting the plants into the ground, dig the hole deep down into the rich stuff. As when the young plants are planted low in cups, take off all lower leaves cutting with scissors to avoid tearing of stem.  Leave only the top 3 or 4 leaves and plant as deep as possible to give as much stem as you can to becoming root growth. The nice thing about using Styrofoam cups is that they can be cut away from the plant and discarded. I use a razor blade so I don�t disturb the roots and soil.

   I use an all-purpose garden fertilizer and make sure I get all the planted tended EVERY week. The fancy for tomato fertilizers do not get any better results if you water and feed properly. This past spring, we had a really odd caterpillar that moved in huge masses and ate down every weed in their path. Fortunately this was early and there was little for them to consume. There were also very few butterflies during the spring and summer but we also did not grow any melons which seem to really attract the butterflies.

   If you plan to can the fruits of your labors, make sure you choose a variety that is high in acid and you won�t have to worry about adding the ascorbic acid to the tomatoes in the jars; they will have plenty of acid on their own. Many people love the fresh taste of the less acid tomatoes but if canned, they need acid added.

   Most every variety of tomato you can grow yourself will have a tough skin. Store bought have thin skin and can hardly be peeled. The skin is where the most vitamins are found but many people don�t like the skin. When you are canning and peeling a lot at one time, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Put all tomatoes in the boiling water and boil for about 2 minutes. The skins will slip off easily, messy but the job will quickly be finished. If you are only preparing a few tomatoes for your evening meal, use the blunt side of a knife. Scrape (do not cut) with the dull side of the blade all over the tomato rubbing with the blunt blade edge. You will see a change in the skin, color and texture as it lets go of the fruit. Start at the blossom end (not the stem end) and prick the skin with the point of the knife. Peel down to the stem end until the entire tomato is cleaned. Use the knife to remove the core with the last of the skin.

   Many ask if they should use tomato cages for support. If you try to use a cage for vine types, you will probably not see the cage again until winter. They might do a little bit of good on the bush type but this past year, I went to all the trouble of marking the different varieties and I could see no difference. The bush type had vines about 5 feet long and sprawled the same as the vine type. The bush type had a slightly thinner skin but that was the only difference I could find. Keeping the plants and ground around them dry makes all the difference in the world. There was no sign of any disease at any time.

   I had read where you could bring the tomatoes indoors at the first hard freeze and they would ripen on their own. Wrap in newspaper and set aside. Well, yes they do ripen. But then they don�t taste good anymore. Okay, they taste like store bought plastic fruit. Yuck! This year, I will give all the green ones left to family members that think green tomatoes are the only way to eat tomatoes!! Not even I can remember when the grocery stores sold green tomatoes in season.

   Good Luck to every gardener. If I can answer any other questions, just ask. Nita