Growing cherry tomatoes in your Arkansas garden
Story by Lisa D. Martin
Cherry tomatoes, like their large-fruited siblings, are members of the nightshade family, related to Irish potatoes, eggplant, and peppers. While originally grown for ornamental purposes, since they were thought to be poisonous, an estimated ninety to 95 percent of today’s home gardens grow some variety of tomato and/or cherry tomato.
Cherry tomatoes are a cross between wild currant-type tomatoes and domesticated garden tomatoes that were originally discovered in Peru, Ecuador, and Mexico. Cherry tomatoes are thought to date back to the 15th century. They have been a popular part of the American diet as far back as the early 1900s. Cherry tomatoes range in size from the end of a person’s thumb to a golf ball. They are usually red, but there are varieties that are yellow, green, orange, and black.
Plants can be started indoors about six to eight weeks before time to move them outside. As a general rule, seeds can be started in February and moved outside in mid to late April or early May; depending on the weather and how quickly the ground warms up. The advantage of planting cherry tomatoes over larger tomatoes is that they will set their fruits during times of high temperatures while some larger varieties may struggle.
Before planting the tomato transplants, a complete fertilizer can be put out at a rate of about 1 pound per 100 square feet of row. Plants can be placed in the garden once the danger of frost is past and should be spaced 18-24 inches apart. Transplants need to be watered every two or three days to make sure that they are kept moist enough to establish a good root system and begin to grow.
As the plants begin to grow, they will develop suckers between their leaf axils and the stems. These suckers can be pinched out to keep the plant from forming more than one or two central stems. Cherry tomatoes, like the large-fruited varieties, can be staked or caged to encourage the stems or vines grow upward. When pinching out the suckers, be careful not to pinch out developing flower clusters, as this is where the fruit of the plant develops.
Throughout the growing season, plants should be regularly checked for disease and insect issues that can damage or inhibit fruit production. Tomatoes are susceptible to a number of pest issues that can be relatively easily controlled if they are detected early.
Blossom-end rot is very common and is actually caused by a calcium deficiency in the plant itself. Adding a little bit of limestone into the hole when the seed or transplant is being planted can help prevent blossom-end rot.
Diseases such as verticillium wilt and fusarium wilt cause yellowing of the leaves of the tomato plant. Varieties have been developed that are resistant to these wilt issues and should be used when available.
Early blight is another disease issue that can be problematic. It is characterized by brown spots on the leaves, starting on the lower part of the plant and moving upward. One of the best ways to combat this disease is to remove affect leaves.
Insects are also an issue with tomatoes. Tomato hornworms are very common in many home gardens. The easily recognizable large green worms with white stripes feed on the leaves and fruits of the plant and will wreak havoc on the crop if left unchecked. Because they are so large and easy to see, the most efficient control method for these is to simply pick them off the plants. Tomato fruitworms and stinkbugs can also cause problems in many home gardens. Scouting your plants and looking for signs of insects, such as webs or eggs attached to leaves, will help alleviate this problem. Insecticides containing the active ingredients permethrin or cyfluthrin will help control most tomato insect problems.
Cherry tomatoes vary in their growth time, but most will produce fruit roughly two months from the time they are planted. Cherry tomatoes should be harvested when the tomatoes are beginning to change color. The beauty of cherry tomatoes is that once the first plants are harvested, a second crop can be planted for fall harvest, so it is possible to continue to enjoy garden-fresh cherry tomatoes into October.
Tomatoes have long been a garden favorite thanks to their relative ease of growth. Despite the fact that they have some well-known insect and disease issues, most home gardeners can successfully harvest a crop of tomatoes.
Recommended cherry tomato varieties for Arkansas:
‘Large Red Cherry’ – Small round fruit; good quality; 72 days to maturity
‘Super Sweet 100’ – Popular across the U.S.; resistant to verticillium and fusarium wilt; 50 days to maturity
‘Juliet’ – Grape tomato that produces clusters of sweet fruits; 65 days to maturity