Tomato Garden Tips and Tricks - Take it From the Tomato

ripe tomato
A tomato isn't an herb, but I've used more than my fair share of these red juicy globes to flavor and beautify everything from soups to appetizers. If you have an herb garden, chances are that there is going to be a tomato garden on your property this summer too. I won't repeat any basic planting instructions here because you can find them on almost any gardening site. I will offer a few quick tips that will make growing and using tomatoes easier and more successful, though:

Experiment with different tomato varieties. Don't stick with the same old Early Girl, Better Boy and Beefsteak tomato varieties this season. Heirloom tomatoes and new cultivars are making designer and old world tomatoes fun additions to your summer garden. From baby yellow pear tomatoes, which are very sweet by the way, to zebra tomatoes that have a slightly tart but strong tomato flavor, make some new friends. Oh, you can find blush orange tomato cultivars that are low in acid too, so you have no excuse to postpone perfecting that BLT recipe. (We like ours with avocado.) There are many online sources tomato plants and seeds. The key is to start shopping around now.

Wait for warmer weather. Tomato seedlings really begin to take off when overnight temperatures warm up. Keeping seedling flats warm indoors and transplanting them outside when your soil warms up will get you off to a better start in the garden than planting tomatoes outdoors too early. Late frosts can be a problem too.

Plan companion plantings.  To protect tomatoes from pests, plant them alongside catnip and marigolds (most varieties).

Choose complimentary crops. To make sure you're ready for a wonderful summer Caprese salad, don't forget to plant some basil to keep those tomatoes company -- oh, and find a good local source for fresh mozzarella. You'll need it later.

Add banana peel. Including diced banana peel to the hole where you plan on planting your tomato seedlings will add an extra dose of phosphorus and potassium. Cover the banana with a layer of soil before you introduce the plant. Using your food processor to create a banana slurry works well too, and that way you can add the extra to the soil around your landscape plants. Tip: Freeze your banana skins to make a big batch in spring and another one in fall.

Encourage strong roots. To encourage root growth, snip off the first two leaves of each tomato stem before you transplant it into the ground. Bury stems to a point just above the snipped leaves. Your roots will flourish, and so will your plants.

Provide adequate support. Train your tomatoes along a trellis or other support, and tie the branches or vines in place with strips of nylon stocking. The stocking is stretchy enough to protect the delicate stems but strong enough to keep them where you put them. There may also be some support for the notion that the nylon encourages stem growth.

Don't refrigerate fresh tomatoes. They stop growing when they get cold and you'll lose that bright flavor that makes fresh maters so tasty. The only times you should consider refrigerating a fresh tomato is if it has been cut or is almost overripe (refrigerating will stop the ripening process cold).

Go green -- then red. Ripen end of season green tomatoes in a sealed container with an apple or a banana. The fruit releases lots of ethylene gas that will ripen slightly green tomatoes in a hurry. Very green tomatoes may never ripen enough to use in fried green tomatoes, say, but you can chop them into green tomato chow-chow. Yummy.

Spice it up. If you're making your own marinara sauce or even enhancing a store bought brand, add a little cream Sherry to make it sweeter. Start with a couple of teaspoons and work from there. To give your sauce depth, add a little fresh oregano. If the oregano is too strong for your taste, try marjoram instead. The plants are related, and marjoram is a good flavor booster without the slightly bitter aftertaste.

A while back I wrote a few tomato articles for (the Discovery cable channel's website). Please pay them a visit before the summer season is over. You'll get some good ideas about storing and preserving your summer tomato bounty.

What Should You Do With Tomatoes From Your Garden

How Do You Thicken Homemade Tomato Sauce

How to Stew Tomatoes

Oh, and if you've ever wondered how to peel a tomato the easy way. This slide show will help: How to Peel a Tomato

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