Articles by Jim Gainan

As published in the Billings Gazette

Growing up: Tomatoes are most popular crop choice of home gardeners

One of my earliest memories in the garden was with my grandfather. We were carefully watering the cucumber and tomato plants when he pulled a salt shaker out of his hand and said, "Do you want to taste something really good?" 

"Sure", I answered, questioning why he had the salt. He reached down and pulled the first red tomato off of the plant. It was about the size of a tangerine.

"Take a bite" he said confidently. After I did, its juicy center was revealed and as he sprinkled a little salt on it, he said "take another". I had never eaten a tomato that tasted more like fruit in my life. In fact, prior to this I would pick the tasteless things off of most anything I was served.  It was then that I realized the value of home-grown vegetables. Summer in a bite!

Tomatoes have long been the topic of many neighborly conversations across the backyard fence. They are the most popular crop grown by the home gardener and there are a variety of products on the market aimed at helping us grow a bigger, better and earlier tomato. Tomatoes are a fruit; botanically it's considered to be a berry. However, since it is not as sweet as other fruits and is most often served in salads and main dishes, many people refer to it as a vegetable.

They come in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors. Most produce red fruit, but there are varieties that produce yellow, orange, pink, purple, green and white fruit. Fruit can vary in size from small cherry and grape tomatoes to elongated plum tomatoes. One of our hottest sellers is a yellow pear tomato with low acidity. Heirloom tomatoes are becoming increasingly popular and tend to be more disease-resistant and very tasty.

As I was researching tomatoes, I found that they are the state "vegetable" of New Jersey and both the state fruit and vegetable of Arkansas. Tomato juice has been the official beverage of Ohio since 1965.

When selecting a tomato plant, be sure to pay attention to whether it is determinate or indeterminate. Indeterminate plants produce fruit in clusters along their stems and require staking, whereas determinate plants product fruit at the ends of their vines and may only require a cage for support.

Since staked plants are growing upward rather than outward, they are forced to produce more from a given area of ground than will plants that are not staked. Staking saves space, since the plants can be as little as 18 inches apart, and keeps the fruit away from dirt and slugs. A staked plant does need a healthy leaf cover to avoid sunscald on fruit, proper nourishment (particularly calcium) and even moisture to avoid blossom-end rot.

When training your tomato to the stake, tie it with soft twine or strips of cloth, tying once around the stake and once around the stem. This method will prevent injury to the stem and does not restrict growth.

Tomatoes have a widespread, shallow root system. Because of that, problems often occur when care is not taken in cultivation of the surrounding ground. Root damage can be done through careless cultivation that will cause wilting, poor fruit set, small fruit and often blossom-end rot. The surface root system can also be burnt if sufficient water is not available to the plant. When watering your tomatoes, water the area surrounding the plant, as well as the immediate area. Consistency in watering is key in raising tomatoes—especially once they start to produce fruit. Mulching around the roots will also reduce the amount of water lost through evaporation, as well as controlling weeds.

Fertilizer is required throughout the growing season. Fertilizer applied when preparing the soil before planting should be sufficient to feed the plants until they begin to set their first fruit. At that time, start applying a 5-10-5 fertilizer and continue monthly. When fruit starts to mature, stop fertilizing.

Even with vigorous plants, sometimes little or no fruit develops. Causes can include deficiencies of water, sun or even pollinating insects. A blossom set spray promotes blossom production, increases blossom set and increases fruit yield.

Other commonly-seen problems include:

• Growth cracks—caused by uneven watering

• Sunscald—caused by fruit being exposed to the sun's rays through lack of leaf cover

• Blossom-end rot—caused by uneven watering

• Lots of foliage, but not a lot of blossoms—caused by fertilizing with a high nitrogen fertilizer

• Catface—caused by irregular watering and insecticide exposure

• Disease (verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt and mosaic virus)— these are best combated by choosing disease resistant varieties; they will have a V, M or an F next to their names or all three.

Tomatoes are high in vitamins A and C and are naturally low in calories. They are also an excellent source of lycopene, an antioxidant, which has been linked to the prevention of many types of cancer.

BLT, anyone?