The quest for the perfect tomato

This Holy Grail of gardeners needn't end with a single variety; here's a virtually foolproof guide to producing many a princely crop.

By John A. Starnes Jr., Special to the Times
Published November 24, 2007

You and I say "tomato" . . .botanists say "Solanum lycopersicon esculentum" . . . but we all say "tasty"! There is nothing like biting into a sun-warmed tomato, ripe from the garden.

Once thought to be poisonous, they were called "death apples" in America until the 1700s. Tomatoes were also known as "love apples," owing to their supposed aphrodisiac effects. Regardless of the name, Americans quickly became enamored of them and remain so to this day.

Whether it's a beefsteak tomato big enough to fill both your hands, or endless hordes of Roma and cherry tomatoes, or the old-fashioned heirloom varieties now available again, many gardeners' sole focus each winter is growing The Perfect Tomato.

Now's the right time to give it a try. Summer's hellish heat ruins tomatoes. They are frost-sensitive, so be prepared to cover them if we get a really cold snap.

Readers who use my "dog food" method of improving their sandy soil routinely report growing tomato vines 8 feet or taller during the cool season.

Our usually acidic, calcium-deficient soil is the prime cause of the widespread problem of blossom end rot, a sign of severe calcium deficiency. My soil food supplies some calcium, plus all the nutrients robustly healthy tomato plants need.

Ready, set, grow

Once you've prepared your soil, if you'd rather plant seedlings than start from seeds, buy four-packs at the garden center. At each spot where you want to plant, pull back the mulch, punch a hole through the damp, soft cardboard, and use your fingers to make a hole 4 inches deep in the damp, soft, now-fertile soil. Pinch off the lower leaves of each seedling and plant it about 3 inches deeper than it grew in the pot to encourage a new root system to form on that buried section of stem. Tuck the mulch back up around each one, then water them well.

Avoid "determinate" patio-type tomatoes unless you have very limited space. They bear one crop of fruit, then bite the dust. "Indeterminate" kinds keep on growing and bearing. Check the tag.

Cherry types such as "Sweet 100" and "Sweet 1,000" are great for salads and picky children. Those who like larger varieties swear by old reliables like "Better Boy" and "Beefsteak" and "Beefmaster."

Whatever varieties you choose, problems will be few as they grow vigorously in that fertile soil if given a deep weekly watering. When they are knee-high, give each plant a drench of 3 tablespoons of Alaska fish emulsion stirred into a gallon of water. The healthy green vines will be unattractive to most pests, which prefer stressed, impoverished and weakened plants.

Some trouble-shooting

You'll notice a decided lack of fungal diseases and, as the fruits form and then enlarge, blossom end rot will be a thing of the past. As they ripen, their flavor will be enhanced by the minerals in the fish fertilizer.

If you get aphids, spider mites or whiteflies, blast them off weekly with a coarse spray of water. Caterpillars can be handpicked and stepped on or fed to your goldfish. Or dust the plants with the natural bacterial insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis, (Bt) sold as Dipel or Biotrol. (I don't use the liquid because it contains petroleum distillates that force the bacteria into a dormant spore state.)

Soon your robust tomato plants will overpower the wimpy little tomato cages and stakes most of us buy. Instead, let them ramble through discarded, sturdy tree branches, up an old stepladder or lawn chair. Or train the vines over the doghouse. Or, best of all, make a monster tomato cage from a roll of concrete reinforcing iron mesh lashed to a 5-foot section of plumber's pipe pounded into the ground. Support them in some fashion, as they will bear much more profusely. By keeping the fruits off the ground, you'll also decrease the possibility of rot or attack by slugs and pill bugs.

Branch out a bit

If your plants survive summer, wait till late September or October to cut the tired, lanky vines back to knee height. Feed them with fish emulsion, remulch their garden, and they may grow again. To me, though, it makes more sense to repeat the process from scratch every fall. That gives you a chance try new varieties each year. The number of modern and heirloom varieties is steadily increasing.

If you love tomatoes but have never succeeded in growing them well, try my dog food technique and some old heirloom types, and brace yourself for tons of tangy tomatoes.

John A. Starnes Jr., born in Key West, is an avid organic gardener and rosarian who studies, collects, cultivates and hybridizes roses for Florida. He can be reached at johnastarnes@msn.com.

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Heirloom tomatoes

Serious tomato heads can now get the seeds of many ultra-flavorful heirloom varieties such as "Brandywine" or "Black Russian" by mail-order or online.

An Internet search for "Heirloom Tomatoes" can put you in touch with true believers and their seed swaps.

For example, the "Mortgage Lifter" tomato was bred in the garden of M.C. Byles, also known as "Radiator Charlie," by crossing four reliable varieties he liked. The Depression was savaging his radiator business, but by selling his own hybrid at the then-unheard-of price of $1 a plant, he paid off his mortgage in four years. Seeds of his homebred wonder are available again.

I'm fond of "Hartman's Yellow Gooseberry" from 1868. This productive golden-yellow cherry bears hundreds of sweet-tart tomatoes.

The ultimate heirlooms may be the original wild tomatoes native to South America, which the ancient native peoples there called tomatl, and from which all cultivated tomatoes derive.

Last winter, for the first time, I grew Solanum lypersicon pimpinellifolium, also called "Red Currant Tomato." Each plant sprawled 8 feet across and 3 to 4 feet tall and bore thousands of extremely flavorful tomatoes, each the size of a green olive. Visiting friends would just stand and graze on them as we chatted. Two guesses who is growing them this winter!

Seed sources

-Thompson & Morgan, toll-free 1-800-274-7333; www.thompson-morgan.com

- Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, (417) 924-8917;www.rareseeds.com

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John's dog food fertilizer recipe

Choose an area 6 feet by 6 feet in full sun. Spread over it a 25-pound bag of cheap dry dog food nuggets, two 20-pound bags of cheap clay cat litter, and half of a 50-pound bag of alfalfa pellets from a feed store.

As it decays, the dog food releases all the main plant nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and calcium, plus many minerals and vitamins. Its proteins and carbohydrates feed the earthworms and beneficial fungi and bacteria that make soil fertile by decomposing organic matter.

The cat litter releases potassium-rich clay that holds moisture in our sandy soil.

The alfalfa pellets supply beneficial bacteria, trace minerals, nitrogen and organic matter.

Once the ingredients are spread, use your shovel to turn the soil, then give it a deep soaking. Then cover the garden with flattened cardboard boxes, each overlapping the next by 6 inches so that every square inch of soil is covered to prevent weeds, trap moisture and discourage wildlife that catch a scent of the dog food and think it's a snack for them.

Hose down the cardboard until it is wet and begins to sag, then mulch the entire garden with about 6 inches of coastal hay (buy bales at feed stores) or 4 inches of chipped mulch from a tree-trimming service.

Water deeply weekly and let this all "ripen" for two to four weeks, in part to ensure that the dog food decays and is no longer attractive to raccoons and squirrels that may dig it up to feast.