Growing Tomatoes Organically
Tomato Seeds Vs. Tomato Seedlings?
Whether you start your own tomato seeds or buy tomato seedlings, growing them organically will produce healthier plants and better tasting tomatoes.
Tomatoes are one of the most popular summer crops grown in the U.S. High in vitamins and minerals, tomatoes are a healthy and delicious addition to any back yard garden.
Tomatoes are native to the tropical areas of Central and South America, where they grow as perennials. However, in most of the United States tomatoes are grown as annuals. In the southern states they can be grown directly from seeds planted in the ground, but in the north they must be started indoors seven to ten weeks before the last frost in your area, and then transplanted to the garden as seedlings. If you don't have the time or space to start your own tomatoes indoors, tomato seedlings are available almost everywhere at planting time. Tomato seedlings should not be transplanted outside until nighttime temperatures are above 50F, unless you have a means of protecting them if the temperature drops.
Determinate Tomatoes Vs. Indeterminate Tomatoes
Determinate tomatoes are the bush type. They need less staking and are the better choice for growing in containers. I have had great success growing bush type tomatoes in containers of straight organic compost with just some PH adjustment. All tomatoes prefer a slightly acidic to neutral soil (6.0 - 7.0). Determinate tomatoes set all their fruit and then ripen all at once. For this reason determinate tomatoes are also a good choice for canning, especially if you have a small crop.
Indeterminate Tomatoes are the vine type. This type of tomato continues to make new fruit right up until the first frost, and is a good choice if you want fresh tomatoes for the entire season (I suggest growing some of both types).
Indeterminate tomatoes can be left to sprawl on the ground, but this makes them harder to harvest and more susceptible to rotting from contact with the ground. For this reason most gardeners use some method of support to keep their tomatoes growing in a more orderly fashion. Wire cages are the simplest method of supporting tomato plants. They come pre-made in varying sizes or can be made from fencing and can contain a plant without the need for "training" (pinching back the suckers that occur between each leaf and stem junction. These turn into additional stems.) Hint: If you make you own cages, use a mesh large enough to get your hand through.
Indeterminate tomatoes may also be staked and trained to have only one stem, or they can be grown along a trellis and trained to have two or three stems. These two methods also require that you tie the tomato stems to the supports as they continue to grow. While training tomatoes is more work, by limiting the number of stems and therefore the number of tomatoes, the resulting fruit will be bigger and juicer (for that one slice tomato sandwich). Caging however will save you time and produce ample amounts of tomatoes that are superior to what you'll find in the supermarket.
Hybrid Tomatoes Vs. Heirloom Tomatoes
Heirloom tomatoes have not been altered and will produce fertile seeds that can be saved and grown to produce the same fruit in following years. Hybrid tomatoes will have sterile seeds or seeds that will produce one of the original varieties that made up the hybrid in the first place. I personally believe it is important to preserve heirloom varieties. Also, by saving seeds and replanting them, the resulting plants will become more adapted to your specific climate and soil type.
Hybrid tomatoes are acceptable to the organic gardener, provided they have not been genetically altered. Many hybrid types of tomato are resistant to disease and or insects. The VFN indication on plant labels refers to resistance to Verticillium Wilt, Fusarium Wilt and Nematodes respectively.
Whether you choose to grow heirloom varieties or hybrids, good organic gardening practices, will lessen the chances your plants will succumb to insects or disease. The use of plenty of rich organic compost, companion planting with herbs and flowers, generous mulching and regular watering, will all enhances your plant's overall health and productivity.
Tips on Growing Organic Tomatoes
As with all plants, tomatoes benefit from the generous use of organic compost added to the soil.
Use plenty of mulch, not only to conserve water and hold down weeds, but also to minimize contact with soil born disease. (I prefer natural mulch to plastic. I use seaweed but leaves and glass clippings work well also)
When planting seedlings, don't loosen roots as you would with some transplants. Remove lower leaves and plant so only the top leaves are above the ground. If plants are very "leggy", they can be planted on their side with the top turned gently upright to protrude from the soil.
Water plants regularly in early morning preferably. Watering should be done at ground level rather than spraying the leaves.
Apply fish emulsion periodically to organically supply trace minerals that contribute to healthy plants.
Top dress with more compost midway through the season
Companion plant with basil, dill or borage to attract beneficial wasps whose parasitic larvae feed on hornworms.
Good luck with your organic tomatoes. If you haven't grown them before your in for a treat!
Chip Phelan, a contributing editor for Organic Gardening Review, is an organic gardener living in Rhode Island. Organic Gardening Review is a resource center for organic gardening enthusiast.
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