I would be willing to guess that the one vegetable most people who have a garden grow is tomatoes. Where do we begin? How do I get them off to a good start? With over 5,000 varieties, what should we grow? How should I care for them? These are all questions worth asking.
I like to start with growing my own tomatoes from seed. This opens up so many more options in tomato taste and color. Once you get a taste of the unique flavors, it is a slippery slope. You get mouth watering tropical sweetness from some, and tart acidic from other tomatoes. There are also fruits with a smoky earthiness to them, rounded out with a hint of sweetness. A rainbow of color awaits your eyes. Red, orange, yellow, green when ripe; and even blue and purple. Many tomatoes even are spotted and striped. Many nurseries are starting to carry more heirloom varieties, but you are still limited. Tomatoes range in size from a dime, to two pounds. One variety just bred for size can get 5 pounds. Some are shaped like a pear, while others are flattened and heavily pleated, such as Costoluto Genovese. Purple Calabash is another fun option for crazy tomatoes with funky character and a flavor to match.
So how do you decide what to grow? Think about how you will use them. Will you do a lot of canning? Then grow tomatoes that say they are good for this process. Do you want tomatoes for your kids to graze on out in the garden? Grow three different colors of cherry tomatoes such as Sun Gold, Sweet 100, and Blush. For making sauce and salsa you need a Roma or Amish Paste type tomato, which are thick and meaty with little juice.
Seeds should be planted about six to eight weeks before the last frost. Plant the seeds 1/4 inch deep in seed starting mix. Not garden soil. Seeds want a mixture that is as light as possible. Bottom heat helps with germination. They should come up within five days. Once they have their first set of true leaves, give them a light fertilizer every two weeks. Worm casting tea is my favorite. When the roots are getting crowded, pot them up to 4" pots. To make your seedlings strong with thick stems, lightly brush your plants daily if possible. About two weeks before they are ready to go outside you need to begin a process called hardening off. All of their short lives they have been warm, away from wind and the strong sun. You have to gradually condition them to their new home. Start by putting them in the shady and sheltered area for an hour. Increase their exposure by a half an hour daily, as you gradually expose them to more sun and wind.
If possible, plant them out on a cloudy day. Don't try and get a head start and plant them out if cold temperatures are threatening. Without protection, I would wait to plant tomatoes until May 25 or even May 30 in the twin cities. Temperatures at 45 degrees will stunt them. Temps below 40 will set them back severely. It has been said, "Cowardous gardeners are winners!" If frost threatens, even at this late date, surround your plant with leaves, and cover them with a 5 gallon bucket. Put a blanket over the bucket. Tomatoes are a tropical plant and will be stunted if they are stressed. Plants placed outside when all danger of cold is past will surpass the ones that were rushed out. When you go to plant them, get the hole ready before you take the plant out of its container. Tomatoes grow roots out of their stem, so you can plant them so only two inches of the plant is showing. Water it in right away. Be sure and add plenty of compost in your soil. Tomatoes are very demanding of nutrients. Maintain consistent watering to avoid tomatoes rotting at the bottom.
This is part one of my tomato guide. Stay tuned for more tips and tricks with regards to fertilizing, pruning, pests and diseases, and processing your harvest.