by Chase Smoak
Your guide to growing delicious homegrown tomatoes
Many gardeners claim if you want great flavor, you’ll need to plant heirloom varieties. People selected these landrace tomato plants long ago for traits such as shape, size and taste, so the claim has a basis. In pursuit of a better tasting tomato, however, significant factors like resistance to insects and disease were overlooked.
If you’ve grown heirlooms, you know how challenging the process can be. This bittersweet truth has left many gardeners wondering if old-timey taste is a thing of the past. Well, there’s good news. Consumer demand for resilient, flavorful tomatoes has not fallen on deaf ears. Plant breeders have brought us a number of improved tomato varieties, but with so many options available, how do you make the best choice?
A nonprofit organization called All-America Selections (AAS) may have the answer. The group tests new varieties before they hit the market, and their trial notes will tell you everything you need to know.
How does it work? Professional horticulturists across the country volunteer to grow test plots of new varieties and compare notes on disease resistance, yields and taste alongside established varieties.
“Our judges rate taste and texture first, then everything else second,” says Diane Blazek, executive director of AAS and the National Garden Bureau. “You can have the most prolific, cute, unique new tomato, but if it doesn’t taste good, nobody wants it.”
Stage 1: Prepare
Your tomato garden needs full sun (6 to 8 hours a day) and should have good drainage. Tomato plants hate wet feet and often succumb to root rot when left in waterlogged soils. They do, however, need regular watering throughout the growing season. Irrigating deeply but infrequently strengthens plants and encourages healthy root systems for hot summer days. Drip irrigation works well and doesn’t soak leaves, which often leads to disease issues.
Avoid using a place where tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant and other solanaceous crops have been grown within the past three years. Many pests overwinter in the soil and will terrorize unsuspecting gardeners.
Test your soil and amend the ground as indicated. Your local extension agent can help you arrange a test and interpret the results. Tomatoes require a good supply of nutrients, so you’ll likely need to fertilize before and during the growing cycle. After clearing the site of any weeds, spread mulch 3 to 4 inches deep and keep it a palm-width away from the bases of tomato stems.
Planting should only begin after the last frost date for your area.
Stage 2: Protect
Get to know your garden and what lives in it. Talk to your local extension agent for a precise understanding of the insects and diseases to watch out for. Remember that beneficial insects like praying mantis and lady beetles naturally keep damaging insects in check. Don’t resort to pesticides at the first sign of something that flies or crawls. They may be annoying, but small pest populations can often be tolerated. Set thresholds to guide your treatment.
If treatment is necessary, use the least toxic measure first. Proper watering, plant spacing and fertilization can help prevent or reduce the number of pests. Physical removal of pests can be useful for small populations. Hornworms are removable by hand-picking, and aphids are often washed away by a good squirt from a water hose.
If these approaches fail, reach out to your local extension agent for advice on pesticides and follow all label directions. Pesticide labels are the law, and many chemicals may be unethical or even illegal to use on fruit-bearing plants. Err on the side of caution.
Stage 3: Enjoy the pursuit
Gardening should be an enjoyable escape from the fast-paced world we live in. It’s an opportunity for us to serve as good stewards of the land, so when the time comes, we pass on something better to the next generation. If you really want to experience all that gardening has to offer this summer, focus on using it to produce memories instead of a crop. If you do, you’ll find everything begins to taste a little sweeter along the way.
Smoak is a Clemson University Cooperative Extension agent who specializes in plant propagation. For seed suppliers and garden centers that carry AAS-recommended varieties, visit all-americaselections.org/buy-winners.