Home : Gardening Tips : Growing tomatoes - the organic way

Growing tomatoes - the organic way

Tomatoes are the most widely grown "vegetable" in the world - even though they're really a fruit! Tomatoes haven't always been so popular. Even though Native Americans have been eating tomatoes for centuries, many Europeans and American colonists shunned them.

Tomato leaves look very similar to those of the poisonous Belladonna, a member of the Nightshade family. Although many plants of the Nightshade family are poisonous, other closely related plants include potatoes, chili peppers, and eggplants. Even the poisonous plants have medicinal uses at low doses.

So, why are tomatoes considered fruit? Fruits are botanically defined as the reproductive part of a plant that forms from the fertilization of an ovum. Fruits generally contain seeds inside some kind of covering, like peaches or apples. If you want to get technical, though, tomatoes are really "berries!" Confused? Check out this site about fruits and vegetables.

If you're thinking about planting tomatoes for the first time, you should start by choosing whether a determinate or indeterminate vine fits your garden.

Determinate tomatoes grow only a small vine or shrub, and then focus on producing fruit. Indeterminate vines will keep growing and growing, producing fruit as they keep adding more and more leaves. Indeterminate vines can produce more tomatoes per plant, but they need lots of space and may require support from stakes or trellises.

Some other distinctions to look for include disease resistance. At the nursery, many tomato varieties are classified with a code to mark disease resistance. These letters include "A" for resistance to Alternaria leaf spot, "F" for resistance to Fusarium wilt, "FF" for resistance to Race 1 & Race 2 Fusarium, "L" for resistance to Septoria leaf spot, "N" for resistance to Nematodes, "V" for resistance to Verticilium wilt, and "T" for resistance to Tobacco mosaic virus.

Tomatoes can be grown from seed, but starter plants are also widely available. If you purchase seedlings from the nursery, make sure to choose healthy plants that haven't been in their containers too long. Ideal plants for transplanting are 5 to 7 weeks old with roots that just about fill a four-inch container.

If roots are growing out of the drain holes at the bottom, that means the plant has been in the container too long and will probably be severely stressed when transplanted. For the same reason, avoid buying starter tomatoes that already have fruit.

If you want to grow tomatoes from seed, start them indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost. The ideal temperature for germinating tomato seeds is 85 degrees Fahrenheit. It will take five to seven weeks before the seedlings are ready to plant in the ground.

To acclimate the seedlings to the weather outside, leave them in direct sunlight during the day and bringing them back inside at night for about a week. The Vegetable Gardener's Bible by Edward C. Smith has excellent instructions on growing tomatoes from seed. His instructions also explain how to transplant the tomato seedlings several times to develop deep roots.

If you're only familiar with Romas, Beefsteak, and your typical round reds, you'll be delighted to know that there are around 4,000 different kinds of tomatoes out there! Have you ever sampled a Cherokee Purple, a White Wonder, a Yellow Pear tomato, or a Green Zebra? There are plenty of exotic tomatoes, including Amish Paste, Black Tula, Brandywine Heirlooms, Pink Brandywine, Black Brandywine, Yellow Brandywine, and other cultivars.

Tomatoes do very well in organic gardens. Instead of using petroleum based fertilizers or pesticides that build up in food, many gardeners rely on organic fertilizers, integrated pest control, and sustainable methods of weed control.

There are several natural products for growing tomatoes that avoid the use of harmful chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. Instead, they rely on plant extracts, essential oils, and other naturally occurring pest defenses. Companion planting can also be used to achieve some of these effects. Pressure spraying is a great way to blast pests while relieving stress at the same time!

Healthy, fertile soil is the secret to a successful organic garden. Healthy soil is filled with bacteria, fungi, earthworms, and other beneficial soil organisms that will help tomatoes grow to their full potential. In a natural environment such as a forest, leaves, branches and other organic materials are broken down by these soil organisms.

The final result of this composting is humus, which is abundant in humic acids. Humic acids are complex organic molecules that help roots to absorb minerals and other nutrients more efficiently. You can bring the benefits of humus to your garden by tilling compost into the soil.

Compost is easy to find and inexpensive. It is a natural fertilizer that can be made with waste materials such as fallen leaves, kitchen scraps, and lawn clippings. Blending compost into the soil will add beneficial bacteria, break up compacted soil, provide healthy structure, increase the ground's ability to retain water, and also neutralize the pH.

Tomatoes grow best in a pH range of 5.8 to 7, with the sweet spot at 6.5. The easiest way to test pH is with an electronic soil tester.

Tomatoes are heavy nitrogen users and will need supplemental fertilization during the growing season. Adding fish emulsion or compost tea every two or three weeks will keep them healthy. This organic vegetable fertilizer works great with tomatoes. Adding mulch each year will also keep the soil in excellent shape. Mulch helps retain moisture, and it provides a habitat for earthworms that aerate the ground.

Bacteria and fungus in the soil also help tomatoes access nutrients. Extensive colonies of Mycorrhizal fungus act like an extended root system, reaching deep into the soil. Many different bacteria in the soil also form symbiotic relationships with plants. These bacteria fix nitrogen underground and also break down dead plant matter in a natural rhythm called 'nutrient cycling'. When quick nutrient cycling occurs, Tomatoes benefit from a multiplier effect and get to use the same nutrients over and over again.

In addition to these organic soil amendments, make sure that your tomatoes get plenty of water and plentiful sunlight. After several seasons of growing tomatoes or potatoes in the same location, make sure to rotate to another crop. Otherwise, diseases such as Late Blight, Phytophthora infestans can get a foothold in the soil. A healthy ecosystem of soil bacteria will also prevent many of the diseases that attack tomatoes, and organic methods are the best way to keep the tomato plants producing at maximum capacity.