Roots and Shoots: Toe-MAY-Toe, Toe-MAH-Toe

By Pamela Doan

Here’s the scale of tomato flavor:

Grocery store — blech, when necessary

Farmers market — huge improvement, almost as good as

Home garden — best

Feed me grocery store-bought eggplant or a farmers market-sourced eggplant and I honestly can’t tell the difference. It’s probably cooked and covered in a sauce, anyway. Same goes for squash. Peppers, though, I can tell the difference, and definitely tomatoes. It’s the one plant in the garden that I feel I can grow on par with or superior to other sources. I work for it, though. Last year I had to handpick juvenile brown marmorated stink bugs off my tomato plants. And hornworms, too, those bright green caterpillars with satanic horns. Of course, I wore latex gloves — I mean, really, that’s just gross — but still, it’s not a preferred way to spend the morning.

TomatoesI battled slugs for my pepper plants, drowning them in beer, but not before they’d won a few rounds. Oh, and the flea beetles that perforated the tomato plant leaves, which I took to the farmers market at Boscobel to be identified by the Cornell Cooperative Extension master gardeners. Maybe the tomatoes tasted better for their preciousness? From past experiences and my master gardener training, I’ve learned a lot about growing tomatoes. This year will be less traumatic for all involved, I swear.

The key thing to getting a bounty of tomatoes this season is to start with the right plants. It’s easy to walk into a nursery and start picking up whatever is on offer, but a little research into varieties will save you time and trouble. Tomatoes aren’t all that easy to grow, actually. They’re a little fussy and are susceptible to quite a few pathogens and pests — gross pests like the ones I just mentioned, but anthracnose, early blight and late blight aren’t fun to treat, either.

When you’re choosing tomato plants, consult the buying guide from Cornell University. It has recommended varieties of different types, including cherry, grape, pear and heirloom, as well as varieties that are early, mid or late season. These plants are recommended for their disease resistance and hardiness and are suitable for our local growing conditions. If you’re choosing tomato plants from a catalogue, VFNT is the acronym for success.

V – Verticillium-resistant or tolerant

F – Fusarium-resistant or tolerant

N – Nematode-resistant or tolerant

T – Tobacco mosaic-resistant or tolerant

Avoid these common pathogens by choosing the right cultivars. While you’re reading the label on plants, look for shorter maturity times, as well. The faster your plants produce fruit, the less time they have to develop problems. If you’re transplanting tomatoes, the maturity date starts from the time when you put them in your garden.

Although these sunny, warm days are tempting, don’t plant tomatoes outdoors yet. Tomatoes prefer evening temperatures of 55-60 degrees and daytime temperatures of 75+. In Philipstown, the last hard frost date is mid-May. Then wait another two weeks after that before planting your tomatoes at the end of the month. Other summer vegetables and seeds can go in sooner, but not tomatoes.

Tomatoes like the wind beneath their leaves. Space plants according to instructions and give them lots of room for air circulation. The label or seed pack should have spacing instructions, but a good rule is 1-2 feet for tomatoes that have a concentrated harvest (all the tomatoes will ripen around the same time) or 3-4 feet apart for plants that will yield fruit until frost and grow on a vine. (Cornell has a growing guide online.) Tomato cages support your plants and should be set up when they’re planted. Trust me, wrestling a 24-inch tomato plant into a cage when the leaves have started to droop from the weight of the tomato isn’t fun for you or your plant.

Tomatoes like to be planted up to their bottom leaves, too. The plant will send out roots from there and be much sturdier and better able to withstand wind during a thunderstorm. Keep its base free from weeds, and water the roots, not the foliage. Tomatoes don’t like wet leaves and will be more susceptible to pathogens if they’re not watered from the base. A soaker hose works well.

At the end of the day, cross your fingers and hope for the best. Growing vegetables is a bit of an art and a lot of science. Good intentions matter, but water, sun, soil and proper setup take care of the rest.

Garden questions? Send them to askrootsandshoots@philipstown.info.