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GARDENING : Cultivating a Love of Tomatoes

July 16, 1994|ADRIENNE COOK | TIMES-POST NEWS SERVICE

Tomatoes are the most loved of all garden vegetables. Some folks wouldn't even call them a vegetable, citing their sweet juiciness as qualifier for fruit status.

Whatever their classification, tomatoes are undoubtedly the most popular home-garden inhabitants, with the well-earned reputation for superiority over the store-bought version. Also, when a crop's desirability is measured against the amount of work it requires, tomatoes rank in the top handful of best plants.

One of the most common questions is: "What is the best tomato to grow?" The question might elicit a different answer each time.

Tomato varieties fall into two broad categories. The old-fashioned kinds, which in the opinion of many taste best, are almost all "indeterminate." This means they grow continuously throughout the season and produce new fruits almost daily.

The gardener thinks of them as large plants that require strong staking or caging, produce quite late (beginning in late July or August) and bear large fruits. Many indeterminate varieties sport tomatoes that top two pounds apiece. Their meatiness lends superior flavor to these old-fashioned types.

"Determinates" are more modern. Their habit--first noticed about 80 years ago--is to grow to a specific height, set and ripen fruit in a short, given period, then subside in yield and vigor. Determinates are characterized by their compact size and early fruiting and ripening.

Many of the sauce or paste tomatoes, oval in shape and called "Italian" style, come from determinate plants. Because the fruits ripen all at once during a two- to three-week span, enough can be harvested to make sauce. Indeterminate vines, by contrast, might yield one or two ripe tomatoes at a time.

An old convention held that indeterminates were ideal for salads and determinates for cooking. But their respective traits have blurred so much now that such distinctions no longer are fair to gardener or to variety.

For example, Early Girl, a popular determinate, makes for delicious eating. The old indeterminate Super Beefsteak, a marvelously flavored salad tomato, also lends a sweet dimension to a cooked sauce.

There is a long-held belief that orange and yellow tomatoes are lower in acid and sweeter than the red tomatoes. But this doesn't hold true. Undoubtedly, some varieties of pink, orange, yellow or purple are sweeter than certain reds. But the reverse also is true, and the color itself is not the deciding factor.

The sugar content of tomatoes is governed by the size of the gelatinous pockets in and around the flesh; what detracts from sweetness are thick walls of skin and heavy seed production.

Thus, a meaty, thin-skinned tomato will almost always be sweeter and more flavorful than a watery or heavy-skinned variety. Not surprisingly, pink, yellow and orange tomatoes are most often thin skinned and rich in the gelatinous pockets of sweetness.

The pH of tomatoes might vary a little among different skin and flesh colors, but all tomatoes contain acid.

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Tomato culture is pretty straightforward. Buy large plants for the earliest production. Plant them deeply in soil enriched with compost, and use a slow-release organic fertilizer low in nitrogen. Chemical fertilizers often release nutrients too rapidly and result in bushy, bristling plants with little fruit set and less resistance to disease.

Tomato plants are planted deeply to allow vigorous root growth. Some gardeners with plants a foot tall lay them horizontally in the ground, bringing only the top of the plant up and out vertically. This works well as long as you don't spear the underground stems with the spikes of the cage or stake. Whether you dig a deep hole or trench the plant horizontally, do not remove the lower foliage.

Plants should be spaced three to four feet apart for indeterminates, two to three feet for determinates that are judged to be compact.

The only exception to this rule I have found is the cherry or currant tomato, which I usually put somewhere on its own. What these plants lack in fruit size they make up in plant vigor and will smother neighbors if given the chance.

Indeterminates do best when caged; determinates also do well in cages, but they can be staked instead and attached to the stake with rags as they grow. This is a little more time-consuming, but it allows closer spacing in the garden because stakes require less room than cages.

Heavy mulching will keep weeds down as the tomato plants grow to their full size.

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