Our top 12 tomato tips … and a few easy recipes

Every gardener loves tomatoes. We love them in salads, sandwiches, pasta sauces, and salsas. Most of all, we love them fresh from the garden. In fact, they are the most widely grown crop in North America.

Raising tomatoes can be difficult. It calls for practice, attention to detail, and some luck. Here are our best tips for a successful growing season.

Be patient. Don’t plant seeds or set transplants out too early. Tomatoes hate cold soil and cold nights (below 55[degrees]F).

Select tomato varieties that extend your growing season. Grow an early-season variety as well as mid-season and late ones.

Start seeds indoors properly. Use big containers with plenty of room for the roots. Seedlings will develop the best root systems if the roots don’t touch the sides of their containers.

Choose nursery seedlings carefully if you can’t start your own. Select healthy transplants with at least five to seven leaves. If you buy a six-pack, move the seedlings to bigger pots without disturbing the roots.

Select a garden spot that gets a minimum of 6 hours of direct sunlight daily. The more sunlight, the bigger the crop.

Enrich your garden soil with compost before planting.

Tomatoes like fairly rich soil. Supplement this with light feedings of liquid seaweed or fish emulsion throughout the growing season. When the first tomatoes set, side-dress with nitrogen–1/4 cup of aluminum sulfate or 1 cup of blood meal.

Support your tomato plants.

Stakes, trellises, or wire cages keep the plants and fruit off the ground and make it easier for you to pick the tomatoes. Supported tomatoes also ripen faster.

Water often. Tomatoes need 1 to 1 1/2 inches of water per week. Water deeply to encourage root growth.
Mulch. Add mulch around your plants after the soil has warmed up. Good mulch materials are straw, grass clippings, landscape fabric, and newspapers. Mulch keeps the soil moist and weeds down.

Prune. Pinch out suckers at the base of the plant and between the main stem and branches to let more sunshine onto the plant and improve air circulation. Also, pinch off any late blossoms that will not have time to mature at the end of the season.

Inspect plants every day. Look for signs of insect or disease damage. It’s easier to take care of problems when they are small and isolated.

Extend the season. Just before a killing frost, carefully harvest the entire plant with the immature fruit and hang it upside down in a cool place. The tomatoes will slowly ripen.

PLANTING SECRETS

Lay tall, leggy transplants on their sides in trenches 3 to 4 inches deep rather than in deep holes. Bury the stems up to the first set of true leaves. Roots will develop along the buried stem of the plant.

Put a stake on the opposite side of the stem from where the first flower cluster appears. This will keep the tomatoes from getting jammed against the stake, because most of the flower clusters will form on the same side of the stem.

Tie the plants to a stake with a soft cord or a strip of cloth. Pass the cord under a leaf stalk to give more support.
Grow tomatoes close to a south-facing stone wall or put some rocks close to the plants. The stones trap the Sun’s warmth during the day and release the heat at night.

OUR FAVORITE FRESH

TOMATO SALSA

Serve this salsa as an appetizer with chips or a topping for grilled fish or chicken.

2 cups finely chopped ripe tomatoes (combine red and yellow tomatoes for a pretty effect)

1/2 cup finely diced red onion

2 jalapenos, finely minced

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

In a medium bowl, combine all of the ingredients and toss to mix. Cover and let stand for about 1 hour (refrigerate if more than 1 hour). Makes about 3 cups.

HOMEMADE TOMATO SOUP

A great way to use extra tomatoes from the garden.

2 tablespoons butter

2 pounds ripe tomatoes, diced

1 onion, sliced

1 carrot, sliced

2 tablespoons flour

4 cups chicken stock

2 tablespoons cream

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the vegetables, and cook gently for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the flour, and stir in the stock. Return to the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Strain the soup but save the carrot. Mash the carrot slices and add to the soup. Add the cream and stir. Add the herbs and season to taste. Serve warm or cold. Makes 4 to 5 servings.

TOMATO RECIPES

TOMATO BASIL JAM

This is a wonderfully tasty jam that can be enjoyed in countless ways. Try it with cheese or as a topping for pork chops.

6 large, ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

4 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh basil leaves

1 package (1 3/4 ounces) powdered fruit pectin

3 cups sugar, divided

Place the chopped tomatoes in a pot. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the lemon juice and basil. In a small bowl, combine the pectin and 1/4 cup of the sugar; add to the tomatoes. Heat to a rolling boil, stirring constantly. Add the remaining sugar. Return to a rolling boil and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and skim off any foam. Ladle the jam into hot, sterilized canning jars, leaving 1/4 inch of headspace. Seal and process in a boiling water bath for 5 minutes. If not processed, the jam will keep for 2 weeks in the refrigerator. Makes about 2 1/2 pints.


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