As the yellow tomato blossoms and the smallest round, green fruits begin to appear on tomato plants at this time of year, it’s difficult not to think ahead to plans for the first fully ripe tomato waiting to be harvested. For me, I dream of that first BLT, with tomatoes and lettuce from the garden, served on toasted Pepperidge Farm bread slathered with Hellman’s mayonnaise. Broccoli and spinach are more nutritious than the tomato, but, along with the potato, few vegetables have more culinary versatility. At the end of June, everyone who grows tomatoes has a favorite recipe or two to begin dreaming about.
It’s my belief that all people who grow their own vegetables are gourmet gardeners, whether they realize it or not. So any posts on vegetable and herb gardening will be categorized as Gourmet Gardening. This first post covers some of the background on tomatoes. Other tomato posts will cover growing techniques and tomato pests and diseases.
The tomato is actually a perennial grown as an annual. Tomatoes originated in either Peru or Bolivia, near the equator. They first made their way into the U.S. from Europe in the 1700s. Botanically, tomatoes are considered fruits, although, in 1893, the Supreme Court, in Nix v. Hedden, 149 U.S. 304, declared tomatoes a vegetable for tariff purposes; and, ever since, we tend to refer to tomatoes as vegetables.
All tomatoes are day-neutral: they will develop well under conditions of either long or short days; however, their best growth occurs with 12-14 hours of daylight and no more than a 10°F differential between daytime and nighttime temperatures. Since tomatoes are tender, warm-season vegetables, they should never be planted out prior to the last frost date (May 1 for Zone 6 and May 15 for Zone 5).
Tomatoes are classified as either Determinate, Semi-Determinate or Indeterminate:
All fruits of Determinate Tomatoes mature at approximately the same time, making them a preferred choice for commercial growers, since they are easiest to harvest. Most Cherry Tomatoes are Determinate. Determinate Tomatoes have flowers that form at the apical, or terminal, growing point, thereby determining the ultimate height of the plant. Due to their limited height, Determinate Tomatoes are popular selections for patio tomatoes or growing areas with limited space. Determinate Tomatoes mature approximately 30 days before Indeterminate Tomatoes.
There are relatively few Semi-Determinate Tomatoes, but one popular variety is “Celebrity”. Semi-Determinates, as the name suggests, are somewhere between Determinate and Indeterminate Tomatoes in terms of growth habit. Semi-Determinate varieties have longer stems than Determinate varieties, fewer leaf nodes between the flowers, and the stems end in a fruit cluster.
Indeterminate Tomatoes comprise the bulk of all heirloom varieties, and are, otherwise, probably the most popular of all tomatoes grown. Whether you want beefsteak tomatoes, or yellow tomatoes, or Green Zebra tomatoes, Indeterminate varieties offer an abundance of choices and wonderful flavors. Indeterminates have an apical growing point that remains vegetative, rather than forming a flower, so Indeterminates can become very large plants. They will continue to produce until the first frost, at which time remaining green tomatoes can be harvested, wrapped in brown kraft paper and allowed to finish ripening indoors. Space these plants 24″-36″ (61-91 cm) apart, and be prepared to stake the plants as they grow.