“Nothing beats a home-grown tomato,” proclaims Arlene Trombley of Timberwinds Nursery in Ellisville. “I love growing them, and I love eating them,” echoes Abby Elliot of Kirkwood’s Sugar Creek Gardens.
Their love of one of summer’s best treats is probably why both women are considered tomato experts by their respective garden centers. We asked them to dish up a bit of advice to help all of us produce a better crop this summer….or maybe inspire those who have never attempted to grow tomatoes.
To get those luscious slices of tomatoes for summer salads, both suggest growing the plants in the ground because of the large size of the full-grown plants. Choose a spot where they will get a minimum of six hours of full sun; eight is better. Arlene’s favorites are "Big Boy" and "Better Boy" for their large size and great flavor. If the goal is making sauce, she favors "Juliet," a Roma-style grape tomato, which can be grown in the ground or in a pot.
Heirloom tomatoes like great grandma used to grow are becoming more and more popular. “They are usually more disease prone but have better flavor,” Abby says, noting that one of her favorites is "Cherokee Purple," with deep purple skin. When treating tomatoes for disease, Abby suggests simply clipping out bad foliage and picking off insects by hand rather than using insect or fungus sprays. More modern tomato varieties are more consistently bright red in color. Of those Abby likes "Early Girl," “a mid-sized versatile tomato that is one of the easiest to produce.”
Tomatoes planted in the ground need well-amended soil. Abby likes using cotton-burr compost as well as a well-balanced fertilizer, particularly those designed for tomatoes. Arlene’s favorite is a granular fertilizer called Espoma Tomato Tone. Mulching helps the soil retain moisture. Also a must are large tomato cages plus netting if squirrels are a problem. Abby installs both at the same time she plants her tomatoes “so I don’t lose a single tomato,” she says. In the heat of summer, tomatoes may need to be watered twice a day. Keeping the plants consistently moist helps prevent blossom end rot, she notes.
“Planting tomatoes in containers requires a bit more TLC,” Abby suggests. First, pick out a tomato that doesn’t get too large; these are usually determinate types (those that stop growing when fruit sets on the top or terminal bud and ripen all at once). “One called ‘42 Days’, which is the earliest producing tomato, does excellently in containers. An indeterminate type (which produces continually), which I absolutely love and have done in containers, is "Sungold." Its golden, cherry-sized tomatoes are the tastiest.”
Use at least a five-gallon pot, but “you can’t go too big,” she advises. “After planting the tomato in potting soil, add a thick layer of mulch to the top. In the late summer tomatoes in containers usually need to be watered two times a day, adding mulch keeps that water in longer. I am a bit of a lazy gardener, and I have found that using synthetic fertilizer over organic fertilizer has given me better results in containers.”
For snacking and gardeners with very limited space, Arlene suggests "Tumbling Tom," a cascading tomato that comes in both red and yellow varieties and is perfect for hanging baskets.
“You can hang them outside your back door and pick them as you need them,” she says. “We have a couple of hanging baskets here; we water them and fertilize them and they grow like gangbusters.”