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Seeds from Italy

How to grow tomatoes

Tomatoes 

General.  All of our tomatoes are traditional Italian heirloom varieties. They have been selected over the years to perform specific tasks in the Italian kitchen. San Marzano 2, a plum, is used primarily for sauces. It has few seeds and little juice. Principe Borghese, a very small plum, can be used for sauce, fresh eating, but is primarily used by Italians to make dried tomatoes. In the event you are fortunate to have the right climate, you can dry them outside on a screen; if you do not (like most of us), use a dehydrator or the oven.  Store them dry or pack in olive oil.  Cuor di bueCostoluto Fiorintino, Pantano, Marglobe and Marmande are beefsteak types. You can use them for sauces or canning, but they are best enjoyed fresh or lightly cooked with other vegetables. 

Culture.  Tomatoes prefer a relatively fertile, well-drained soil with good phosphorus content.  Too much nitrogen will cause excessive plant growth, but production of fruit will suffer. For most areas of the US, you need to use transplants. DO NOT START TRANSPLANTS TOO EARLY. If you have limited growing space for transplants (e.g. you use standard ‘six pack’ containers), start your transplants about six or seven weeks before anticipated setting out date. Set out date should be after the last frost date and when nighttime temperatures are consistently in the 50s. Here in New England, the traditional date to set out tomatoes is Memorial Day, although you can often set out a week or so earlier;  more if you give protection with remay cloth.  If you have the room (such as a small greenhouse), you can start your plants earlier and pot them up to bigger containers as they grow. For example, at six weeks, remove them from the six-pack cell and put them in a 5" pot.  10-14 days later, depending on the growth, put them in an 8” pot.  Two weeks later, by which time they will probably be flowering, put them in a 10" pot.  Set them out at the normal time. 

Growing.  Give your plants plenty of room. If you plan on training to a single stem, you can set them 12-16” apart. If training to 2-3 stems, set 18-24 inches apart. If using cages, set 24 inches apart. If letting them sprawl, give them at least 30 inches. Make your rows at least four feet apart;  five feet is better, especially if you are using cages or allowing them to sprawl. You can (and should) remove some of the lower leaves when you set them in the ground. Set them deeper than they were growing because the stems will develop roots. If they are very leggy (tall, but thin stems), remove most of the leaves, lay them in a shallow trench, then carefully bend up the tip of the plant and tamp soil around it.  

Pruning. Pinch suckers (the new growth that begins between the leaf and the stem) weekly.  General rule is if training to two  stems, leave the main stem (where the first flowers appear) and the first sucker below the first set of flowers. If training to three stems, also leave the first sucker above the first flower. Remove all others. Most people who use cages do not prune or only prune lightly. Unpruned plants will typically ripen the first fruit a week or two later than pruned plants. 

Diseases and Pests.  There are not too many pests that bother tomatoes. Some gardeners have hornworms (huge green caterpillars). Usually they can easily be controlled by hand picking. Look carefully.  They are hard to see, but usually can be found by following the line of defoliation. If you have a serious infestation, you can control them with dipel. Flea beetles are sometimes a problem.  You know you have flea beetles when you see lots of tiny holes in the leaves. Flea beetles are not usually a problem on mature plants; they can severely damage young transplants. Safer soap spray (or any soap/water spray) will usually control them. As for diseases, there are an incredible number of blights & other diseases which attack tomatoes. Once they take hold, they are difficult to control and by far the best strategy is prevention. Many (but not all) diseases are soilborne.  If you have the space, rotate your tomato growing areas.  Remove plant debris at the end of the growing season and burn it or take it away. Do not put it on the compost pile. Do whatever you can to prevent your plants from having direct contact with the soil. Remove lower leaves up  to 8";  spread a heavy layer of mulch around the plants (straw, hay, dried grass clippings). Try to avoid using overhead irrigation with a sprinkler; if you must overhead irrigate, time your watering so that the foliage has a chance to dry out before evening. Soaker hoses are very effective and also will cut your use of water. Don’t fixate on diseases. With the exception of late blight, most foliar diseases will not completely kill your crop of tomatoes.  They  will usually survive and give a crop, somewhat reduced, until the first frost. Prevent blossom end rot by making sure your soil has an adequate supply of calcium - if you use lime, use one with calcium. You can also use crushed up eggshells.  Adequate moisture also helps prevent blossom end rot. 

Harvest/storage.  You have two choices. You can pick your tomatoes when they are dead ripe and use them immediately. You can also pick them when they have turned color (say when they are mostly pink, but obviously not ready). When picked at this stage and left in a warm place out of the sun, they will finish ripening and the taste will be just as excellent as if they were ripened on the vine. The advantage to doing this is you are less likely to have fruit split, drop from the plant, crack at the stem end, etc. Never ever put your ripe tomatoes in the refrigerator. Taste declines significantly and the interior will taste mushy. Pick green unblemished fruit when you know there will be a frost. Wrap them individually in newspaper and store in a cool area in a box. Check frequently for rot. To ripen, take some and put them in a warm area. They won’t taste as good as a vine ripened tomato, but they will be better than the supermarket ones.