Growing your own cherry tomatoes in Kentucky
Story by Rodney Wilson
There’s a lot to love about cherry tomatoes. For starters, the little orbs are ridiculously easy to grow, with one plant offering a seemingly endless harvest of bite-sized goodness. The fruit, which is in every way just a miniature version of the traditional vegetable, is high in vitamins and minerals. And they are super portable – with no need to peel, cut, or chop, cherry tomatoes are an easy choice to toss in a stir-fry (or a pot of Kentucky-style burgoo).
Thought to be a genetic cross between the smaller-sized wild tomato and garden-variety breeds, cherry tomatoes are an option for growers of all experience levels. Getting started requires just a few materials – cages, some soil and, if growing in containers, a pot or other vessel – and, before you know it, you’re shoulder-deep (often literally) in a delicious summer vegetable.
The first question, of course, is what varieties you want to grow. Among the more common garden varieties are ‘Sweet Million’, ‘SunSugar’, and ‘Black Cherry’ (an heirloom) – all three are flavorful and sweet. They’re also of a type termed “indeterminate” for their ability to grow taller and produce increasing quantities of fruit until frost kills them. A couple of volunteer yellow pear tomato plants that sprouted up by my compost pile last summer and threatened to overtake my neighbor’s driveway showed me the overwhelming potential of indeterminate plants. If keeping up with outsized length and production is more than you want to take on, consider opting for a dwarf plant.
Tomatoes like slightly acidic soil, with a pH between 6.0 and 6.8, and working some organic fertilizer into the dirt is always a good idea – although be mindful to not add too much nitrogen, as it locks up calcium in the soil, leading to fruit-ruining blossom-end rot. If you’re planting in containers, which cherry tomatoes are well suited for, simply fill an appropriate container (18-inch diameter for determinate, 24-inch for indeterminate) with potting soil, which provides the correct density for container gardening. And don’t forget some type of support, such as a cage, stake, or railing.
If planting in a garden bed, amend with organic matter and work the soil to a depth of 6-8 inches with a tiller or garden fork. Not only does this loosen the soil for your tomato plant’s quick-growing root system, but it’ll also expose some pests and uproot weeds.
Planting cherry tomato seedlings is simple, although there are a few rules to follow. For starters, don’t put them out until the last frost has past – in Kentucky, that’s usually early to mid-May. If you’re growing in containers, make sure there are holes at the bottom to allow adequate drainage – you’ll want to keep the soil consistently moist, but too much water will drown the plant. And pick a spot where your plants will receive at least eight hours of sun a day.
Regardless of whether you’re growing in containers or in garden beds, make sure your plants are 6-10 inches tall before putting them into the soil. Why? Because growing strong tomato plants requires you to bury most of the seedling in order to produce a hardy root system. Dig a hole two-thirds as deep as the plant is tall, remove the plant from its pot, and slide it in, burying all but the top 3 inches (about four to six leaves) underground. This, of course, goes against what you’ve no doubt heard about planting seedlings too deep, but that’s okay. Tomatoes do their own thing.
As your plants grow, pinch off suckers (new growth where the plant branches) to keep energy focused on the fruit.
Pests and Problems
While they’re easy to grow, cherry tomatoes aren’t foolproof, and there are some potential threats to your eventual bumper crop. Blossom-end rot is one, but can be remedied by adding lime to the soil. Blight is another threat; an infection from mold found in the soil, blight is best treated by prevention: Add a layer of mulch between the plant and the ground, and be careful to water only the roots, keeping vulnerable leaves as dry as possible.
On the pest front, the tomato hornworm is particularly pernicious. The larval form of a five-spotted hawkmoth, the giant green caterpillars hide beneath leaves, chewing away on foliage and fruit with wild abandon. The best way to control hornworms is to seek out and pick them off the plant – look for black droppings as you hunt the camouflaged bugs. For the more adventurous, the internet offers up recipes for making a meal out of the (supposedly) tasty insects. I prefer to feed them to my chickens.
THE UPSIDE DOWN
You’ve no doubt seen kits advertised or on store shelves that allow home gardeners to grow tomatoes upside down. You can make your own with a 5-gallon bucket or even a shopping bag, and planting tomatoes in a hanging basket, with vines dropping over the edge, also works. These methods have the curious effect of greatly increasing tomato production. But why? The answer is surprisingly simple: When plants don’t have to expend energy staying upright, they have more strength to put toward fruiting. So let your tomato plants “hang out.”