Tomatoes are ubiquitous in the kitchen, although truthfully, neither the wife or I really like them on their own. My mother and father enjoyed tomato sandwiches, for instance... and green fried tomatoes. Those will be unlikely to ever hit our dining table. Something about the texture of tomatoes, especially the larger kind, does not suit us well.
However, tomatoes still get used well in our kitchen. I enjoy salsa with fresh tomatoes, onions, and peppers, and I am a heavy user of sauces such as marinara. Tomatoes play a large part in my homemade chili, and I usually make a few batches of tomato soup for canning. Because of this, I grow mostly paste tomatoes such as roma varieties. These tend to have much less of the gooey innards that feature in larger tomatoes, and usually have fewer seeds too. The larger tomatoes I grow are primarily for friends and family.
For making sauces, remove the skins by dipping tomatoes in boiling water for 5 minutes or so, then transferring them to ice water. After cooling down, the skins should be easily removable by rubbing your thumbs around the tomato. For chili, some skins can be left on, but most should be removed.
Tomatoes are probably the most popular thing to grow in the home garden (in the US, at least). It's because people appreciate the flavors offered by fresh and ripe tomatoes, they're insanely easy to grow, and probably because the tomato-only gardeners don't realize how easy and tasty home-grown carrots and broccoli are.
Tomatoes need cages. There are few exceptions to this. Tomato plants can grow to very large plants if treated right, and the tomatoes on a given vine could weigh well above a pound. So cage the things, for your own sanity. Indeterminate tomatoes (which sprawl rather than grow into a small bush like determinate tomatoes) definitely need caged unless you have ample garden space to let them crawl. My cages are made of remesh, which is thin rebar. My cages are about 5' tall and 2.5' in diameter, so they're fairly hefty.
Mulch your tomatoes, preferably with red mulch. I am a fan of plastic mulches (really, just light sheets of plastic). They do a wonderful job of preventing weeds from growing, retaining moisture, and warming the soil in the cooler months. Additionally, mulch increases yield. According to Penn State's Ag Extension, bare ground produces 30% less tomato yield than any color of plastic, and although this disagrees with that 1993 study, their current recommendation is red mulch because red mulch yields are on average 12% better than on black, and plants are less susceptible to early blight. So I use red mulch, but it's just a preference of mine.
Spacing: I've made the mistake of planting tomatoes too closely every year. I try to fit a lot in, then I can't walk through them to harvest. 2.5 feet works for in-row spacing, but 3 feet is better. Likewise, 3 feet is OK for between-row spacing, but 4 will make it easier to traverse.
Pruning: Tomatoes grow more 'branches' than they need - it will not hurt to snap off branches growing in undesirable directions or locations. In fact, this aids in maintaining walkways and keeping space near the bottom for watering.
Fertilizer recommendations are wild and crazy on the interwebs. Here are some examples:
- 1 pint 10-10-10 per square foot (no mention of when/how often)
- 2-3 Tbsp fertilizer (what kind?) every 3-4 wk after fruit forms. Work into soil 4-6" away from stem
- Fish emulsion every 2 weeks, plus a handful of Tomato Tone every 4 weeks.
- 1 Tbsp high nitrogen (e.g. Urea) at first fruit setting and every 3 weeks thereafter
- 3.5 lb. Calcium Nitrate (15-0-0) per 100 ft row every 4 weeks
My recommendation is, based on these samples, to throw a small handful of high-nitrogen fertilizer like Urea near the base of each plant every 3-4 weeks. I have used Tomato Tone and fish emulsion with success, so I think that tomatoes will be happy as long as they're fed.
Tomatoes are most often canned in soups, juices, sauces or salsas (recipes below) or frozen in any of those forms. Tomatoes can also be dried, but I find their use to be more limited with that preservation method.
Matt's Garden Notes:
Matt's 2013 Map
Matt's 2013 Tomato Map
2011: Grew a few tomatoes (perhaps 4-5) from seed without cages or mulch. Deer gave them a nice haircut in late June, which upset me quite a bit, and they produced some good fruit, but nothing noteworthy. This was also the first year of the garden, so the soil was poor.
2012: Definitely noteworthy yields from 12 plants. All transplants were storebought, as I killed my seedlings the same way I killed my peppers that year, probably over-fertilization. I spaced them about 2' apart in-row, 3' apart between, and I did not have space to properly harvest. I used red mulch and the little flimsy garden center cages, but the resultant plants were so large that these cages could not support the weight of the plant, which was evident when a hurricane came through and knocked all of the plants over. However, yields were abundant and many tomatoes were shared with family and friends
2013: This year I am growing 13 tomato plants -- 2 Mortgage Lifters, 3 Amish Paste, 3 normal romas, 3 Heinz 1350's, and one each of Gold Medal and Nyagous from a coworker. I am spacing them about 3' apart in the row and 3.5' between (I don't learn from my mistakes) in cages 5' tall and about 2.5' in diameter. I have most of them over red mulch, but some got black since they're with the tomatillos. I am also allowing 2 volunteers to grow - I don't know what they are but am willing to wait and find out. One garden forum commenter once suggested that we're all silly for seeding indoors and transplanting, and he hypothesized that seeding outdoors would be preferable and we would see increased fruit yields. I did not see any results that indicated such - I pulled them out after my transplant had already started ripening fruits and the volunteers had not yet set any.
I seeded tomatoes 6 MAR and 12 MAR, and transplanted them 27 APR-20 MAY (the later ones being the Nyagous and Gold Medal). We had some heavy frosts after that date, but with some careful covering and wall-o-waters, they all survived. Several of my co-workers and neighbors had a hard time getting tomatoes in 2013 because of the consistently wet weather (June had 2x the average precipitation) and late frosts. Mine grew to over 6' tall and ripened in late July through mid-September, setting plenty of fruit but less than in 2012. The Mortgage lifters were good and hearty, but attracted stink bugs which damaged and discolored the fruit. None of the other varieties were terribly damaged, but all had some amount of stink bug infestation. The normal 'Romas' were very small in comparison to the other two paste varieties I grew, so I don't think I'll grow them again. Neither the Black Nyagous nor Gold Medals were very productive, probably in part due to their later transplanting.
2014: I plan on growing San Marzano tomatoes, which are large paste tomatoes, as well as a few other paste varieties. I am going to try some 'Fourth of July' tomatoes as well, and I may also do Mortgage lifters again, depending on how many seeds I have left.
Recipes using Tomato:
Matt's Salsa Fresca
Canned Tomato Sauce
Alton Brown's Guacamole
Burned Red Tomato Salsa
Black Bean Chili
Freezer Spaghetti Sauce