Technically, tomatoes are considered a fruit, but for most of us, they are vegetables and our favorite vegetable at that.
Tomatoes are probably one of the easiest plants to grow. The versatile tomato is delightful fresh off the vine and as a component in everything from salad to spaghetti sauce. Tomatoes are also the focus of numerous gardening forums and clubs, so information is widely available on almost every variety, as well as cultivation and problem solving.
Before picking a variety, check your space. If you have a small garden a determinant variety might be best, though both determinant and indeterminant varieties will grow just about anywhere you put them as long as they get enough sun and water.
What's the difference? Determinant varieties tend to stay short and relatively bushy. That makes them a good choice for small gardens as well as containers or planters on the back patio or balcony.
Indeterminant plants keep growing and need to be staked and tied up to a trellis or other support. You can pinch them back to force more growth below, but it's just as easy to work with them and tie them up. Indeterminant varieties can get very, very big and rambly, so training them to grow vertically frees up a lot of space and keeps fruit off the ground.
The next key to choosing the right tomato is the length of your growing season and zone. Select tomatoes that do well in your region. Your county extension service usually has a list of tomatoes that are recommended for your area. Local nurseries generally carry only those varieties that have some chance of success, sometimes including the more popular heirlooms.
Put the climate, geography, and general tomato characteristics into perspective, then select tomatoes by considering where you intend to plant them, type, and length of growing season. By planning your tomato choices you can enjoy fresh tomatoes from July through the first frost. You might select a 60-day tomato such as 'Patio' for a planter on the deck, then plant a couple more in the garden, one of which is a "mid-season" 70 day plant and another that is 80 days. (The number of days is from the date of transplant, by the way.)
There are many different varieties of tomatoes, so don't hesitate to experiment. And don't be surprised if your tomatoes vary from year to year. Identical varieties produce different results with a great flavor one year and marginal the following season. Weather makes a difference.
Prepare your beds or containers first. Nothing is more discouraging than spending good money for plants, then having no time to get out and get beds dug or containers prepared. Plants left in the small containers can get leggy, sad, and stressed.
The first year you try tomatoes, buy plants. You can get a variety of six small plants for a home garden at a low cost. It's much less work than starting plants from seed. You're limited by the number of varieties available commercially, so check garden shows, farmer's markets, and online for unusual or heirloom varieties.
Once you have your plants, you can set them out once the danger of frost is well past. Generally, the earlier you get them in the ground the sooner you'll have tomatoes.
If you have a cool, damp spring and it carries into the summer, depending on variety, you could easily have a later fruit set and not see a ripe tomato until August. To help plants along, use red plastic on the ground under your plants or one gallon milk jugs with the bottoms cut out. They keep plants a little warmer and can give them as much as a month head start. By the time the young plants outgrow their protective cover, it should be warm enough for them to kick into high gear.
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