Tomatoes are the flavor of late summer – with tomatoes from our garden usually ripening in a couple of weeks. This year, with all the sunny days through late May and June, the tomatoes look like they will be early.

Local farmers are selling field-grown local tomatoes already, but Ramona Snell of Snell Family Farm in Buxton said those are planted in early to mid-May in unheated greenhouses to get a jump on the season. Those planted without protection in late May or early June need more time.

For people who haven’t planted any tomatoes yet this season – and I am guessing that this year when everyone is gardening, few readers of this column fit into that category – it is now too late to plant. Even if a tomato seedling is available at a nursery or farm stand, it will be stressed from being in a small container so long and will do poorly in the garden, Snell said.

So, I am providing advice for the rest of this year as well as for next year.

The drought that ran from May 16 to June 28 did little harm to tomatoes. The species originated in Mexico and the surrounding regions and is accustomed to hot and dry conditions.

Don’t take that to mean the plants won’t need watering if nature hasn’t provided enough. They grow better with good moisture in the soil, with the emphasis on “in the soil.”

For home gardeners who likely have fewer than a dozen or so tomato plants, hand watering from a rain barrel – or faucet for those without a rain barrel – once a week is enough. Grab the watering can, check each plant for its health and development, picture how the blossoms and green fruit will eventually develop, and water the ground around each plant liberally, making sure soil does not splash up onto the leaves. Those with lots of plants probably should use a soaker hose that they leave in their tomato row.

Watering too frequently, especially if the leaves get wet and the soil splashes up, promotes early blight, a fungus that can destroy the stems, leaves and fruit of tomato plants.

Red plastic covers the soil in the tomato fields at Snell Family Farm, with holes cut out for the tomato plants. Any plastic will work to keep soil from splashing onto the leaves, but Snell said that research and her experience show that red plastic promotes more robust plants. I may try that next year.

Tomatoes don’t want to be fertilized heavily. Too much fertilizer promotes leaves rather than fruit. So fertilize the soil only at the beginning of the season. Note here that I wrote “fruit.” We eat tomatoes as a vegetable, but they are botanically a fruit. I must admit I sometimes pop cherry tomatoes into my mouth right after I pick them, which is fruit-like eating.

Tomatoes come in two basic types: indeterminate or vining varieties and determinate or bush varieties. Indeterminate types keep growing, up to eight feet tall, and produce fruit until killed by frost in Maine. Determinate varieties will grow up to four feet tall and produce only for about two weeks.

The way to have determinate tomatoes over several months of the season is to plant different varieties with different maturation times. Plant labels say how long each variety takes to mature. An alternative is to plant one or two of the same variety every two weeks through June.

The Snells grow only indeterminate varieties, but Snell advises determinate types for home gardeners because they don’t require pruning and complicated support systems – just a simple cage.

Indeterminate tomatoes, though, include more interesting and varied varieties – including most heirloom tomatoes.
Snell said her family uses a basket-weave support system, in which posts are put about four or five feet apart in the row of tomato plants. Then string is woven through the posts, on each side of the plants, with the strings 8 to 12 inches apart.

Mark Hutton of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension has videos online showing basket weave and two other – more complicated at my first glance – methods of trellising indeterminate tomatoes.

For one or two indeterminate plants, use a wood post and tie the tomato plants to the post with soft fabric – torn T-shirts, flannel or strips of pantyhose.

No matter the kind of support, the plant should have one dominant stem. Side branches should be cut off, especially any that are close to the ground. Near the top, side branches are allowed to grow out to produce fruit.

Most cherry-sized tomatoes are indeterminate, but except for removing a few lower branches, I have found they don’t need as much pruning as full-sized indeterminate tomatoes.

After all the work of producing gorgeous, fruitful tomato plants, take a few steps to make sure friends and family get to eat the tomatoes rather than wild critters.

One pest is the tomato hornworm. Snell keeps an eye out on her tomato plants, looking for hawk moths – sometimes called hummingbird or sphinx moths. If she sees them, she knows they are laying eggs that produce tomato hornworms, a caterpillar that can go down a row of tomatoes, eating and destroying the plants.

When she sees the moths, she sprays with Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis, a pesticide approved for use on organic farms.
Because hornworms are huge, bright green and ugly, handpicking them and dropping them in a jar of soapy water works well for home gardeners with just a few plants.

Pick tomatoes as soon as they begin to show color. The term “vine-ripened” does not mean a tomato has to turn completely red (or orange or black, depending on the variety) to qualify. Tomatoes that finish ripening in the safety of a garden shed or kitchen shelf are just as tasty as those that ripen in the garden.

Why is this important? Chipmunks have been so numerous and vicious this year that they would eat at least one bite of every tomato if I tried to let them ripen in the garden. They’ve already done much the same to our strawberries.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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