Tired of losing tomatoes to unwanted pests? Worried you’ll need to sacrifice taste for improved yield? Take a deep breath and relax — this year, have your tomato and eat it, too. With the help of new varieties and field-proven tactics, you’ll be on your way to growing the best tomato crop yet.
Growing tomatoes can be challenging, especially if you are new to the game. Even seasoned gardeners are caught off guard, and that’s OK if lessons are learned. If you want to grow delicious, homegrown tomatoes, focus your attention on these three stages of gardening: planning, preparing and protecting.
Stage 1: Plan
Planning for a successful tomato harvest starts with choosing the right varieties. Many gardeners claim you’ll need to plant heirloom varieties for great flavor. People selected these landrace tomato plants long ago for shape, size and taste, so the claim has a basis. In pursuit of a better-tasting tomato, however, significant factors like resistance to insects and disease were overlooked.
If you’ve grown heirlooms, you know the process can be challenging. This has left many gardeners wondering if the old-timey taste is a thing of the past. Consumer demand for resilient, flavorful tomatoes has caused plant breeders to produce improved varieties, but how do you make the best choice?
A nonprofit organization called All-America Selections (AAS) tests new varieties before they hit the market, and their trial notes tell you all you need to know. Professional horticulturists volunteer to grow test plots of new tomato varieties (among other plants) and compare notes on disease resistance, yields and taste alongside established varieties.
“Our judges rate taste and texture first, then everything else second,” says Diane Blazek, executive director of AAS and the National Garden Bureau. “You can have the most prolific, cute, unique new tomato, but if it doesn’t taste good, nobody wants it.”
Here are a few 2022 AAS-winning tomato varieties recommended for Illinois gardeners. For seed suppliers and garden centers that carry these and other AAS-recommended varieties, visit all-americaselections.org/buy-winners.
Purple Zebra. This tomato looks just as good as it tastes. According to AAS, Purple Zebra is “firm in texture, complex in flavor and has a taste more sweet than acidic.” This variety has high resistance to tomato mosaic virus, verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt and late blight.
Start seeds indoors 4–6 weeks before the last frost for best results. In the garden, space transplants no less than 2 feet apart or, if using containers, select 5-gallon pots with drainage. This variety produces 150–200 green-striped, purple tomatoes and requires staking. Most gardeners begin harvesting tomatoes 80–85 days after transplant.
Celano. This variety is an early-producing, high-yielding grape-type tomato for a patio or garden. According to AAS trial notes, Celano develops fruit much earlier and produces much longer than comparable varieties. Deep-red, oblong tomatoes typically weigh little more than half an ounce and taste sweet. For disease resistance, this variety has superior tolerance to late blight. Transplants should be spaced 2 feet apart and will benefit from staking.
Early Resilience. Great for canning, this plant produces roughly 25 tomatoes with good-quality flesh and excellent flavor. The variety displays high resistance to blossom-end rot and numerous diseases. Gardeners can expect to harvest tomatoes after 70–115 days. For best results, space each plant 2 feet apart. Staking helps but is not required.
Stage 2: Prepare
Proper site selection and planting techniques are vital to success. Tomato gardens need access to full sun (6–8 hours a day) and should have good drainage. Tomato plants hate wet feet and often succumb to root rot when left in waterlogged soils.
They need regular watering throughout the growing season, so select a spot with easy access to water. Irrigating deeply but infrequently strengthens plants and encourages deep, healthy root systems for hot summer days.
Avoid places where tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant and other solanaceous crops have been grown within the past three years. Many pests overwinter in the soil adjacent to plants and will terrorize unsuspecting gardeners.
Once you’ve selected the right spot, test the soil and amend the ground as indicated. Check with your local Illinois Extension office for help with soil testing and results. Tomatoes are nutrient hogs that require a good supply of nutrients from start to finish, so you’ll likely need to fertilize before and during the growing cycle.
Adequate moisture is necessary for nutrient uptake. Drip irrigation works well and doesn’t soak leaves, which often leads to disease issues.
Don’t forget to deal with weeds. They are an often-overlooked source of tomato pests. After clearing the site of weeds, spread mulch 3–4 inches deep and keep it a palm width away from the bases of tomato stems.
Planting should begin after the last frost. If you’re unsure when it will be safe to plant, contact the local Illinois Extension office.
Stage 3: Protect
Pests (insects and diseases) are expected, but they can be controlled or avoided using a process known as integrated pest management (IPM), an approach to gardening that treads lightly on the environment and minimizes chemical use.
Monitor and identify. Get to know your garden and what lives in it. Have an understanding of the insects and diseases to watch for. Beneficial insects like praying mantis and lady beetles keep damaging insects in check. Don’t resort to pesticides at the first sign of something that flies or crawls.
Make an evaluation. If you do spot harmful pests or damage on tomatoes, evaluate whether real damage is being done. They may be annoying, but small pest populations can be tolerated. Set thresholds to guide your treatment decisions. For example, there’s little benefit to treating a pest problem if there is less than 10 percent damage to the plant.
Choose a wise treatment. If treatment is necessary, use the least toxic measure first. Proper watering, plant spacing and fertilization can help prevent or reduce the number of pests. Mechanical means are another option that requires the physical removal of pests and can be useful for small populations. For example, hornworms are easily removable by hand-picking, and aphids are often washed away by a squirt from a water hose.
If these approaches fail, reach out to the local Illinois Extension office for advice and follow all label directions. Pesticide labels are the law, and many chemicals may be unethical or illegal to use on fruit-bearing plants.
Enjoy the pursuit. Gardening should be an enjoyable escape. It’s an opportunity to serve as good stewards of the land, so we can pass on something better to the next generation. If you want to experience all gardening has to offer, focus on using it to produce memories as well. You’ll find everything begins to taste a little sweeter along the way.
photos courtesy of All-America Selections