Species: Lycopersicon esculentum
The tomato is the top choice crop of North American gardeners.
Conditions: Rich soil, soil temperature above 60°F (16°C), after all risk of frost has passed. They are self pollinated, so it is possible to grow different varieties with low risk of cross-pollinating. Choose a hot spot with lots of sun.
Calendar for Hardiness 6B
April – July
Cooking: From last year’s crop: preserved tomato sauce or salsa.
Start: In mid-April, start seed indoors about 4 weeks prior to planting outdoors. Bury seeds 1/8″ (3 mm) deep, and provide 10 hr of bright light, either by a sunny window or with grow lights. They grow quite “leggy” if light is insufficient. Ruffling the tips of the seedlings or gently blowing on them encourages strengthening of stems.
Transplant: In mid-May, cover spot outdoors with a black plastic sheet to warm up the soil. Transplant seedlings to their final location, by marking spots 1 ft (30 cm) apart from each other, and setting up a tomato cage or another trellising system, even for determinate varieties. Dig a hole about 2″ (5 cm) bigger than the root ball, pour some water, then fill partially with soil; sprinkle a little Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate) and compost, and water again before setting the seedlings lower than the original soil line in the pot; fill the spot with more soil and pat down gently. Tomatoes will develop more roots if part of the stem is buried at planting time. Keep moist but do not overwater. Tie vines to cage, stake or other chosen support, as they grow.
Care: They are not very resilient to dryness, so water regularly. Remove shoots near the base of the plants. Once flowers appear, remove damaged foliage, and yellow leaves. Try to keep a balance between good air circulation and healthy foliage for good photosynthesis.
Boosts: A banana peel processed in the blender with water makes a good potassium boost during blooming. Calcium deficiency affects water absorption, so some egg shells washed with vinegar and rinsed with water may be pulverized and sprinkled around the base of the plants (there are anecdotal stories about slugs being deterred by this measure, as a bonus). A sprinkle of compost or sheep manure mixed with used coffee grinds every month keeps the roots underground and the plants strong. A solution of 1 tsp Epsom salt (magnesium sulphate) in 4 cups of water sprayed occasionally on the foliage seems to agree with all members of the tomato family.
August – October
Cooking: Enjoy raw in pico de gallo, sandwiches, bruschetta (I know, not Mexican, but sooo good!) and cooked in other salsas and stews. Whole tomatoes should not be refrigerated, but slices or salsa will keep for a day or two in plastic containers. Alternatively, peel, wash and dry, and they can be packed whole in freezer bags and store frozen until needed, by simply dumping in boiling water to prep for pasta sauce or stews.
Harvest: Pick when they are just slightly soft to the touch, and they are close to their ripe colour (red, orange, pink, yellow, chocolate, purple, … ). If the air temperature soars above 80ºF (27ºC) fruit might not fully ripe, so harvest when soft to the touch and finish ripening indoors.
Saving seed: For open pollinated varieties
Care: Continue caring; although watering may be reduced, do not let dry out; clip tips and blooms, they will not have enough time to develop fruit before the end of the season.
Cooking: Prepare cooked salsa, tomato and pasta sauces; bottle and process to preserve. Cook from frozen. Dark green (unripe) tomatoes may be pickled or fried (again, it is not Mexican, but a good option in colder climate).
Gardening: If there are any green tomatoes left on the plants, they may be harvested, wrapped individually in newsprint or kraft paper and kept in a dark spot until they get a light shade of green; finish ripening on a counter or shelf away from direct sun. Pull plants and compost or dispose as yard waste. Flatten soil and mulch.
December – March
Cooking: From frozen or preserved bottled salsa.
Gardening: Check catalogues for varieties, and order seed (warning: may create addiction.) Patiently (or impatiently) wait for next April.
Red round: Duchess from Vesey’s (2016); Brandywine from McKenzie (2016)
Red plum: Amish Paste from Hawthorn Farms (2016)
Cherry: Sugary grape tomato from West Coast Seeds (2014); Yellow Pear plant from Lowe’s (2016) and from my saved seed (2017); Black Cherry from McKenzie (2017)
Notes: If this is your first year growing tomatoes, it would not be a bad idea to skip the seed and purchase small plants ready to transplant at the local nursery in late May. It will give you a positive experience, and if the plants are open pollinated, then you can save seed to start your own the following season. I did that with “Yellow pear” and it worked out great. After saving seeds the first year, tomatoes will also provide a year-round zero-mile supply for locavores.
Clockwise from top left: Tomato plant in bloom, supported by cage; grape tomatoes maturing on the plant (2014); Duchess crop (2016); Brandywine, Duchess and Amish Paste tomatoes after ripening in darkness and finished on the counter (November 2016)