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Thursday, July 21, 2011 10:14 am

Home-grown tomato time!

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The most exciting garden event of the summer is picking the first red, juicy ripe tomatoes. This passion is shared with many gardeners as tomatoes are one of the most popular vegetables grown in the home garden.

I commonly get asked, “What is the best tomato to grow?” The answer will be different for everyone. This time of year we have a great opportunity to taste test garden fresh tomatoes. This can be done by visiting a farmers market or having a garden taste testing party with your friends, asking everyone to bring a different kind of tomato.

So how do you begin to pick the perfect tomato variety? There are more than 7,500 tomato varieties ranging in size, shape and color. Tomatoes come in several colors – red, pink, yellow, orange, deep purple (black), white, green and striped. Fruit size ranges from a -inch cherry tomato to a 4-inch beefsteak tomato. Most importantly, each variety has its own flavor.

Understanding tomato terminology can help narrow the selection for finding the perfect plant.

Slicing/ beefsteak/ globe tomatoes are large and round and commonly used for fresh eating.

Cherry and grape tomatoes are small in size and tend to be sweeter than slicing tomatoes. They are commonly used whole in salads.

Plum/ paste/ Roma tomatoes have a low water content and are used for making sauce, paste and ketchup.

Determinate tomato plants grow to a certain point and stop growing. Plants tend to be more compact, taking up less space, and all the fruit ripens within a short period of time.
Indeterminate tomato plants continue to grow and fruit until frost. They produce higher yields.

Hybrid tomato means that the seed is a cross between two different varieties. It is usually bred for a certain set of characteristics, such as disease resistance. Hybrid tomatoes tend to be the most popular.

Open-pollinated variety has the same characteristics generation after generation.

Heirloom tomatoes refer to tomatoes passed down from generation to generation. Commercial heirloom refers to open-pollinated varieties more than 50 years in circulation. Because of their great taste, there is increasing demand for heirloom tomatoes. Some common varieties include Green Zebra, Brandywine, Mortgage Lifter, Red Pear, Yellow Pear, Amish Paste and Cherokee Purple.

Unfortunately tomato plants are not without their problems. They are susceptible to several diseases, insect and physiological disorders.

Tomato plants are heat-loving and need a long growing season. They are a relatively easy vegetable crop to grow but sometimes it is a challenge to produce picture-perfect fruit. They are more than 40 diseases of tomatoes. In addition, there are a number of physiological (environmental) disorders that relate to growth conditions. (These disorders don’t spread from one plant to another.) It is not uncommon to find a few problems with your crop during a normal growing season.

Maintain good health of plants by proper care such as providing one inch of water per week, maintaining even soil moisture, mulching plants, provide proper plant nutrition, caging plants, rotating the location of the plants each year and selecting disease-resistant varieties.

Whether growing your own or buying local, it’s time to start your summer fresh tomato adventure.

Jennifer Fishburn is horticulture educator at University of Illinois Extension, Sangamon-Menard Unit. Contact her at fishburn@illinois.edu.

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