What makes a great tomato? One ingredient may be nostalgia.
“We’re always chasing that memory people have of that homegrown tomato that they went out into Grandpa’s garden and took a bite of, fresh off the vine,” says Rick VanVranken, a county agricultural agent at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station associated with Rutgers University.
That joy of biting into a fresh, tasty tomato, as opposed to a bland supermarket fruit, has inspired many home gardeners to grow their own.
“That’s the advantage of growing them in your own backyard — you can go out there and pick them when they are bright, red, juicy, full of flavor, and then eat them right away,” says VanVranken, who notes that New Jersey is known for its tomatoes. That’s partly because of the Rutgers hybrid tomato developed in the 1930s that was so flavorful it was used in Campbell’s tomato soup and was known colloquially as the Jersey tomato.
There may be more advice in books and on the web for growing tomatoes than any other crop, but VanVranken and other experts say you shouldn’t be intimidated.
“The biggest tip if you’re growing them yourself is not to get too worried about it,” VanVranken advises. “Tomato plants are fairly forgiving and easy to grow.”
You can grow them in the garden, in raised beds, in containers, even in straw bales, according to North Carolina tomato grower Craig LeHoullier, a chemist by profession and author of Epic Tomatoes as well as a book on straw-bale horticulture. This year he’ll grow 60 tomato plants in his home garden, about half of the “overwhelming” number he grew last year.
LeHoullier admits that tomatoes, like roses, can be a bit persnickety, but “it’s a perfect hobby for someone who really wants to be in the garden and enjoy it.”
If you’re ready to tackle tomatoes, here are tips for yielding that delicious summer treat you remember.
1. Know what you’re growing. Tomatoes are either determinate (that is, compact and bushy) or indeterminate (vining, which can climb up to 8 feet tall). The type you plant will determine how you need to support the plant. Paste or plum tomatoes, like Romas, are usually determinate and tend to ripen within a short period — say, two weeks. Indeterminate tomatoes, including most older varieties, such as Brandywine, keep growing and producing until frost.
2. Choose heirloom or hybrid. Heirlooms — varieties that can be reproduced from their own seed — are the rage right now, particularly among seed collectors like LeHoullier. He estimates there are 10,000 tomato varieties, and, as a member of the Seed Savers Exchange, he has collected seeds for about half of them. Hybrids are a cross of varieties and can’t be duplicated from their own seed. They were developed to be more disease- or pest-resistant, VanVranken explains. Both have their advantages, growers say, and there’s nothing inferior about hybrids.