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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Tomatoes, of all things! EZ as π

A thread on Google+ today got me thinking about tomatoes and I wanted to share my tomato growing technique.

I've tested this with everything from a 10-cent pack of hybrid wilt-free tomato seeds from the dollar store to several varieties of heirloom tomatoes and it never fails to make both a better plant and a better tomato flavor.

Start with good potting soil. I use generic stuff that costs $2.77 at Walmart or about the same price at Lowe's. "Wait", you're probably thinking, "I thought you said 'good potting soil'". I did.

I add hay which my 2 pet pigs, Shadow and Spig, have used as bedding and have broken down to short pieces. You can use grass clippings or even your own compost. Make sure to put some egg shells in the mix. Tomatoes need calcium and the tomato shells break down and help. It works. Try it. (If you don't have a compost bin, take a bucket or pail and put your veggie peels, egg shells, coffee and tea grounds - anything but animal products - into it and stir it every few days. You'll probably want to keep it outside. Even if it's not composted, feel free to put a cupful or two around your plants and gently mix it with the soil. It'll compost to some degree right there and it's increases the tilth of your soil so much.)

Next is variety. Yep, I said that it makes even cheap dollar store seeds produce better tomatoes, and that's true. They're better than grocery store tomatoes, but what isn't? OK, they're even better than that, but still not like a good heirloom tomato. Find a seed saver online who has a good reputation and buy a selection of tomato seeds. There are hundreds of varieties available, and these are a few I like: Black Krym (the spelling varies), Black Brandywine, Pink Brandywine, Yellow Brandywine, and I like to experiment with others. I've never had a bad heirloom tomato, either. Also, since they're not hybrids, you can save the seeds from your very best, biggest, most flavorful tomato by simply spreading some of the seed-containing tomato ectoplasm (snicker), the goo in the tomato that has the seeds, onto a paper towel, letting it dry for a week or so. Make sure to space the seeds so that you can separate them come planting time, then when they're fully dry (OK, it might take 2 weeks, or even longer - you be the judge), putting them into a sealed plastic ziplock bag in the freezer. Come planting time, take them out a day or two before you wish to plant, put them in the butter compartment or a drawer in the fridge and let them warm slowly before placing them in a cool dark spot for a day or two, and then plant them. Basically you're letting them warm up slowly like they would outside in the soil.

Heirloom tomatoes have always been selected for flavor first and foremost. They range in color from white to yellow to orange to pink to red to brick red to purple to black (although they're called black, I'd call them dark brown). Most websites will describe the flavor along with the fruit description. Buy several types, but plant them apart else they will crossbreed and you'll end up with a hybrid - which might be great! 

Here are a couple things I've learned about terminology. 

Determinate: This means that you can determine almost exactly when the tomatoes will all be ripe. This characteristic of tomatoes is important commercially for things like tomato sauce, canned tomatoes, catsup, et cetera, so that they know when to have a crew ready to harvest the tomatoes, they can go to the field, almost all of the tomatoes will be at the same stage of ripeness so they don't have to go back over and over to pick them; they pick once and done. That's not what I look for in a tomato. I want one that will give me tomatoes all season long. Obviously, indeterminate means the exact opposite, or what I just described, and that's what I want.

Potato-leaf: This means that the plants leaves are shaped like a potato plant's leaves rather than a tomato plant's leaves. Potatoes, tomatoes, chilies, tomatillos, eggplants, tobacco, petunias, are all in the same family of plants, as are deadly nightshade and black nightshade. It's the Solanaceae family with over 3000 species. Being in the same family as tobacco, deadly nightshade and black nightshade, are probably why all parts of the tomato and potato plants are poison, as are green spots on potatoes. Yep! You can find more terms here.

The real secret is what to fertilize them with. I use Miracle Gro. I put 1 tablespoon of Miracle Gro per gallon of water and I add 1 rounded tablespoon of Epsom salt plus 1 tablespoon of demerara sugar. Miracle-Gro and its imitators are designed to be poured over the leaves of the plant. Try not to get it into the blossoms, but it's OK if  you get it on the tomatoes themselves, just wash them well before eating (*see my note at the bottom). The Epsom salt gives them a nice rounded acid flavor, and helps build the root system. The demerara sugar helps them have a nice sweet flavor, in balance with the acid and "tomato" flavor. It also seems to increase blossoms, which in turn produce more tomatoes. The result is wonderful. Don't store the mix as the sugar seems to make the sulphur in the Epsom salt come out of solution and your mix will not work and it will stink like rotten eggs! Mix what you need and don't save any. The Miracle-Gro package will have a scoop (so do generics) for you to measure with. The tablespoon side is the big end, obviously, but there's a small scoop on the other end that's good for making fertilizer for other plants. 

I've used generic Miracle Gro and it works just as well. The demerara sugar I buy is a brand called Zulka and it's wonderful for anything you already use white sugar for. It's not refined like white sugar; it's simply dried cane juice and smells and tastes like fresh sugar cane. Walmart sells a 4-pound bag at my local store for $2.58. That's close to the price for regular white sugar and there's no comparison when it comes to taste. Look for it on the sugar aisle in a clear plastic bag with green logo. The sugar is a light tan color. If you can't find it on the sugar aisle, check the Hispanic food aisle. I use it in place of white sugar for everything. You'll love it! I use it for baking, coffee, and to make jellies and jams. It gives them such a wonderful flavor, too!!!

Good luck and happy tomato-ing! :)


*Note: I make a general cleaner, veggie wash, shower spray, (and everything else) out of white vinegar and lemon juice. I buy generic white vinegar (it's exactly the same as the branded stuff) for about $3/gallon at Walmart or Kroger, and I use lemon juice that you'll find on the juice aisle in the grocery or dollar store for about $2/quart. I take a spray bottle (don't use one that's had harsh chemicals or poisons in it, obviously), clean it well with soap and water and rinse it well. Don't forget to pump some soap and water through the sprayer itself and be sure to rinse the whole thing well. I add 2 ounces, more or less, of lemon juice (shake the juice well before you pour) and 30 ounces of white vinegar to make a quart. It cleans counters, glass, floors, veggies, I spray it on the shower curtain to inhibit mold and mildew...all sorts of things. I even use it on my hands after I've been in the garden or playing with the animals. Ditto if you've handled onions, garlic or fish. I wash my hands well first, then spray my lemon juice-vinegar spray on them, rub well, and let air dry. Just remember to shake it each time before use; the lemon juice solids will settle to the bottom, otherwise.) The great thing about it is that it's 2 acids together - acetic acid in the vinegar (about 5% acetic acid) and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) in the lemon juice. It even has mild bleaching power. It kills 99.9% of household germs, it isn't toxic, and if you accidentally spray it on yourself or the dog or your dishes...so what? On top of all that, it's completely environmentally safe, it's cheap and it works!