There have always been two good reasons to grow your own tomatoes: they taste much better than the mass-market kind and they're much cheaper than equally tasty local tomatoes from the farmstand or greenmarket. Now we can add reason three: they're safe.
Unless you have spent the last month in complete isolation, you know the dark underbelly of industrial agriculture has once again rolled to the surface. Every hamburger is a scary roll of the health dice, this time because of tainted tomatoes.
Why are we not surprised?
Fortunately, raising your own tomatoes is a lot easier than raising your own beef cattle. In fact, tomatoes are among the very easiest vegetables to grow.
Picnic-ready heirloom tomatoes; the green ones are ripe Aunt Ruby's German Green.
Tomatoes are not only easy, they're productive -- 6 or 8 plants (in the front yard, if need be) can supply all the fresh tomatoes a family of 4 could want, with enough extra to preserve for winter. And if your garden is the container kind, a single Sungold or Sweet Million in a half whiskey barrel will give you what does seem like a million delicious cherry tomatoes.
Although planting time is fast passing, it's not too late to get growing your own in most parts of the country. Garden centers still have seedlings and tomatoes are such tough plants that even skinny pot bound disasters will usually do fine, eventually.
Tomato Growing Tips
* Choose "indeterminate" tomatoes. Unlike the determinate kind, they keep growing and producing until stopped by frost. That means they need sturdy supports: stakes and string or heavy duty wire cages. Small price to pay for hugely increased yield. (If the label doesn't say and the salesclerk doesn't know, just google the tomato name; determinate or indeterminate will be in the description). Patio tomatoes are determinate, btw; so don't be fooled by those big bushy plants with the green tomatoes on 'em.
* Plant deep, setting 1/3 to 1/2 of the stem underground. Useful new roots will form all along the buried portion. It is not necessary to remove the lower leaves before burial.
These tomatoes have their bases covered in more ways than one.
* Use an organic mulch, to hold moisture in the soil, keep roots cool and protect against soil-borne plant disease. We use a thin layer of newspaper - just one fold - under a largish pile of straw.
Tomato mulching in progress. The brown paper grocery bags are a thicker weed (and water) barrier. Helpful if your raised beds are really raised. These are about a foot above the paths.
* Fertilize with organic fertilizer labeled for tomatoes. All-purpose fertilizers can promote leaves at the expense of fruit.
* Water consistently, alternations of dry and damp lead to mushy black spots on the bottom, aka blossom end rot.
* Keep Harvesting -- usually not hard, but if you're going to be away, delegate a neighbor to come and pick. Leaving lots of ripe fruit on the plant will slow or stop further production.
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