I fell in love in Italy.
Not with a man, or the art or architecture. In the heat of the seductive Mediterranean I savoured my first mouth watering, sweet and juicy tomato and my quest to find its equal began. In my opinion, the only place to find it is in your own backyard.
Back here in Canada, supermarket tomatoes have been hybridized for uniformity and pest resistance or genetically modified to withstand hundreds of miles of travel. No wonder they’re so bland and unappealing.
The vibrant fruits come in a host of colours, shapes and sizes. They’re delicious, nutritious and best of all, relatively easy to grow. They are the Queens of our garden and occupy the prime real estate of the yard - where the sun shines hot and bright.
There are literally hundreds of varieties from traditional reds, golden yellows, black striped, green shoulders, round, oval, tiny and gigantic – so how to choose?
I like to narrow it down by grouping them into slicing, saucing and cherry tomatoes and choose at least one variety of each. Kids love cherry tomatoes and will eat them right off the vine. Beefsteak varieties are great for slicing up in salads, sandwiches and burgers while the fleshy, less seedy plum tomatoes are perfect for sauces and salsas.
There are basically three types of tomatoes – determinate, indeterminate and semi determinate. Determinate are smaller, bush-like plants that provide one or two flushes of fruit and are done for the season. They are perfect for growing in containers due to their relatively compact size and generally don’t need much staking - those common tomato cages will do.
Indeterminate or semi-determinate tomatoes are large vines that flower and provide fruit all season long until first frost. You can leave them to meander all over your garden but I prefer to get them up off the ground by tying them up to a large stake. Staking the vines increases air circulation and helps prevent various diseases like early blight. It also makes it harder for little critters to get at the tempting fruits.
Tomatoes are actually tender perennials which means they can thrive for years in warm sunny weather. Those of us in Northern climates treat them as annuals and start new plants every year, indoors a good eight weeks before they need to be planted out when all danger of frost has passed. In my neck of the woods, the May 24 weekend has become ritual tomato planting time.
Choose a sunny spot where your plants will get at least five hours of direct sunlight. Tomatoes, like most plants love rich, well-drained soil so make sure you add plenty of compost. Plant the seedlings deep, right up to the bottom of the first leaves because the entire stem will produce roots and provide a strong anchor.
Set marigolds with your tomatoes, one or two per plant, to fight off those nasty aphids that like to suck juice from the stems and leaves. Another great companion for tomatoes is basil, which is said to improve their flavour. But grow potatoes in another spot as they are both are susceptible to the same diseases.
When you’re watering, think of watering the soil, not the plant as water on the leaves can increase the spread of leaf born diseases. Keep the soil moist but not soggy and try to be consistent, watering early in the morning or late in the evening so evaporation is kept at a minimum. Inconsistent watering can lead to blossom end rot.
The next two weeks are the weeks to “harden off” your seedlings in anticipation of next weeks planting. Hardening off is the process of slowly introducing the plants to the great outdoors. Over a period of about a week, put the seedlings in a sunny and protected spot in your garden and leave them out for a couple of hours. Then bring them back inside. Gradually increase the time they stay outside until you’re ready to plant.
Once the plants are well established it will be time to prune them. But that is a subject worthy of its own post, coming in the weeks ahead. For now, choose the best seedlings you can. Look for plants that stand up tall with no more than two plants per pot. Avoid plants with yellow leaves and take a peak underneath to make sure there are no little bugs hitching a ride.
You can get wonderful organic and heirloom varieties at farmers markets. Visit us at the Trinity Bellwoods Market on Tuesday afternoons and we'll have a full selection of tomatoes, marigolds, peppers, eggplants, onions and herbs. And check out our Pop Up Shop and we'll gladly sell you a few - not to mention all the free advice that we're just brimming with!
Are you growing tomatoes this season? What varieties are your favorite?