My good buddies Nick and Ginger gave me a jar of homemade pickled green tomatoes last week. It was a reminder of the generous spirit of a true southern gentleman and his bride as well as the bounty headed our way as soon as this rain lets up. That’s right. Tomato season is just around the corner.
Before I start ripping off Guy Clark lyrics and singing the praises of what to do with a homegrown tomato, let us discuss what to do before putting them in the ground. Find a spot in your garden where the plant will get full sun. You’re going to need eight hours of blinding vitamin D for best results. A shady area obscured by trees or structure is no friend of the red fruit.
Once you find your spot — and if you are a total nerd — you could test the pH level of your soil. You can find electronic devices in the $10 to $30 range, but there are ways to do it with a couple bucks’ worth of litmus paper. I’m more likely to dig a hole and cross my fingers than go to these lengths, but for you science-driven horticulturists I should report that tomatoes enjoy a pH level in the range of 6.0 to 6.8, which is slightly acidic.
It’s also worth mentioning that soggy soil is a bad idea for my favorite summertime treats. We’ve gotten way too much rain lately, and if your tomato garden is retaining a good deal of water perhaps you should spend an afternoon digging a French drain. They are such fun. Your tomatoes will appreciate it, though. Another good idea is the addition of compost. Work the soil to a good eight inches in depth and mix in the organic matter. This will either help sandy soil retain more water or aid hard soil in draining.
You may be limited to live plants by what nursery you visit, but there may be time left to start some seeds. I use egg cartons on the windowsill for this method. And seeds can be ordered to tailor your garden to exact specifications. I generally just purchase plants, though.
The choices can be overwhelming but I can narrow it down pretty quickly. I first look for indeterminate plants. I want them to continue to produce until frost comes. Though you may have to do a little pruning, it’s better than a determinate plant that produces once for about two weeks like my peach tree.
Heirloom tomatoes are types that have remained unaltered over the years. I’m a bit of a traditionalist and lean toward these. I also am a big fan of the ugly ducklings. In my experience the ugly tomatoes taste the best. Those perfect grocery store varieties sure are pretty, but pretty boring. Give me character.
Hybrid tomatoes are the exact opposite of heirlooms. As the name implies these crossbred fruits are a little bit Frankenstein, but man has actually come up with some fine specimens. Don’t judge too harshly.
While heirlooms tend to have great flavor they are not too keen at resisting disease. Hybrids are designed to take on adverse conditions and are generally more durable. Your best bet is to not put all of your eggs in one basket. Go for some heirlooms if you can find them, but supplement that garden with hybrids. You may find one you love. After all, half a garden of hybrids would be better than a whole garden of diseased heirlooms. I need fruit one way or another.
Celebrity tomatoes are probably the most popular tomatoes and are excellent for everyday use. This is a hybrid that is very resistant to disease, has a great flavor, and is very easy to grow. It’s kind of a determinate because the plant ceases to grow at 3 or 4 feet, but it produces until frost. This is also believed to be what was originally called the Creole tomato, formerly known by the name of where they were grown rather than the variety of tomato.
Creoles that we now see in stores are a bit different. This fruit was developed at LSU in the sixties and is an indeterminate vine that can grow quite large and tolerates heat and humidity well. It’s a fairly meaty tomato with a stunning flavor that goes with almost everything. The only drawback is they yield a little later than others. I’ll wait.
Beefsteak refers not to a particular tomato, but to a size. These are the largest tomatoes with vines reaching 8 and 9 feet that carry fruit that has been known to approach a pound. You’ll find colorful names such as Brandywine, Bucking Bronco, Ox Heart and Mortgage Lifter. But my hands-down favorite indeterminate heirloom tomato is the Cherokee Purple.
This bad boy looks almost rotten with its dark red body and green shoulders. This is by far my favorite tomato to eat by itself with a little salt and pepper or (gasp!) mayonnaise. Its uses encompass the occasional sandwich, but why waste it on bread?
Keep an open mind when choosing your plants this year. Think about the uses. Find a plant for salsa. Imagine what fruit would best make a ‘mater sandwich. Choose a meatier variety for spaghetti sauce. Imagine size and sturdiness when you think about the fried green tomato with crab cake breadless sandwich like they have at Pinky T’s diner in Sandersville, Mississippi. But for all that is sacred, grow some tomatoes.