Growing your own cherry tomatoes
Story by Brenda Lynn
Tomatoes are the crowning jewels of the summer garden. If ever there were a case for homegrown veggies, tomatoes would close the deal. Store-bought just can’t compare to vine-ripened fruit bursting with sweet flavor. It seems there are as many tomato varieties on the market as there are gardeners who want to grow them. So how to narrow the choice?
Cherry tomatoes are perhaps the simplest, most satisfying type to grow. They ripen quickly and aren’t as susceptible to disease as some of the larger varieties.
As always, space is a primary consideration. Just because the cherry tomatoes are small doesn’t mean the plants are compact. In fact, many cherry tomato varieties grow on indeterminate vines, meaning they grow until a hard frost (or another interceding event) puts an end to them. There are also patio varieties that grow well in baskets, and slightly larger determinate plants that grow to a specific height, set fruit, and then dwindle.
Most regions of Virginia are hot and humid all summer long. Planting tomatoes in the ground at the right time of year is one key to success. If planted after nighttime temperatures are consistently above 70 F and daytime temperatures are above 90 F, fruit set may fail. Folk wisdom tells us to plant tomatoes on Mother’s Day, and for many years I followed this guidance in my northern Virginia garden with much success. However, a more scientific approach is transplanting seedlings when nighttime temperatures are in the high 50s and daytime temps remain below 70 F. In my area, this is usually around mid-April. If a hard frost is in the forecast, be prepared to drape clear plastic sheeting over the tops of the tomato stakes to protect young plants growing below.
Tomatoes grow best when started indoors. Thinking back from the date you plan to transplant, start seeds or obtain healthy seedlings from a reputable nursery. Seeds should be started six to eight weeks before out, so that they have time to develop a few healthy leaves and a sturdy, single stem. A grow light will provide the best environment for seedlings to establish strong roots.
All tomatoes need full sun and plenty of moisture. Plant seedlings in rich, well-draining soil and side-dress with a balanced fertilizer or compost in midsummer. Bury the seedlings horizontally in the soil, leaving only two to four leaves pointing upright above ground level. This will encourage strong root development.
Indeterminate plants need 3 feet between rows and 2 feet between plants. Place a 6-8 foot stake in the ground next to indeterminate varieties immediately after planting, so that the roots are not disturbed later in the season. Determinate varieties, which reach about 4 feet when mature, grow well in tomato cages. Plant them in rows 24 inches apart with 18 inches between plants.
Dwarf varieties will grow well in 18-inch diameter containers, hanging baskets, or in the ground. Rather than growing them upside down, as was trendy for a while, allow them to grow upright in a hanging basket without staking. The vines will flow downward, bearing fruit.
Cherry tomatoes come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, and colors. When my daughter was young, we loved growing the tiny ‘Jellybean’ variety, whose indeterminate vines reached the sky. We’d pick the fruit off the vine and pop them into our mouths faster than we could get them indoors. We’ve since graduated to beautiful and curious ‘Green Zebra’, whose exotic flavor matches its green and yellow stripes. Another favorite is ‘Yellow Pear’, with a milder taste and easy-to-pick shape. My all-time favorite is ‘Sungold’. This bright orange beauty simply tastes like summer. All of these varieties require staking.
For determinate varieties, ‘Husky Cherry Red’ can’t be beat. It’s a dwarf plant with indeterminate vines, which means it reaches about 4 feet, but has dense, compact foliage. It produces abundantly until frost and is resistant to two of the most common tomato problems: verticillium wilt and fusarium wilt. ‘Tiny Tim’ is another dwarf hybrid that grows well in a pot. “Tumbling” hybrids have been developed specifically to spill out of baskets.
Unfortunately, tomatoes taste delicious to several pests, as well as people. In my garden, finches and squirrels love to steal the fruit. Netting draped over stakes may help; just be sure the openings are small enough to prevent birds from both grabbing fruit and getting caught in the net. Flea beetles, hornworms, aphids, and mites will also dine on tomatoes. The best antidote is good cultural practices. Keep soil evenly moist, but well drained, and use drip irrigation to avoid wet foliage. Pick pests off plants regularly, using insecticidal soaps only if absolutely necessary.
Grow a variety of plants for a bountiful, season-long harvest, and be sure to store some for winter soups and stews.
1 cup cherry tomatoes
1 small cucumber
½ jalapeno pepper
½ green or red sweet bell pepper
½ sweet onion
1 clove garlic
½ cup chopped basil
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
Blend all ingredients together, chill, and enjoy!