DARREL KOEHLER: The Prairie Gardener — Growing Tomatoes

Nothing says summer better than tomatoes. Those orbs of summer are what get us through the cold and snow of a long Minnesota winter.

Growing tomatoes is not difficult. You can either begin with started plants from a nursery or you can grow you own using milk cartons, peat pots or other kinds of containers and, of course, a sunny window.

Your first task will be deciding what kind of tomato you want to grow. There are determinate plant varieties, also called bush tomatoes, which only get so big and stop growing. All the fruit ripens at once, making them perfect for home canning.

Nondeterminate tomato varieties just keep on growing until a frost kills them. They offer tomatoes for the entire season. Some of the better-known hybrid types include Beefmaster, Better Boy, Early Girl and Celebrity. Heirloom tomatoes varieties include Brandywine, a perennial favorite. Heirloom tomatoes are more difficult to raise than hybrids.

Tomatoes require lots of sun, water and room to spread out. Tomato cages or racks help keep the plants better contained. Don’t crowd the plants as you want air to circulate in your tomato patch.

If you don’t have a garden space, don’t fret. You can still have home-grown tomatoes. You can grow the patio varieties. They bear fruit early and will continue through the season. To ensue better production, give them a shot of plant food about midseason.

Tomatoes are prone to many diseases, so when selecting plants, check the label. You will find initials on the tag indicating if the plants are resistant to verticillium and fusarium wilt, nematodes and other maladies.

Tomato diseases stay in the soil, so it is best to rotate your patch from year to year. Remove yellowing leaves during the summer as well as plants and decayed fruits in the fall. Don’t leave any dead tomato plants in your garden over winter.

Watering is the key to good tomato crops. Water every few days during the heat of summer. Water early in the day and keep the water confined to the root area. This will also prevent diseases. It will also help prevent blossom-end rot. This malady results in black or moldy spots on the bottom of the fruit.

Good air circulation is also very important. If plants get too bushy, you may have to prune them.

When planting tomatoes, bury the stalk deep, first removing leaves. I also wrap a piece of newspaper around the base to keep cutworms away.

You can protect the new plants from wind with milk cartons, coffee cans or even shingles.

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