Growing cherry tomatoes in your Georgia garden
Story and Photos by Bob Westerfield
Without a doubt, tomatoes have to be the most popular vegetable in home gardens. If you look at any vegetable catalog, there will be more tomato varieties than political opinions. Tomatoes come in many shapes, sizes, and colors and it’s no wonder that choosing a variety can be quite confusing. In my personal garden, I have probably grown more than 50 or more different varieties. While we do love the colossal beefsteak types, I always include a few cherry tomatoes for fresh eating and salads. Just one plant of these snack-sized tomatoes can provide you with an abundance of fruit throughout the entire growing season.
If asked which tomato is easiest to grow, I would have to give the nod to cherry tomatoes. These small-fruited plants tend to spread like kudzu and produce an abundant harvest, even in the harshest conditions. Like all tomatoes, plant your cherry tomatoes after all chances of frost have passed. Soil temperatures should be close to 70 F and this normally means no earlier than mid-March in the southern part of the state and mid to late April in the northern part.
When considering cherry tomatoes, there are plenty of varieties to choose from. You can find them like small marbles or as large grape-shaped fruits.
All tomatoes should be planted as transplants. Purchase hardy transplants at your locally owned garden center or start your own indoors six weeks before planting time. Cherry tomatoes are aggressive growers and need some type of trellis or caging system. I like using heavyweight livestock-type fencing material made into cylinders about 4 feet tall with a 3-foot diameter. These cages need to be staked in the ground to prevent them from toppling over when the plants get large. Leave at least 24 inches between cages to allow plenty of sunlight and air to circulate around your plants. This will assist you in disease prevention. All tomatoes prefer soil amended with rich organic matter and their pH adjusted to the mid to high 6s. When setting your transplants out into the garden, pinch about half of the branches off the lower trunk. Plant the tomatoes deep while not allowing any of the remaining branches to touch the soil. Deep planting will encourage a strong root system and help anchor the plant. Use newspaper around your plants as a base mulch to suppress weeds and conserve soil moisture. On top of the paper, apply a layer of organic mulch, such as pine straw, wheat straw, or woodchips.
Cherry tomatoes need nutrition in order to fully form. It is best to have your soil tested through your local county extension office before the growing season. In the absence of a soil sample, start your transplants with approximately 20 pounds of 5-10-15 fertilizer per 1,000 square feet of garden space. Once fruits begin to form on the plant, continue to lightly fertilize every few weeks as you harvest. At this point, you may want to fertilize your plants individually with a few tablespoons of fertilizer spread 5-6 inches away from the main trunk of the plant.
Tomatoes require a steady amount of moisture in order to form up full fruits. In general, tomatoes will thrive when they receive 1-2 inches per week of water by irrigation or rainfall. Keeping the soil evenly moist is important to prevent problems such as blossom-end rot. Blossom-end rot is a nutritional disorder that occurs when the plant does not absorb enough calcium. This causes the bottom side of the developing tomato to rot and turn black. While calcium can be provided through the application of lime, the deficiency most commonly occurs when adequate moisture is not provided at timely intervals. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation are the preferred methods for providing water to your tomatoes. These methods conserve moisture and keep the foliage dry, increasing disease resistance.
Cherry tomatoes develop rapidly and set fruit within a month or so after planting. Once they start producing, they need frequent harvesting to keep up with the ripened fruit. Ripened tomatoes easily pull off the vines when ready and should not be left on the plant too long. Fully ripe tomatoes can be kept indoors for up to a week or more when refrigerated.
When considering cherry tomatoes, there are plenty of varieties to choose from. You can find them like small marbles or as large grape-shaped fruits. Colors range from bright yellow to chocolate brown. Some of my favorite easy-to-grow, high producers are ‘Jolly’ hybrid, ‘Sweet Baby Girl’ hybrid, and ‘Super Sweet 100’ hybrid. Take a look online at the vegetable seed catalogs and will be amazed to see how many varieties are available.
While cherry tomatoes seem to be hardier and more disease resistant than larger varieties, they still need to be monitored carefully. Whiteflies, hornworms, aphids, stinkbugs, leaf-footed bugs, and cutworms can all cause problems in your tomatoes and the cherries are no exception. Several foliar diseases can also attack your plants and need to be treated accordingly. Frequent pruning of the vigorous, non-bearing branches will increase airflow and reduce disease issues. Insects can be controlled through organic as well as synthetic alternatives.