For many, ripe tomatoes are a nostalgic summer treat. This fresh fruit (yes, tomatoes are considered a fruit, not a vegetable) can be eaten straight off the vine or enjoyed in a bevy of recipes, from soups and salads to sauces and sandwiches.
For many gardeners, growing the perfect aromatic, unblemished, sun-ripened tomatoes is the ultimate trophy. In the right climate, tomatoes are generally easy to grow. But choosing the proper varieties and keeping your plants healthy and productive require both art and science. Then, once you reap your bounty, the question becomes what to do with the excess. From harvesting and preserving to buying and storing, maintaining the best tomato practices will assure you a fruitful summer and give you a leg up on next year's crop.
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Selecting and Growing Tomatoes
Growing a tomato starts with choosing the perfect variety, sowing it properly, and providing it with a little TLC until it sets root. Determinate varieties of tomatoes will produce one large crop and then die off toward the end of the season. Indeterminate varieties will continue to produce fruit throughout the growing season, sometimes even up until the first frost. And a third category, heirloom, consists of generations-old seeds grown for their specific characteristics, including taste, texture, color, and shape.
When planting your tomatoes, select a sunny space in your garden with well-draining soil. Adding compost or all-purpose organic fertilizer to the soil before planting will assure your plants get enough nutrients to thrive. Then, start your plants from seed indoors, or buy seedlings from a nursery, planting them directly in the ground once the risk of frost has passed and the nights begin to warm.
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Gardeners aren't the only ones who love tomatoes; pests and diseases can set in and infect your crop if you're not careful. Most commonly, moldy residue in the soil can produce early blight in tomato plants that are constantly wet. To prevent this, make sure to clean away the fall debris from your garden before planting, and allow the soil to dry out between waterings. Similarly, late blight can devastate whole crops. It spreads fast, so remove any noticeably affected plants from your garden before the fungus sets in. Another disease, blossom end rot, produces hard brown patches on tomatoes and can be caused by too much nitrogen in the soil or uneven watering.
Pests including aphids, cutworms, flea beetles, and hornworms can also affect your tomato crops. There are many natural ways to eradicate these critters, including essential oil preparations and diatomaceous earth. Worms are especially destructive, as they can eat an entire tomato plant in a matter of hours.
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Preparing for Next Year's Crop
Your work isn't done once you've experienced a successful tomato harvest. Now it's time to prepare for next year by saving seeds from this year's successful varietals.
Tomato seeds need to be fermented before drying to improve next year's germination. To do so, store them in their pulp until it forms a mold film. Then, rinse, dry, and package them away for next year's sowing. Store them in an airtight container in a cool, dry spot. Make sure to label with the date and variety.
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Buying and Storing Tomatoes
You don't have to grow your own tomatoes to experience the crop at its best. In fact, going to your local farmers market and selecting prime produce gives some people the same gratifying experience.
When choosing tomatoes, select ones that are free of bruises and yield only slightly when pressed with your fingers. If you're buying tomatoes to use later on, select harder fruit and allow it to ripen on your kitchen counter. Never refrigerate tomatoes. Doing so makes them mushy and tasteless. If you need to save a sliced tomato, simply place it in a dish on your counter, and cover it with plastic.Continue to 5 of 6 below.
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Ripening Green Tomatoes
If summer is nearing its end and some of your tomato crops still haven't ripened, don't panic. There are ways to coax your green tomatoes to blush.
You can pick them as is, and ripen them on a sunny windowsill. Or place individual tomatoes in a brown paper bag with an apple, which releases gases that promote ripening. Alternatively, you can also wrap them individually in newspaper, and store them in a dark spot. And, if all else fails, you can whip up a yummy dish of fried green tomatoes.
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When your tomato harvest is piling up on every windowsill and countertop, it may be time to break out some preservation techniques. The options are endless. You can freeze or can a tomato sauce, whip up some fresh salsa, or sun-dry tomatoes using your oven or a dehydrator.
The simplest method, canning whole tomatoes, can allow you to preserve your harvest through the winter and into the new year, giving you the chance to appreciate your bounty all year long.