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Flashback Friday: Growing America's Number One Vegetable

May 17, 2013

These tomatoes come from a mid-sized garden that my husband and I have in our backyard.

Credit: Jennifer Miller
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(from The Old Farmer’s Almanac 1993 Gardener’s Companion)

Before The Old Farmer’s Almanac All-Seasons Garden Guide, there was The Gardener’s Companion, an annual full of seasonal tips and advice for green thumbs of all experience levels.

In 1993, The Gardener’s Companion offered some well-sown advice on growing what was then and still is the most popular vegetable in America: tomatoes. Whether you’re new to growing tomatoes or just want to try your hand at new varieties, you’d do well to follow The Gardener’s Companion’s timeless advice!

Our 10 Best Tomato-Culture Tips

1.     Wait. Patience is a major ingredient in tomato success. Don’t catch Tomato Fever: Don’t plant seeds too early and don’t set out transplants too early. Tomatoes hate cold soil, cold nights (below 55 degrees F), and cold weather.

2.     Select a tomato variety that suits your climate. There are about a thousand choices.

3.     Sow your own! Every single time we’ve had a superb tomato harvest, the plants have been started from seed and transplanted into a good-size pot at an early age. Don’t let tomato roots touch the sides of their containers; they’ll develop the best root systems if they have no limits.

4.     Choose nursery seedlings carefully if you can’t start your own. A good commercial grower will supply healthy 5- or 6-week-old plants with five or seven leaves, but if they’re not adopted in good order and released from their root captivity, they may never recover. Be wary of peat pots, too; if the soil is too dry, they may not disintegrate. It’s a good idea to free the roots carefully.

5.     Enrich the soil before planting with compost or a slow-acting fertilizer. (Use 10-50-10 at about 1 tablespoon per gallon.) Tomatoes are heavy feeders and like fairly rich soil—but not too rich; too much nitrogen, and you may not get fruit. They’ll appreciate supplemental light feedings (either side dressing or foliar spray) throughout their growing season. Liquid seaweed or fish emulsion works well.

6.     Water as necessary to provide an even supply. Tomatoes like a lot of water, between 1 and 1-1/2 inches a week, which means that you have to water them at least once a week.

7.     Support your tomato plants somehow. We have come around to this position although some old-timers still let them sprawl. Staking, trellising, or using wire cages makes a neater plant and uses less space, keeps the fruit off the ground where the snails and slugs are and where rot develops, and allows you to walk around the plant to pick the fruit.

8.     Mulch the soil around your tomato plants—but not until it has warmed up. Use spoiled hay, black landscape fiber, composted manure, grass clippings, or anything else at hand. But mulch—to retain the soil’s moisture and keep weeds down.

9.     Hasten ripening by pinching out suckers at the base of the plant and between the main stem and branches. Prune some foliage to let in more sunshine to raise the temperature. Pinch off all late blossoms that will never have time to bear mature fruit. Try “thermoperiodicity”—chilling 1- to 1-1/2-inch seedlings, just after their seed leaves unfold, to 50 to 55 degrees F by night—for a couple of weeks. This method seems to increase and hasten yields.

10. Extend the season by root pruning and covering plants overnight—with agricultural fleece, newspapers, sheets, plastic, or whatever’s at hand—to hold in the heat of the day. Or try this: Just before the killing frost, carefully harvest whole vines with the immature fruit and hang them in a cool place. 

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Ginger Vaughan has worked for The Old Farmer's Almanac for over a decade and, every spring, thinks about starting a garden. When she isn't enjoying the outdoors (and pondering just where to plant that garden), she can often be found in the kitchen testing out new recipes. She lives in a Pacific Northwest forest on the Puget Sound with Thor and Olive, two English bulldogs who would like to taste test her cooking creations far more often than they are allowed. 

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