Articles by Jim Gainan

As published in the Billings Gazette

Growing up: Plant A Tomato, Get A Tomato

Hello Billings!  It's been far too long and I don't have the space allowance to explain why, so let's get right to it! The title of this column comes from my memory of being in the musical "The Fanastics", where the two fathers and next door neighbors lament the fact that life isn't as certain as gardening.  I'm sure the song is out there on YouTube somewhere if you care to hear the whole thing!

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.

Tomatoes 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 flavorful.

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. (Montana doesn’t have one.)  Tomatoes are also a source of lycopene, a powerful anti-oxidant.   Research has shown that eating foods high in lycopene protects against a wide range of cancers.

While I'm sure you've already selected your tomato plants, 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 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.

Here are a few products that may help you build a better tomato.

Upcoming Free Saturday Seminar at Gainan’s Heights Garden Center, 810 Bench Blvd:

June 23 at 10am - Ornamental Grasses in our Landscape