Tomatoes are the No. 1 plant found in a home produce garden. After a winter of eating mealy, grocery store tomatoes, gardeners are anxious to have that first bite of a fabulous homegrown tomato, and now is the time to start planting.
When choosing tomato plants, there are a few key considerations. Do you want fresh eating tomatoes or canning tomatoes? Do you like large-fruited varieties or pop-in-your-mouth cherry tomatoes? Do you want heirloom varieties or disease-resistant varieties? Tomatoes also come in a wide range of colors.
Diseases can be a big problem when growing tomatoes, especially if planted in the same spot every year. It is best to rotate what is grown each season, and avoid planting in the same spot for at least three years, as many tomato diseases are soil-borne.
All tomatoes need well-drained soil and a minimum of six to eight hours of sunlight per day. Tomatoes can be planted in early April in south Arkansas, mid-April in central Arkansas and late April in the northern tier. Plant throughout the summer to ensure harvest well into fall. When preparing beds, broadcast a general-purpose fertilizer. Mulch after planting to conserve moisture, prevent weeds and to limit disease issues.
Broadcast fertilizer at planting and again, when first fruits on plants reach the size of a quarter. It is always better to err on applying too little than too much. Plants in an in-ground garden won’t need to be fertilized as often as those growing in a container or raised bed. Try to keep moisture levels as even as possible.
Use staking to support a heavy fruit load for determinate varieties, and keep indeterminate plants off the ground to avoid disease issues and sunburn.
Monitor for problems during the growing season. The sooner an issue is spotted, the easier it will be to control.
Pick your variety
There are two main types of tomato plants. Determinate varieties grow to a fixed height and have all their fruit ripen in a relatively short period of time. Also called vining tomatoes, Indeterminate plants continue to bear fruit all season long and require staking for support.
- Celebrity – Red, robust
- Patio – Red, container variety
- Roma – Red, plum
- Rutgers – Large, red, thick flesh
- Heatmaster – Red, heat-tolerant
- Better Boy – Large, red
- Arkansas Traveler – Deep pink, heat-tolerant
- Early Girl – Red, ripens early
- Sweet 100 – Red, small
- Lemon Boy – Yellow, tangy flavor
Heirloom tomatoes have been gaining in popularity for several years. Definitions of what makes a heirloom tomato can vary, but most consider them to be types that have been passed down for generations or were open pollinated varieties before 1940. The flavor makes them popular, but disease issues can be a limiting factor.
Popular indeterminate varieties include:
- Black Krim – Large, purple-black variety
- Cherokee Purple – Large, purplish-brown variety
- Brandywine – Large-fruited, red variety
- Amish Paste – Smaller, canning variety
- Mortgage Lifter – Very large, red variety